Going the Distance: What’s next for Rodriguez after triumph at UFC Vegas 26?

In a scrappy but overall dominant performance, Marina Rodriguez (14-1-2, 4-1-2 UFC) defeated Michelle “The Karate Hottie” Waterson (18-9, 6-5 UFC) by unanimous decision on Saturday night, May 8, at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas.

The strawweights stepped up on short notice to take a main event opportunity at flyweight after Cory Sandhagen vs. TJ Dillashaw, the original headliner for UFC Vegas 26, was postponed due to injury. While that was one of the most anticipated non-title fights on the upcoming UFC schedule, Rodriguez (No. 6) and Waterson (No. 9) did not disappoint in its place. The fight took place predominantly on the feet where Rodriguez, who is an excellent striker, outpointed Waterson in most exchanges. Waterson, an extremely tough competitor, took the damage and fired some of her own back, utilizing her karate background to land some especially nice kicks. The women landed a combined 213 significant strikes in the bout, good for sixth most in the history of the women’s flyweight division.

Heading into the fight, many believed that wherever the fight took place would largely dictate its outcome. As a striker, Rodriguez preferred to stay on the feet, and while Waterson can strike herself, she’s also known to have solid wrestling and takedown ability. If Waterson could get Rodriguez to the ground, she’d have a clear advantage there, and this is exactly how the fight played out. Waterson attempted five takedowns, but was only able to land one of them in the fourth round, which she proceeded to dominate — that was the only round she won on all three of the judges’ scorecards. The rest of the fight was a slugfest, and Rodriguez took advantage of her crisp stand-up skills, out-landing Waterson 144-100 in total strikes.

With another win in the books, Rodriguez will have likely elevated herself as a title contender in the strawweight division, especially given that she knocked out her previous opponent, Amanda Ribas (No. 11), back in January. However, the top of this division has become stacked recently, and there are some other women ahead of Rodriguez in line to fight for the belt. Here’s how I would make the next set of fights in the division:

Strawweight Landscape

“Thug” Rose Namajunas (C) vs. the winner of Yan Xiaonan (No. 3) vs. Carla Esparza (No. 4)

In my recap of UFC 261, I wrote that Namajunas should rematch Weili because of how quickly the fight ended. After further thought, it makes more sense for the next title challenger to be the winner of Xiaonan vs Esparza, which takes place later this month. Both women are on winning streaks, so whoever keeps their streak alive should earn the right to face Namajunas. Esparza submitted Namajunas back in 2014, so the UFC would have no problem selling a title fight rematch should Esparza win. If Xiaonan wins, she would deserve the fight as well — she has not lost an MMA fight in more than 10 years.

Zhang “Magnum” Weili (No. 1) vs. the loser of Yan Xiaonan (No. 3) vs. Carla Esparza (No. 4)

Weili may have lost the belt, but it’s hard to make an argument that she’s lost her status as an elite contender in this division. Namjunas’ head-kick knockout was by no means a fluke, but nevertheless, Weili’s next opponent should not be ranked too far below her. If Xiaonan loses to Esparza, an all-Chinese main event would certainly entice the UFC from a business perspective, as they seek continued growth in China. If Esparza loses, this gives both her and Weili an opportunity to reestablish themselves in the division. 

Joanna Jędrzejczyk (No. 2) vs. Marina Rodriguez (No. 6)

Simply put, this fight would be a banger. Both athletes love to strike, and will stand on the canvas and trade shots. This is a significant step up in competition for Rodriguez, but she’s earned that challenge after her last two fights. For Jedrzejczyk, I’m sure she’d love the opportunity to silence the hype behind one of the division’s other best strikers. A win for either fighter in this matchup would likely put them back onto the shortlist for title contender.

Mackenzie Dern (No. 6) vs. Tatiana Suarez

Dern is on the cusp of title contention, riding a four-fight win streak with three submissions in that span. Suarez comes from a wrestling background which could reduce Dern’s effectiveness on the ground (or Dern’s dangerous ground game could make it difficult for Suarez to execute her gameplan). Additionally, Suarez is undefeated in her career with impressive wins over Esparza and most recently Nina Nunes, and the only reason she’s not currently ranked in the top 10 is because of inactivity due to injury. This could be the type of challenging stylistic matchup that we want to see for both women. This fight might not make sense if the UFC plans to give Suarez an easy opponent in her first fight back from injury. However, I think both women stand to gain a lot from winning this matchup.

Nina Nunes (No. 7) vs. Michelle Waterson (No. 9)

Both Nunes and Waterson are coming off of convincing losses, and this would be a fun bout between two veterans of the division (and mothers) who are unlikely to be in title contention in the near future or possibly ever again.

Claudia “Claudinha” Gadelha (No. 8) vs. Tecia “The Tiny Tornado” Torres (No. 10)

Torres is on a two-fight winning streak right now, and although that competition has been weak relative to Gadelha’s skill level, I’m interested to see whether Torres can overcome what will likely be a ground-heavy approach from Gadelha. Torres has struggled against grapplers but is very durable, while Gadelha has struggled against strikers. Styles make fights, and this one could be interesting.

By Ian Wind, Fight Night Picks contributor
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