UFC 290: Previewing Alexander Volkanovski vs. Yair Rodríguez and the Rest of the MMA Card

Alexander Volkanovski

    Alexander VolkanovskiCarmen Mandato/Getty Images

    It's hard to believe, but it's already almost time for the UFC's annual International Fight Week bonanza, which typically culminates with the promotion's biggest card of the year.

    This year, the card is UFC 290, which will pack the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on July 8.

    It's hard to say whether this will go down as the UFC's biggest event of 2023 because the year is far from over. One way or the other, though, it's definitely a blockbuster, topped by two title fights and a host of meaningful bouts between relevant fighters.

    Headlining honors will go to undisputed featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski, considered one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport, and challenger Yair Rodríguez, who holds the division's interim belt.

    In the co-main event, Brandon Moreno will attempt to defend the flyweight title against his long-time rival Alexandre Pantoja.

    Before the belts go up for grabs, Robert Whittaker and Dricus Du Plessis will collide in what looks like a middleweight-title eliminator, and Jalin Turner and Dan Hooker will meet in a fan-friendly clash of lightweight contenders.

    Hyped middleweight prospect Bo Nickal will kick off the main card against Tresean Gore, while the undercard features an interesting mix of former champions and red-hot contenders.

    We've still got a little time to wait before it all goes down in Sin City, so let's keep ourselves busy by taking a closer look at the best bits of the card.

    UFC 290 Main Card

    Alexander Volkanovski vs. Yair Rodríguez

    Brandon Moreno vs. Alexandre Pantoja

    Robert Whittaker vs. Dricus Du Plessis

    155 lbs.: Dan Hooker vs. Jalin Turner

    185 lbs.: Bo Nickal vs. Tresean Gore

    UFC 290 Undercard

    Robbie Lawler vs. Niko Price

    Sean Brady vs. Jack Della Maddalena

    Yazmin Jauregui vs. Denise Gomes

    Jesus Aguilar vs. Shannon Ross

    Vitor Petrino vs. Marcin Prachnio

    Terrence Mitchell vs. Cameron Saaiman

Alexander Volkanovski (25-2) vs. Yair Rodríguez (15-3)

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    Yair Rodriguez
    Yair RodriguezChris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

    Fights don't get much better than Alexander Volkanovski vs. Yair Rodríguez.

    The long-time featherweight champion Volkanovski started this year as MMA's pound-for-pound king. That status allowed him to hike up to lightweight to challenge lightweight champ Islam Makhachev for a second title at UFC 284 in February, but he lost a narrow decision to the Russian juggernaut after five competitive rounds.

    On the same night, Rodríguez became the interim featherweight champion with a slick submission defeat of Josh Emmett—a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that the Mexican is one of the UFC's flashiest knockout artists.

    It really wasn't necessary for the UFC to create an interim title at featherweight. Before his fight with Makhachev, Volkanovski made it clear he'd head back down to featherweight soon, win or lose. Still, the interim title guaranteed Rodríguez the opportunity to fight for the undisputed belt and added to the significance of his clash with the Australian.

    On paper, it's an endlessly compelling matchup.

    Volkanovski is one of the most well-rounded fighters in MMA today, as effective on his feet as he is on the ground, and defensively sound everywhere. But against Rodríguez, who has proved he can end fights in a blink from any position, he will need to be perfect for the duration of the fight and avoid becoming complacent for so much as an instant.

    DraftKings has Volkanovski listed as a sizeable -410 favorite over Rodríguez (+330), but the undisputed champ is clearly not taking his next challenge lightly.

    "He could be one of the [most] dangerous fighters I've fought, really," Volkanovski told The Mac Life recently. "When you talk about unpredictability and knockout power and so many different tools, you need to take him really serious.

    "I think I'm the best fighter in the world, so am I confident? Yeah, but I know not to take this guy lightly. He's been dominating and looking good in his last few fights."

Brandon Moreno (21-6-2) vs. Alexandre Pantoja (25-5)

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    Brandon Moreno
    Brandon MorenoLeandro Bernardes/PxImages/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    After putting an end to his four-fight rivalry with Deiveson Figueiredo with a stoppage win in January, flyweight champion Brandon Moreno immediately set his sights on another rivalry.

    In the UFC 290 co-main event, the Mexican champion will defend his belt against Brazil's Alexandre Pantoja, a man he has fought once before—twice if you count their 2016 exhibition on The Ultimate Fighter 24.

    Pantoja won both previous encounters, first submitting Moreno on TUF and then defeating him by decision when they met in the Octagon in 2018.

    It's fair to say, though, that Pantoja has never fought the best version of Moreno—the version that became a world champion. In fact, Moreno was actually released by the UFC after his 2018 loss to the Brazilian.

    A UFC release can spell the end of a fighter's relevance, but after winning the LFA flyweight title with a knockout of Maikel Pérez in 2019, he returned to the promotion and immediately began to look like a new fighter. A little over a year later, he had rattled off three straight wins to earn a crack at the belt and kick-start his rivalry with Figueiredo.

    Can Pantoja, who has never fought for UFC gold, defeat the version of Moreno who has been involved in five consecutive UFC title fights? That's the big question.

    DraftKings has Pantoja listed as a small +145 underdog against Moreno (-170). Given the pair's history, and the fact that the Brazilian also looked better than ever in his recent wins over Alex Perez, Brandon Royval and Manel Kape, it's easy to understand why the odds are so close.

