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Brian Ortega vs. Yair Rodriguez preview: Golden opportunity on the line at UFC Long Island

Dig into all the main card action for UFC Long Island, headlined by former title challenger looking to repel bonus machine Yair Rodriguez.

Brian Ortega fighting Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 266
Brian Ortega fighting Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 266
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

I believe it would be inappropriate to label Brian Ortega and Yair Rodriguez as a #1 contender’s fight, but calling it a title eliminator seems fair. I claim that as I believe Ortega would need another win to secure another crack at Alexander Volkanovski. Yes, their fight was incredible, a contest I’d love to see happen again. But there are so many candidates at featherweight that aren’t too far off from presenting Volkanovski with a fresh challenge, that a win for Ortega doesn’t seem likely to grant him another crack at the gold. Rodriguez is one of those fresh faces the UFC would love to plug in opposite Volkanovski. Thus, if Rodriguez loses to Ortega, he’s eliminated from the title picture for the time being. But if Rodriguez beats Ortega, expect him to leapfrog Josh Emmett. Of course, beating Ortega is no easy task. After all, Ortega has only suffered losses in title fights.

Did I mention the rest of the main card is pure quality as well? Every fight features at least one ranked fighter. Most would appear to stand a decent chance of taking home the FOTN bonus... at least on a typical Fight Night card. There’s a lot of competition for honor on this card. The combatants on this card might have to settle for a spectacular finish. As we all know, that’s easier said than done.

For the prelims preview, click here. For an audio preview, click here.

Brian Ortega vs. Yair Rodriguez, Featherweight

While Max Holloway hasn’t said anything about his future after falling to Volkanovski for a third time, there’s a lot of speculation he could move up to the lightweight division. Thus, it could be argued Ortega and Rodriguez qualify as the most exciting featherweights on the UFC roster today. And yet, it feels like their contest hasn’t received the deserved hype.

Regardless, most would agree Rodriguez is amongst the most aesthetically pleasing fighters in any division. The Mexican native is absolutely fearless in terms of his striking selection. Flying and spinning attacks are a regular part of his arsenal. The other unusual part of Rodriguez’s arsenal is his penchant for using kicks to set up punches, showing just how reliant on his kicks that Rodriguez is. While his technique isn’t quite as clean as that of Stephen Thompson, he flows as naturally as anyone when he throws his kicks, whether spinning, flying, or traditional.

His boxing may be the most underrated part of Rodriguez’s game. The times when he has been forced to stand and trade, Rodriguez has more than held his own. Of course, holding his own isn’t the same thing as winning, but doing so against the likes of Holloway is impressive. Some may say he was losing to the Korean Zombie before nailing him with a freakish elbow – an assessment I agree with — but that was a close fight. Regardless, that’s only if he isn’t striking from the outside. Rodriguez isn’t exactly the most disciplined striker, but his length and creativity does put his opponents on edge, negating whatever discipline issues Rodriguez might have.

What isn’t in doubt is what Rodriguez’s biggest weakness is: his wrestling. Everyone who has followed his career closely remembers Frankie Edgar mauling him on the mat, handing Rodriguez his first career loss. Granted, that was five years ago, and Rodriguez has made some advances, but that still appears to be the clearest road to victory. That’s got to be fantastic news for Ortega. While the American isn’t a great wrestler in the traditional sense – he may not even be a good wrestler by UFC standards – he has so much trust in his grappling that he’s more than happy to pull guard if it gets the fight to the mat. There may not be anyone with a tighter guillotine than Ortega. Volkanovski may not have tapped to it, but how he didn’t is still one of the great mysteries of life.

While everyone is quick to sing the praises of Ortega’s submission prowess – deservedly so – his intelligence doesn’t seem to get enough attention. As he’s progressed in his UFC career, he has gotten more skilled, finding ways to put his opponent into dangerous situations quicker than he initially did. That he did so against increasingly difficult competition is a real testament. Ortega had a string of four consecutive victories obtained by stoppage in the third round, losing the fight up until those stoppages. From there, he obtained a second round stoppage of Cub Swanson, followed by a first round stoppage of Edgar. Ortega knows what he’s good at and finds ways to steer the fight in that direction. That he has improved as a striker has only made it that much easier for him to direct the opposition where he wants him.

