Both 26 years old, Yair Rodriguez and Alexa Grasso represent two of the brightest prospects to come out of Mexico. On Saturday, they both have an opportunity to take an enormous stride in their careers.
Rodriguez headlines UFC Mexico City, matched up with veteran featherweight Jeremy Stephens, who will be making his 31st walk to the Octagon. Against battle-tested competition, “El Pantera” has had mixed results. He blew out a well-past-his-prime B.J. Penn, but was humbled by perennial contender Frankie Edgar. Then he regained much of his hype with a once-in-a-lifetime elbow knockout of “The Korean Zombie” last November.
In Stephens, Rodriguez has an opponent seemingly tailor-made for his exciting standup style and if his mental game has caught up to his prodigious talents, fans could be treated to another star-making moment.
The same could be said of Grasso as she heads into a co-main event bout with inaugural UFC strawweight champion Carla Esparza. After starting her career 9-0, Grasso hit a couple of speed bumps, losing a decision to Felice Herrig and being handily defeated by Tatiana Suarez. Like Rodriguez, Grasso bounced back in impressive fashion, winning a convincing decision against Karolina Kowalkiewicz at UFC 238. She now has the chance to cement herself as a legitimate contender against Esparza, a grinder who is sure to put Grasso’s wrestling defense to the test.
In other main card action, “The Asassin Baby” Brandon Moreno returns to the UFC in a flyweight bout opposite the debuting Askar Askarov, Irene Aldana faces short-notice replacement Vanessa Melo in a 140-pound catchweight bout, and winner Martin Bravo looks to snap a two-fight skid when he meets Steven Peterson at featherweight.
What: UFC Mexico City
Where: Arena Ciudad de Mexico in Mexico City, Mexico
When: Saturday, Sept. 21. The entire card will air on the ESPN+ streaming service with the seven-fight preliminaries beginning at 5 p.m. ET and the five-fight main card starting at 8 p.m. ET.
This is a smart bit of matchmaking, as Jeremy Stephens is a name opponent (please, no “who da fook is dat guy” jokes) for Yair Rodriguez and one that he should be able to beat. It also has the potential for serious fireworks given how tough Stephens is to put down.
Don’t let his .500 record inside the Octagon fool you, “Lil Heathen” has only been knocked out twice in 44 pro bouts and that’s having shared the cage with some of the heaviest hitters in MMA. It will take a lot for Rodriguez to put him down, especially since Rodriguez should look to approach this match carefully. Rodriguez showed a solid chin in the Chan Sung Jung matchup, but he won’t want to find out how it stands up against the hammers of Stephens.
With a couple of inches of height on Stephens, Rodriguez’s top-shelf kicking game will be on full display and he’ll use it to keep Stephens from wading in and brawling. Stick-and-move will be the name of the game for Rodriguez if he wants to pick up his second consecutive win here.
I think Rodriguez pulls it off, winning on the scorecards after a busy five rounds of action.
Alexa Grasso’s last performance against Karolina Kowalkiewicz was incredibly promising and went a long way towards reminding fans of her crisp boxing and slick footwork. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see how her wrestling has evolved because that remains the biggest question mark in regards to how far she can advance in the UFC strawweight division.
She’s the best boxer Carla Esparza has faced in some time, probably since Esparza had the misfortune of running into Joanna Jedrzejczyk four years ago. So it’s not as if Grasso is the only one whose defense will have to be on point. Those takedowns become real difficult when you’re getting jabbed in the face over and over again.
That said, I just cannot pick Grasso yet until I’ve seen that she can stay on her feet against an elite wrestler. Esparza may not be as explosive as Tatiana Suarez, but she’s dragged a lot of quality fighters into deep waters and Grasso’s capacity for battling through that kind of adversity is still unknown.
Esparza by decision.
This could turn out to be somewhat of a mirror match given that Brandon Moreno and Askar Askarov thrive in chaotic situations. Moreno has been saying all the right things about growing and maturing, but it doesn’t take much for a fighter to abandon the game plan especially when he meets an opponent that can challenge him skill-for-skill.
Both Moreno and Askarov are active on the ground, constantly looking to finish or do damage. Both are capable of exploding into a flurry of offense without warning. Both love to choke people out.
Askarov is no joke, having won championships over in Russia, and anyone thinking that this is being set up so that Moreno can have a happy homecoming will soon find out that Askarov is nobody’s training dummy. Still, I like Moreno’s chances here if only because the altitude could play a factor and he has slightly more pop on the feet. Though it will be close, Moreno hands Askarov his first loss and by submission no less.
Irene Aldana is a fierce bantamweight. Constant pressure, wild power, she’s a tough matchup for anyone, much less an opponent making their debut on short notice. That lack of prep time has already cost Vanessa Melo as she badly missed weight, and fight night could be even more of an ordeal for the UFC newcomer.
Melo brings a nice story with her to the Octagon as she’s gone undefeated since becoming a mother two years ago. Could “Mama Melo” be as potent a force as “Dad Cerrone?” Doubtful, especially when you consider that Aldana is head-and-shoulders above Melo’s recent competition. Props to Melo for taking this fight on just 10 days’ notice, but Aldana is not one to mess with.
As long as Aldana treats Melo with the proper respect, this shouldn’t last long. Aldana is yet to record a knockout victory in the UFC and I see her getting it here.
This will be two bulls colliding as Martin Bravo loves to come forward and throw straight punches and Steven Peterson’s whole deal is that he can take a licking and keep on ticking. Something has got to give.
There’s a chance that Peterson decides to take this one to the ground, but even there Bravo is athletic enough to counter and escape and bring this fight back to the feet. There, it’s really anyone’s guess. Peterson is better at mixing up his techniques and his leg kicks could be the difference; Bravo, meanwhile, has the advantage in stopping power.
Peterson would appear to have the advantage in durability and I like him to put the pressure on Peterson and win on sheer volume. He won’t look pretty by the end of it, but the result will have Peterson smiling through the pain.