Robert Whittaker (24-6) vs. Dricus Du Plessis (19-2)

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    PARIS, FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 03: (L-R) Robert Whittaker of New Zealand kicks Marvin Vettori of Italy in a middleweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at The Accor Arena on September 03, 2022 in Paris, France. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
    Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

    Before Volkanovski and Moreno defend their titles at UFC 290, former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker will look to earn another shot at the belt against surging contender Dricus Di Plessis.

    Australia's Whittaker reigned over the middleweight division in 2017 and 2018 but he lost the title with a knockout loss to Israel Adesanya in 2019.

    He then rattled off wins over Darren Till, Jared Cannonier and Kelvin Gastelum to earn a shot at redemption at Adesanya, and while he lost a unanimous decision, many fans felt he deserved the nod—and the belt—the second time around.

    After his second loss to Adesanya, it looked as though Whittaker would have to move mountains to get a third crack at the champion. But he rebounded with an impressive win over Marvin Vettori, and if he beats Du Plessis in Las Vegas, he could be granted another shot.

    The same goes for Du Plessis. Since joining the UFC, the former EFC and KWS fighter has gone 5-0, most recently defeating solid foes in Brad Tavares, Till and Derek Brunson. If he wins again—particularly over a fighter of Whittaker's caliber—he will almost certainly fight for the belt next.

    DraftKings has Whittaker installed as a -390 favorite to beat Du Plessis (+320). Despite being a big favorite, Whittaker has assured fans he is not taking the fight lately.

    Adesanya, meanwhile, has made it clear he's hoping Du Plessis pulls off the upset, so he can settle his differences with the South African in the Octagon.

    "I'm going to manifest [Du Plessis] winning this fight in the first round, and when he does, I'm going to be right there in the cage so he can turn around in September," Adesanya told The MMA Hour. "We're going to fight in Sydney in September. Because Rob is Rob, whatever, I've already got a plan for Rob if it's Rob. But I really, really, really hope it's 'DDP,' because I will show him who the f--k I am."

Other Attractions: Jack Della Maddalena vs. Sean Brady

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    Jack Della Maddalena
    Jack Della MaddalenaChris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

    The UFC welterweight division is on fire right now.

    While Colby Covington and Belal Muhammad jockey for the next crack at reigning champion Leon Edward, several new contenders are making themselves known in the weight class, from Shavkat Rakhmonov to Ian Garry, and of course, Jack Della Maddalena.

    Della Maddalena, from Australia, earned a UFC contract with a decision win over Ange Loosa in 2021, and he has since picked up four finishes in the Octagon: a trio of highlight-reel knockouts against Pete Rodriguez, Ramazan Emeev and Danny Roberts, and most recently, a submission win over the larger and more experienced Randy Brown.

    The win over Brown earned the Aussie striking specialist the No. 14 spot in the welterweight rankings and set him up for a big fight with the No. 8-ranked Sean Brady.

    Until recently, Brady was being discussed in the same way Della Maddalena is now. The grappling specialist kicked off his pro-MMA career with 15-straight wins, including Octagon triumphs over Jake Matthews and Michael Chiesa. His stock took a big hit when he was stopped in a fight with Muhammad, but that setback didn't change the fact that he is one of the most promising new contenders at 170 pounds.

    This is an incredible matchup on paper and one that could end in any number of ways, as both guys seem to have the tools to expose the other. That makes it all the more surprising that the UFC decided to put it on the undercard.

    It's got the main card written all over it—certainly, more than Bo Nickal and Tresean Gore's middleweight contest does, as neither of them is anywhere near the top 15.

Best of the Rest

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    Robbie Lawler
    Robbie LawlerJosh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

    Lightweight Finishers: Jalin Turner (13-6) and Dan Hooker (22-12), ranked No. 10 and 11, respectively, in the UFC's jam-packed lightweight division, are two of the most exciting finishers out there.

    With a combined 20 wins by knockout and 11 by submission, both have shown they can end a fight anywhere. While it remains to be seen if either man can become consistent enough to earn a title shot, there is no question that their fight on the UFC 290 main card is going to be fun while it lasts.

    Bo Nickal's Next "Test": Fight fans are divided on Bo Nickal. There are those who believe the decorated wrestler, now 4-0 in MMA, is a future contender or even champion at middleweight. On the other side of the fence are those who feel the UFC is putting the cart before the horse by giving him a huge promotional push despite the fact that he is pretty much untested in MMA.

    We will have a better sense of which side is right in the opening bout of the UFC 290 main card when Nickal takes on Tresean Gore, who is 4-2 overall and 1-2 in the Octagon.

    "Ruthless" Retirement: Former UFC welterweight champion Robbie Lawler (29-16) is expected to retire after his UFC 290 undercard fight with fellow action fighter Niko Price (15-6).

    Heading into the fight, the 41-year-old "Ruthless" has lost six of his last seven fights, with his lone victory coming against a shop-worn Nick Diaz who had not fought in over six years at the time.

    Still, that does little to change Lawler's reputation as one of the most ferocious fighters in MMA history and a great of the welterweight division. His last few performances have been a little underwhelming, but it's hard to imagine him holding anything back in his final contest, and Price is not likely to back down.

    A New Flyweight Contender: Japan's Tatsuro Taira is now 13-0 overall, 3-0 in the UFC, which has led many fans to tout him as a future contender at flyweight. He was expected to fight Kleydson Rodrigues last week, but the bout was cancelled at the last minute when the Brazilian missed weight.

    The good news is that Taira will still get a fight before making the long flight home to Japan, as the UFC booked him for a bout against the debuting Edgar Cháirez (10-4) on the UFC 290 undercard.

    It'll be interesting to see how Taira looks under these short-notice circumstances, but this fight is a great chance to take another step toward the top 15.

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