None of that would matter if Ortega didn’t have a significant amount of durability. While he was stopped by Holloway in their contest, he endured one of the worst beatings seen inside of a cage... and he didn’t quit. The doctor called the fight. It proved Ortega’s human, but it also shows he has no quit in him. As long as he’s breathing, Ortega is going to find a way to stop his opponent. Given Rodriguez’s creativity and edge in athleticism – he’ll have a sizeable edge there – I can’t put it past him that he wouldn’t be the first one to put Ortega to sleep. Regardless of that, the odds favor Ortega to get the fight to the mat at some point make Rodriguez tap or nap. Ortega via submission of RD2

Michelle Waterson vs. Amanda Lemos, Women’s Strawweight

Waterson has all the intangible qualities to be a star. She’s got the looks the UFC wants – she is known as the Karate Hottie after all – she is media friendly, and she’s incredibly likeable. The one thing that she’s missing is the elite talent that would allow her to climb to the very top of the division. That isn’t to say Waterson isn’t very good. She’s proven to be worthy of her perennial spot in the top ten. But that last jump from very good to elite is the hardest step to make.

The jury is still out on whether Lemos can make that jump. The Brazilian has the type of heart stopping power that can carry a fighter to the top. Given how rare a commodity that is in the strawweight division, that’s saying something. Whether she has the rest of the tools to fall back on when her power isn’t enough is what we don’t know. Lemos has shown a bit of wrestling and some submission prowess, but submitting Miranda Granger is a far cry from translating to outworking Waterson on the mat. Waterson has struggled mightily to get the fight to the ground, but has shown exceptional craft and control once getting the contest there.

The other concern for Lemos will be Waterson’s outside striking. Despite being on the small side for strawweight, Waterson possesses a side kick that she uses with great regularity to score points and keep her opponents at a distance. However, she can become over reliant upon that attack, showing reluctance to engage in the pocket. Given her lack of power, it can be understandable as her diminutive size makes it difficult to survive those exchanges. Crash and dash has had mixed results for her as she fights more elite competition, rarely escaping the exchanges clean, often getting the worse for wear.

Add it all up and it’s hard to see Lemos coming up short. She’s far stronger than Waterson, meaning it appears unlikely Waterson will find much success in getting the fight to the ground. Plus, Lemos is a far more clever striker than she is given credit for. It hasn’t been sheer luck in which she racked up her finishes in a division notorious for a shortage of them. Plus, it’s fair to question Waterson’s devotion to the sport, having a notable role in an upcoming film for Netflix. It seems clear she isn’t an elite fighter at 115 and she may just be showing up for a paycheck. Dealing with an undisclosed injury that forced her out of her fight against Amanda Ribas earlier this year is also concerning. Waterson has revealed little about the injury, but what she has let on indicated something serious. Throw on top that I’ve heard through the grapevine this contest will be at 125 – which favors Lemos – and the lines that I initially thought were too wide against Waterson may in fact be too short. Lemos via TKO of RD3

Jingliang Li vs. Muslim Salikhov, Welterweight

What to make of Li? He’s been a game challenge for just about everyone that he’s come across... until he came across Khamzat Chimaev. Li was demolished by the Chechen phenomenon, perhaps worse than anyone Chimaev has beaten. It’s hard to know if Li has been destroyed mentally in the process....

That’s the entire linchpin of this contest. Well, perhaps not the entire linchpin. It’s not like it would be a guarantee he’d bowl over Salikhov even if he was in tip-top shape. While Salikhov is a crafty striker, Li has never been a bastion of defense by any means. Despite owning a below-average sized frame for the division, Salikhov has proven to be one of the more efficient outside strikers in the division. With a solid jab and a deep variety of kicks at his disposal, Salikhov tends to outpoint his opponents with selective blitzes interspersed with pawing attacks. Plus, woe to whoever is on the receiving end of one of his spinning back kicks.

