When Alex Caceres and Yair Rodriguez step in to the cage on Saturday night, we may just witness the craziest fight in featherweight history. Certainly when you look at the matchup of styles, both guys seem to make a habit of throwing caution to the winds and fighting wild. Both men are good scramblers, both men are wild punchers, and both men kick better than most in MMA.
In truth, there is the possibility that this fight ends up as a bust; if you don’t believe what happens when two good kickers meet, watch Olympic Taekwondo. When both guys know the other can knock them out from range with little to no warning, you instead get two opponents who are hesitant to close the distance, and when they do they do so with long, reaching side kicks. That operates on the assumption that the two guys care about getting hit more than they do about hitting, and in this regard I think Caceres and Rodriguez may be safe from a boring fight. They have just the right combination of technical skills and youthful recklessness to combine for a perfect storm inside the cage.
Yair Rodriguez is the UFC’s newest hope for breaking in to Mexico, after Cain Velasquez fell victim to Fabricio Werdum fists and Mexico Cities altitude. He is fast rising up the ranks as a fighter who can draw in casual viewers with his heritage and highlight reel knockouts, but none of that matters in the cage. What matters is the skills Rodriguez possesses, and he employs a very unique skillset. Rodriguez is a black belt in Taekwondo, but what any people overlook is that it is his ability as a grappler that allows him to kick with such freedom. Taekwondo black belts are a dime a dozen in MMA, everyone from Dan Hardy to Anthony Pettis have a black belt, but what has been shown time and time again is that if a guy can’t fight off his back, kicking is always going to be a hazardous choice. The fact is a lot of people can kick like Rodriguez, he is not a one in a million kicker: what he is is a kicker who isn’t afraid to kick, and the odds of finding that in MMA are slim indeed.
When you watch him kick, the first thing you notice is that Rodriguez falls down, a lot. It’s an occupational hazard of his, can’t throw flying techniques without getting a leg caught every now and then, but when you can do this once taken down, you can see why he isn’t too worried about giving up top position.
As a scrambler, Rodriguez is fantastic, he excels at sweeping to top position and returning to his feet, and if forced to be on his back he is more than capable of regaining full guard and attacking with submissions with the same reckless aggression that he personifies on the feet. While he is more than proficient on the ground, the real value of his ground game is that it discourages his opponents from taking him down. It is a strange thought process that his area of weaker strength serves to herd opponents into his wheelhouse, but time and time again you see guys get on top of him, get swept or threatened, and then give up on the ground fight entirely. It may be that his opponents focus so much on avoiding his stand up that when they find themselves on the ground being swept and threatened, they start to feel like they may have been lied too in some context regarding the veracity of his gameplan.
This confidence off his back allows Rodriguez to open up with his kicks, and he starts everything with the side kick, the longest, safest kick that is favored among Taekwondo practitioners. He reduces the risk of his leg being caught by targeting the lead leg,jamming his opponents movement and preventing them closing the distance.
This serves to help him maintain distance, a critical component of the fight for any kicker. He also emphasizes this almost unintentionally with the amount of spinning techniques he throws. There is nothing that will do more to discourage a striker coming forward than having someone chuck a spinning kick or backfist at your head every time you step in.
What Rodriguez’s side kick also does is serve to set up his combinations. He is an unpredictable guy to watch, but nearly everything he throws comes off the low line side kick. From takedown attempts to the switch head kick he knocked out Andre Fili with, Rodriguez is always looks to build off the motion of his side kick, sometimes using the motion to disguise sidekicks to the body or head.
So you have a good scrambler with great kicks, who can maintain distance and is a great danger on the outside, so far so good, where does the fault lie? Well sometimes Rodriguez doesn’t want to maintain distance. His boxing has looked decent at times, mainly on the counter, but when he leads with punches Rodriguez’s trademark aggression rears its head in an ugly way: in his eagerness to close the distance, often times he leads with his face.
This is a great way to land yourself on a counter strike, and if you get caught with your weight going forward over your hips with your feet out of stance, it’s a recipe to get knocked out.
When you add that to the fact that Rodriguez’ style is very physically taxing, and while he normally doesn’t really start to slow until the 3rd round, this fight is at altitude in Salt Lake City, and more importantly it is scheduled for 5 rounds, so it remains to be seen if Rodriguez can maintain his aggression and kick-centric attack for 5 rounds, or will he look to conserve energy and fall back on his less effective and more porous boxing.
