Alexander Volkanovski vs. Yair Rodriguez at UFC 290: Five fight week storylines to follow

The greatest MMA weekend of the year is arrived and is prepared to host another enormous event.

For the 11th consecutive year, UFC will welcome International Fight Week celebrations in Las Vegas, which are highlighted by a pay-per-view fight card inside T-Mobile Arena.

For Saturday’s UFC 290 event, two title fights are featured on the main marquee. The featherweight title unification pits reigning champion Alexander Volkanovski against rising interim champion Yair Rodriguez. In the co-feature, Brandon Moreno faces off against the dangerous Alexandre Pantoja to defend his 125-pound championship.

Let’s take a closer look at the major plotlines as the busiest week of the year for the top mixed martial arts promotion approaches.

1. Alexander Volkanovski is closing in on immortality

At 145 pounds, Volkanovski, the current pound-for-pound champion in the sport, is running out of significant obstacles. It’s possible that Saturday’s title defence against interim champion Yair Rodriguez will be his final one before he seeks out a rematch with lightweight king Islam Makhachev (and a full-time move up in weight) given how close he came to defeating Makhachev in their contentious February superfight. With all due respect to rising championship rival Ilia Topuria, who thrashed Josh Emmett last month, a victory over Rodriguez could be Volkanovski’s last chance to surpass peers like Max Holloway and Jose Aldo as the greatest 145-pound fighter in UFC history.Volkanovski’s claim would be supported mostly by his impressive record against the top competitors. Prior to the fight with Makhachev, Volkanovski had won 22 straight fights. He has victories at featherweight over Chad Mendes, Aldo, Holloway (three times), Brian Ortega, and “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung-Jung. And the fact that he defeated an Aldo who was still competitive in 2019 may have been the deciding factor in his ability to overtake “The King of Rio” on the list of all-time rankings. In addition to being a complete and excellent fighter, Volkanovski has repeatedly demonstrated (most notably by defeating Ortega) how resilient and outstanding he can be in the face of peril. Nobody poses a threat quite like Rodriguez in this incarnation, which only heightens the stakes for Volkanovski in the event of another triumph.

2. Yair Rodriguez has finally found his greatness

Despite only suffering two losses in 13 UFC matches (both against future Hall of Famers Frankie Edgar and Max Holloway), Rodriguez has a long history of inconsistent play offset by brilliant bursts of excellence. When he faced Holloway in 2021, everything for the 30-year-old Mexican native seemed to alter. Rodriguez demonstrated that he belongs among the top 145-pound fighters despite losing a close decision. He also scored more sustained damage. The stoppage wins against Ortega (because to a shoulder injury) and Emmett (for the interim title) that followed only served to underline the fact that Rodriguez has developed his game enough to avoid costly errors without losing the element of danger he provides. Considered in the context of his UFC victories over opponents like Dan Hooker, Andre Fili, BJ Penn, “The Korean Zombie,” and Jeremy Stephens before to his most recent run, Rodriguez’s resume is also quite impressive. Rodriguez is one of the few opponents who brings a real chance of dethroning the current featherweight champion due to the combination of his powerful strikes and unwavering confidence, even though Volkanovski’s victory would undoubtedly be the biggest of his career (and possibly lead to a rematch with Holloway). Given Volaknovski’s prolonged dominance, it is sense to see Rodriguez as a huge betting underdog, yet “El Pantera” is the most dangerous opponent Volkanovski has ever faced.

3. Can the third time be the charm for Brandon Moreno?

Moreno and Rodriguez will be two of the faces of Mexican MMA’s recent rise, which also includes Alexa Grasso’s upset victory over women’s 125-pound champion Valentina Shevchenko in March. Moreno regained the flyweight title by defeating former champion Deiveson Figueiredo in their historic fourth encounter in January. But if Moreno is unable to put his prior experiences with Alexandre Pantoja behind him, his second reign as champion will end before it even begins. The 33-year-old Brazilian submission threat not only carries a three-fight winning streak (stopping Brandon Royval and Alex Perez along the way), but also the assurance of having beaten Moreno twice in crucial circumstances. In Round 2 of their exhibition match on “The Ultimate Fighter: Tournament of Champions” season 2016, Pantoja submitted Moreno. After a thrilling rematch, Pantoja defeated Moreno by a unanimous decision two years later. If MMA fans learned anything about Moreno during his protracted feud with Figuereido (who defeated Pantoja by decision in 2019), it’s that the 29-year-old “Assassin Baby” has been very good at maintaining his composure and making crucial mid-fight changes amidst turmoil. Pantoja is facing a completely different Moreno this weekend, five years after their previous encounter, as the all-action division continues to provide intriguing matchups between its top competitors.

4. Timing is everything for Dricus du Plessis’ title hopes

Since making his UFC debut in 2020, du Plessis has won five matches by way of four stoppages, making him a compelling contender for the middleweight championship. However, the fact that the division has been so thoroughly cleaned out by the champion Israel Adesanya has surely benefited ‘DDP’ as UFC officials have enabled him to cut the line at 185 pounds into Saturday’s No. 1 contender’s bout against former champion Robert Whittaker. It is easy to understand why du Plessis is included here by taking a short look at the top 10 middleweight fighters. Additionally helpful are Darren Till and Derek Brunson’s consecutive finishes over the previous seven months. But has the South African native really earned his position as such a glaring underdog against someone with Whittaker’s kind of talent? It’s a discussion that is largely moot because UFC president Dana White has already stated that du Plessis would face Nigerian-born Adesanya next if he pulled off an upset victory. This would provide an answer to the query du Plessis previously posed when claiming he would establish who the real African-born champion is.

5. The last great action hero takes one more ride

Robbie Lawler, a former UFC welterweight champion, is 41 and has little left to prove. But in the main preliminary fight, a fellow brawler named Niko Price will battle the guy on the short list of the best action fighters in the history of the sport. Since losing his 170-pound title to Tyron Woodley in 2016 by first-round knockout, Lawler hasn’t been all that successful. He enters the Price battle having lost six of his last eight fights, albeit mostly to great opposition. But Lawler, a former Miletich Fighting Systems product who turned professional in 2001 and has competed in fights everywhere from Strikeforce and Elite XC to the IFL and Pride, has never let victories and defeats define his incredible career.In 2013, he began a second UFC run, from which he never looked back. Chris Lytle, Frank Trigg, Melvin Manhoef, Matt Lindland, Josh Koscheck, Rory MacDonald (twice), Matt Brown, Johny Hendricks, Carlos Condit, Donald Cerrone, and Nick Diaz are just a few of the notable opponents Lawler has defeated in his 22-year career. However, the brutal Lawler’s legacy of valiant and gory battles will eventually determine why he is still so adored. Because of the ferocious purity of his behaviour, while being from a different period and place, he has become a timeless legend.