Li has proven to be prone to effective outside strikers. Y’all remember his flat performance against Neil Magny? Prior to Chimaev running him over, that was the worst version of Li that had been seen. However, it takes a lot of discipline to maintain that fight. One of the better brawlers on the roster, Li has dragged several notable KO artists into Li’s kind of fight, putting away the likes of Santiago Ponzinibbio and Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos. If Li can somehow drag Salikhov into that type of fight, there’s no doubt he’s more than likely to emerge on top. That said, it isn’t a guarantee either as Salihov’s hands aren’t without power either.

The other avenue to victory for Li is to drag Salikhov to the mat. Li entered the UFC with a reputation as a boring grinder, sucking the life out of his opposition. How else do you think he acquired the name of The Leech? However, that version of Li hasn’t been seen in years. It is possible he could revert to his old self after the beating at the hands of Chimaev, but that’s merely speculation. It’s rare for fighters to revert back to a former self after they have so plainly established a new identity. Thus, while Li has more avenues to victory than Salikhov – whose ground game is about survival and getting back to his feet – those phases of the fight also seem least likely where the fight is going to take place for long stretches. I have zero confidence in my pick given I don’t know Li’s headspace, but a loss like that is difficult to come back from. Salikhov via decision

Matt Schnell vs. Su Mudaerji, Flyweight

No one is quite sure what to make of Mudaerji. Not through a lack of effort. The UFC has scheduled him against the likes of Tim Elliott and Manel Kape, only for those contests to fall apart for various reasons. Thus, it’s been 18 months since we last saw Mudaerji fight.

What we do know about Mudaerji indicates he could be a real dark horse in the division. Owner of a long and lanky frame for the division, Mudaerji has mastered the ability to fight from the outside and stick his opponents with jabs all day long. Beyond that, Mudaerji has a nice repertoire of kicks and plus power for the division. However, he’s also been fighting underwhelming competition, two of his three wins coming against opponents who are no longer on the roster.

We’ve got a good idea of what Schnell can do given the variety of opposition we’ve seen him against. Schnell gave Brandon Royval a hell of a run for his money, but nevertheless came up short. In fact, Schnell has come up short any time he’s fought someone who has been flirting with the top ten. Schnell’s chin is always a concern, though he has learned how to roll with punches better than he did in the past, in addition to establishing a jab to keep opponents from getting too comfortable in the pocket.

Once thing that defense first approach has done has dissuaded Schnell from pursuing takedowns the way he did in the past. Schnell has been able to pick up a few wins via submission anyway thanks to his impressive guard, but there’s every reason to believe he could look for takedowns against Mudaerji. The native of China was submitted in his lone UFC loss to Louis Smolka. What we have seen from Mudaerji on the mat since that time is promising, but Andre Soukhamthath is not a high standard to hold him against. Then again, that was almost four years ago and Mudaerji is still only 26. He could have made giant strides in that time.

Given the myriad of unknowns about Mudaerji, this is the hardest contest on the card for me to pick. The odds have Mudaerji as a sizeable favorite and I don’t understand why. Mudaerji does appear to be the better athlete and more powerful striker, but Schnell is one of the more savvy members of the division. No one expected him to try and out-crazy Royval and it nearly worked, despite him being the heavy underdog in that contest. If the odds remain constituted as they currently are, I’d throw money on him if I were a betting man. Despite that, I’m picking Mudaerji in anticipation of the young man making continued strides, though I do so with minimal confidence. Mudaerji via decision

Shane Burgos vs. Charles Jourdain, Featherweight

Less than a year ago, Jourdain looked like he was lucky to still be on the UFC roster. With one win in his last four fights – and that coming against a UFC debutant – Jourdain appeared destined to be an underachiever who washed out before he could hit his prime. A flip switched in his head and Jourdain produced the most dominant performance of his career, beating Andre Ewell from pillar to post, followed by a quick submission of the notoriously difficult to finish Lando Vannata. It looks like the typically flashy Jourdain has figured out there is more money in securing a win on the regular as opposed to bonus hunting.

