The UFC’s strawweight division doesn’t get as much attention as some of its other weight classes, but it has delivered more than its share of memorable moments.
The top, of course, is the 2020 bout between Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. That was not just the greatest women’s fight in UFC history, it’s among the greatest MMA fights ever.
But there have been plenty of other "wow" moments, including Rose Namajunas’ knockout of Jedrzejczyk and her bloody battle years ago with Paige VanZant.
Marina Rodriguez has quietly moved up the ranks, and now she’s positioned perfectly to create some noise of her own. On Saturday at Apex on the UFC campus in Las Vegas, Rodriguez will meet Amanda Lemos in a key divisional battle at UFC Vegas 64.
She’s won four in a row since a split-decision loss to now-champion Carla Esparza on July 26, 2020, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. She’s beaten Amanda Ribas, Michelle Waterson, Mackenzie Dern and Yan Xiaonan in her last four and has looked increasingly good in each.
“She’s fun to watch and she’s getting better every time,” UFC president Dana White said of Rodriguez. “I think she’s going to do very, very well [if she wins Saturday]. She has a great future.”
The future will almost certainly include a fight against the winner of the Esparza-Zhang fight, which is the co-main event of UFC 281 on Nov. 12 in New York.
Rodriguez said she respects Lemos’ talent but exuded confidence when discussing the fight and her short-term future.
“I know she’s very tough and she has good victories and has good victories in the UFC,” Rodriguez said, through a translator. “But we are both aggressive strikers, so I’m 100 percent confident our fight has everything needed to be the Fight of the Night. I’m very confident that I’ll defeat Amanda no matter how.
“I’m going to be the next [title] challenger. If everything goes perfectly, I’m going to be there after this fight.”
Rodriguez has yet to break through in a big way to capture the imagination of fight fans. She hasn’t had a finish since stopping Ribas on Jan. 24, 2021, at UFC 257 in Abu Dhabi. And she doesn’t speak English so her global appeal is limited.
But there have been others before her who didn’t have great English but were outstanding strikers — Zhang immediately leaps to mind — who became stars because they performed at the right time.
Rodriguez’ lack of finishes and more conservative approach in the ring have also halted her ascent in terms of fan interest.
But the Lemos fight should be a slugfest, and if she happens to get Zhang next, she’ll have no choice other than to stand her ground and go for it.
“What I haven’t seen from Marina yet is the type of output and pressure and aggression that Joanna Jedrzejczyk used to bring every time,” White said. “Look at the way Weili fights. Those two are a match made in heaven. I think that’s what Marina’s going to have to do; she’s going to have to come with that type of pressure and aggression when she fights if she gets to a fight with Weili.”
For Rodriguez, she expects to see Zhang defeat Esparza next week and reclaim the title. While there is a part of her which would like to avenge her defeat to Esparza, her primary goal is to defeat Lemos and challenge for the belt against whoever it is who survives in UFC 281.
“It doesn’t matter to me, really,” she said. “You can be surprised in MMA all the time, though. Carla defeated Rose [when few expected it]. I’ll be there and be ready no matter who wins [at UFC 281].”