The Bruce LeeRoy we were introduced too on The Ultimate Fighter was in some ways very similar to Rodriguez. He kicks a lot, he can even throw them fancy kicks, he loves to press forward, and he always leads engagements with his wonderfully afroe’d head, and he had a dangerous ‘sweep or submit’ game off his back. Where the similarities ended was at the fact that Caceres was not half the grappler Rodriguez is, and he had a habit of fighting with his hands by his sides and moving his head erratically in place of a guard. This has led to him getting tagged a lot by punches in the early going of fights, most notably against Francisco Rivera.
That really was the problem with Caceres, he was reckless not with his offence but with his defense. He would walk forward with his hands down and plant his feet and try to matrix his way out of danger, and sometimes it worked.
The problem was when it didn’t work it got him tagged with his hands down, and as you can see against Rivera, that can have dire consequences, not to mention when you plant your feet to sway you become a much easier target for leg kicks of all sorts.
But Caceres is still only 28 years old, already with 14 fights in the UFC, Caceres is still maturing as a fighter, and recently he’s showed signs that he may be fulfilling the potential that so many saw in him back on the Ultimate Fighter.
The Alex Caceres who stepped up on short notice to replace BJ Penn against Cole Miller was still recognizably the Bruce LeeRoy we all know and love, but he finally seemed to have found his groove. He still came forward, he still kicked with frequency, but his boxing form was notably tighter, instead of coming in face first the whole time, Caceres was dipping to the side and getting his head off the center line while actually using his reach to his advantage.
This worked in tandem with the fact that Caceres did a lot less matrixing in this fight and a lot more backpedaling. Giving ground is a great way to defuse any strike. If you are too far away, the strike doesn’t land, simple as that. Against someone like Rodriguez who likes to explode in with one or two shots, giving ground and letting him run himself out is a much better strategy than standing in front of him and trying to predict what he’s going to do so you can dodge it. The problem with this is Caceres has never really paid attention to where he is in the cage, and routinely runs himself on to the fence when he backpedals.
Speaking of the cage, another thing that Caceres showed a major improvement in during the fight with Miller was reactive takedowns and get ups. While everyone knew Miller wanted the fight on the ground, few expected that as soon as he gained the clinch it would be Caceres taking him down.
While some would consider this a foolhardy attempt at bravado, Caceres also demonstrated an important principle in MMA grappling: if the guy playing bottom is not actually holding you, there is absolutely no reason you can’t just stand up.
Cole Miller was constantly looking for the ground fight, so when Caceres took him down he immediately looked to start to set up a sweep or submission, and Caceres would hit him a few times, then just stand up, batter him on the feet with a few strikes, and when Miller got close he would do it all over again. Maybe not as important to this fight as Rodriguez prefers to strike but it highlights the maturation of Caceres as a fighter to actually use his grappling to neutralize Miller’s without resorting to ‘sprawl and brawl’ or simply getting involved in a grappling match.
The final thing Caceres does that would be worth keeping an eye on in the fight with Rodriguez is the frequency with which he works the body. Recently Caceres has been mixing body punches in to his combinations more and more, and over the course of a 5 round fight with a guy who kicks a lot and uses a lot of explosive movement, it may pay dividends if he can get out of the first few rounds.
Both these guys have a lot of options to win this fight.
Rodriguez’ use of the side kick to the lead leg could work wonders to jam Caceres’ traditionally heavy front foot as he marches in, and if Caceres chooses to sway with his hands down in front of him, don’t be surprised to see another faked switch kick or bicycle flying knee knockout from Rodriguez. Caceres likes to retreat on a straight line and Rodriguez has been pretty good in his UFC career at herding his opponent to the cage and exploding once their backs hit the fence. Similarly if he can stay disciplined with his hands on the counter Caceres’ hands down walk forward style leaves openings for counter punches. Rodriguez I feel is the more dangerous grappler, and Caceres did nearly get caught in an armbar by Miller despite his improved grappling, so a few of Rodriguez’ well timed and underrated takedowns and a bit of top control could go a long way towards preserving his legs for the later rounds if he doesn’t get the early knockout.
If Caceres can come and look to retreat from Rodriguez’ range finding kicks, work his body with punches and kicks, and use his grappling not to hold him down but take him down and get up again to score points while denying Rodriguez the opportunity to score with sweeps, his (relatively) tighter hands could catch Rodriguez running in and wear him down over the course of the 5 rounds.
Whatever the result, we are bound to be in for one exciting fight.