Fortunately for him, he’s paired opposite of Burgos, who has secured four FOTN bonuses in his 10 fight UFC career. Burgos doesn’t mind throwing the occasional spinning or flying attack himself – the type of attacks Jourdain has become notorious for – but he’s more likely to bite down on his mouthpiece and throw down for a barnburner in the pocket. His grit and durability have served him relatively well thus far in those types of fights, but he has been finished on a couple of occasions and it’s hard to believe they won’t happen with greater frequency as the damage accumulates on his body.

That’s got to be the biggest reason the odds are as close as they are. Yes, Jourdain has looked fantastic in his last two contests, but they’ve come against a lower level of competition than Burgos has been fighting. Plus, Burgos has a better track record of putting together consistent offense, his mixture of combination boxing and low kicks adding up in a hurry against the likes of Josh Emmett and Edson Barboza. That’s a big step up from the likes of Ewell and Vannata. Plus, while Jourdain’s grappling has been receiving attention after subbing Vannata, Burgos has been exceptionally difficult to take to the mat. Even when he does hit the mat, it could be argued Burgos own grappling has been more underrated than that of Jourdain.

Jourdain’s ability to take out an opponent with one strike is going to be the biggest X-factor. It’s been an accumulation of damage that has put Burgos away in the past, but it’s hard to believe it won’t take less and less going forward given Burgos history of being hit. Regardless, Burgos showed he still has the ability to throwdown against Billy Quarantillo and emerge on top. Jourdain is more talented and dangerous than Quarantillo, but I wouldn’t say he’s as crafty. More than anything, craft has been what has beaten Burgos. I don’t think Jourdain is quite where he needs to be in those terms... at least not yet. Burgos via decision

Lauren Murphy vs. Miesha Tate, Women’s Flyweight

There are a lot of similarities between Murphy and Tate. Neither are considered to be particularly gifted physically, achieving what they have due to being overachievers. Both started their UFC careers at bantamweight, this being Tate’s debut at flyweight. Both are mothers. And even though both are considered to be primarily wrestlers, they have largely struggled to secure takedowns throughout their UFC runs.

While there is no denying wrestling is still their base, they’ve made notable strides on the feet to maintain their status near the top of their divisions. In Tate’s case, that’s even with a retirement that resulted in a gap of nearly five years between fights. She did say she rediscovered her love of fighting and her body language inside the cage is indicative of that. When she lost to Raquel Pennington, that was someone who was just going through the motions. That hasn’t been the case thus far.

Whether Murphy’s head is in the right place appears to be of greater concern. While she never fell out of love with the sport the way Tate did, she has been her own worst enemy at times. Granted, that hasn’t been the case for several fights, she is coming off a demoralizing loss at the hands of Valentina Shevchenko. Knocking on the door of 39, it seems very unlikely she’ll be able to work her way back into title picture. Will that take her head out of the game?

If it doesn’t, she has the more natural feel for striking than Tate. It isn’t the cleanest boxing, but it gets the job done. Tate does appear to be more comfortable throwing fisticuffs than she used to be, so it seems very likely she can at least hang on the feet with Murphy. After all, Tate is notorious for being scrappy. However, next the Murphy’s mental status, the question is how well Tate’s cut to 125 will go. It has long been speculated her frame is better suited to flyweight, so the expectation is that it will not only go well, but it will likely benefit her in terms of her wrestling. One last factor that has me feeling fairly confident in my pick for Tate: this contest was rescheduled due to Murphy testing for COVID-19. That was just two weeks ago. She could have suffered no ill effects as some have been fortunate to experience... or she could be drained. Hard to know – Murphy is going to say she’s in top shape no matter what – but it solidifies my pick of Tate. Tate via decision