Yair Rodriguez vs. Josh Emmett for interim belt: A clear solution for UFC's fuzzy featherweight title picture

·Combat columnist
·6-min read
ELMONT, NEW YORK - JULY 16: (L-R) Yair Rodriguez of Mexico and Brian Ortega talk after their featherweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UBS Arena on July 16, 2022 in Elmont, New York. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Despite the anticlimactic ending, Yair Rodriguez did what he had to do Saturday and scored the win over Brian Ortega. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

The disappointment at the ending of the featherweight bout between Yair Rodriguez and Brian Ortega on Saturday at UBS Arena in Elmont, New York, will probably never fully dissipate. There’s a reason it was one of the most anticipated non-title fights of the year for the UFC to date.

But in retrospect, it really isn’t all that bad.

Yeah, Ortega’s right shoulder popped out that may necessitate a third shoulder surgery and that’s no good. Shoulder surgeries take a notoriously long time for athletes to rehabilitate and recover.

And of course, for most of the four minutes, 11 seconds the bout lasted in the main event of UFC on ABC 3 Saturday, it was living up to its billing as a can’t-miss slugfest.

“I prefer to win and I guess I did, but that’s not the way I wanted,” Rodriguez said. “He dislocated his shoulder. I’m sorry it happened, but it’s part of the game.”

But upon reflection, it won’t have all that much impact on the long-term picture in the UFC’s featherweight division.

Champion Alexander Volkanovski broke his left hand during his stellar victory over Max Holloway at UFC 276 on July 2 in Las Vegas. He estimated he’ll need four months to recover from surgery.

Then, he wants to fight for the lightweight title, and on Saturday, the UFC announced that Charles Oliveira and Islam Makhachev will meet for the vacant lightweight belt at UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Oct. 22.

Given those facts, it’s likely that regardless of who won Saturday’s Rodriguez-Ortega bout was going to wind up fighting for an interim championship. If Volkanovski is out for four months, that makes it sometime in mid-November before he can train.

Oliveira-Makhachev will be in late October, so Volkanovski would be on a perfect schedule to face the winner. So, for the sake of argument, say the UFC make the Oliveira-Makhachev winner against Volkanovski for February or March. That would mean that the earliest Volkanovski would be able to again defend the featherweight belt would be June, and probably later.

And when that happens, the UFC’s history is almost always to make an interim title for the belt.

With Ortega now likely out an extended period of time, it makes it clear that the UFC should put Rodriguez and Josh Emmett for the interim title before the end of the year. Then, the winner will be available to fight Volkanovski after his foray at lightweight.

That scenario would be fair to Volkanovski, who has established himself as the greatest featherweight in MMA history and, arguably, as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport now. He’s an active champion and taking on the best opposition and wants to fight at lightweight for the belt. He deserves that.

It’s fair to both Rodriguez and Emmett, each of whom has an argument that he deserves to fight for the featherweight crown next.

AUSTIN, TX - JUNE 18: Calvin Kattar celebrates his victory over Josh Emmett in their featherweight bout during the UFC Fight Night: Kattar v Emmett event at June 18, 2022, Moody Center on in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Louis Grasse/PxImages/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Josh Emmett, 37, is riding a 5-fight win streak and is deserving of a shot at UFC featherweight gold. (Photo by Louis Grasse/PxImages/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Emmett’s last five fights have all been wins, over, in descending order, Calvin Kattar, Dan Ige, Shane Burgos, Mirsad Becktic and Michael Johnson. Rodriguez's last five includes a no-contest with Jeremy Stephens, wins over Ortega, Stevens and Chan Sung Jung and a loss to Holloway.

Going into Saturday’s card, Holloway was first, Ortega second, Rodriguez third and Emmett fourth at featherweight.

And it’s also fair to the fans, because there are a slew of great fights this makes: Oliveira-Makhachev, Rodriguez-Emmett, Volkanovski against the Oliveira-Makhachev winner and then Volkanovski against the Rodriguez-Emmett winner.

The only problem in this scenario would be if Ortega doesn’t need surgery and can return quicker. Rodriguez said he’d do whatever the UFC wanted and didn’t like winning the way he did, and it would only be fair to Ortega to let him run it back with Rodriguez if he’s healthy sooner rather than later.

But, that would not be all that fair to Emmett, who has done nothing but win and perform at a high-level recently.

UFC president Dana White wouldn’t let on which way he was thinking of going, though he clearly expressed disappointment at the way the card ended.

“It sucks,” said White, who said he missed UFC 276 because he had been on vacation at his home in Maine. “It’s a rough sport and these things happen. It looked like it was shaping up to be a great fight. But these things happen. What are you going to do?’

Ortega pressured the moment the bell rang, trying to force Rodriguez back. It appeared his strategy may have been to wear Rodriguez down so he’d be better able to take advantage of his grappling skills.

Rodriguez was countering nicely and was landing clean blows. Right before the untimely finish, Rodriguez landed a crisp right cross and followed it with a front kick.

Ortega took Rodriguez down, but as they were grappling for position, Rodriguez grabbed Ortega’s right arm and went for an armbar. As Ortega tried to pull out of the armbar, he suddenly fell to his back and the fight was over.

His shoulder clearly popped out.

“I don't know how this happened,” Ortega said. “I wanted to keep going, but I’ve had two shoulder surgeries already, and I might need a third one. Who knows? …

“The fight was going good. Everything we planned was going but when I got him down to the ground, we got stuck in a situation. … I didn’t feel I was in submission danger. I tried to clear my leg and my arm just popped out.”

It was an unfortunate break, but that’s just sports. Rodriguez did what he had to do and deserves the chance to move on.

He is the ultimate team player and said he wants to fly to Las Vegas and talk to UFC management, but reiterated he’d do whatever they wanted.

“The ideal fight would be Volkanovski, but he’s out, so whatever Dana says [is what I’ll do],” Rodriguez said.

There is an easy solution to all of this and it will work out for everyone.