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Marina Rodriguez poses for a photo inside the UFC APEX before UFC Fight Night: Dern vs Rodriguez (photo by Nolan Walker/Zuffa LLC)
Athletes

Marina Rodriguez Set Herself Up For Big Year In 2022

Three 2021 Wins Against Strawweight Contenders Have Elevated Marina Rodriguez To True Title Contender Status.

Heading into 2021, it was difficult to pinpoint exactly where Marina Rodriguez fit in the strawweight division.

She’d fought just once the previous year, losing a close split decision to former champion-turned-surging contender Carla Esparza. Before that, the Brazilian battled Cynthia Calvillo to a draw in a bout where Calvillo missed weight by a considerable margin. It was the second draw in four UFC fights for Rodriguez, and after arriving in the promotion with a 10-0 mark, going 2-1-2 over her first five appearances inside the Octagon made her a major question mark in the 115-pound weight class.

But what a difference a year can make.

In January, Rodriguez began her 2021 campaign by getting back into the win column in spectacular fashion, pausing the ascension of her compatriot Amanda Ribas with a second-round stoppage finish.

View Rodriguez's Athlete Profile

The two-part finishing sequence illustrates what makes the 34-year-old Muay Thai stylist a live wire in the division, as she drove home a right hand early in the frame that caught Ribas flush and took her off her feet. Rodriguez swarmed, unloading a barrage of punches and hammerfists that brought the referee in for a closer look, which caused Rodriguez to walk away in celebratory fashion, only the fight had not been stopped.

Rather than be thrown off by the confusion, Rodriguez just got right back after Ribas, breaking free of a clinch attempt by landing a heavy elbow before clocking the heavily favored emerging talent with a pair of clean right hands that finally brought the fight to a close.

The scream Rodriguez let out told you how much this one meant to her, not only as a means of getting things moving in the right direction but having finally secured her first stoppage victory inside the Octagon.

Following her win over Ribas on Fight Island, Rodriguez wasn’t expecting to compete again until the summer, but when a rash of injuries and cancellations prompted the UFC to reach out with a main event offer against Michelle Waterson, up a division at flyweight, it was too good to pass up.

Marina Rodriguez Octagon Interview | UFC Fight Night: Dern vs Rodriguez
Marina Rodriguez Octagon Interview | UFC Fight Night: Dern vs Rodriguez
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And Rodriguez made the absolute most of it.

Not only did she score a unanimous decision win over the tenured Top 10 fighter, but she did so in impressive fashion, stuffing four of Waterson’s five takedown attempts and outlanding her by a reasonable margin in every round but the fourth, where “The Karate Hottie” was able to put the Brazilian on the deck and grind out three minutes of control time.

In addition to earning the most high-profile victory of her career, Rodriguez’s performance showed she was capable of going five rounds and working at a steady clip the whole time. Questions would linger about whether she could maintain that style following a cut to 115 pounds, and the Marcio Malko protégé proved that she could in her next assignment.

Learn More About The Strawweight Division

Five months after dispatching Waterson, Rodriguez made her third appearances of the year in her second consecutive main event, squaring off with rising star Mackenzie Dern at the start of October.

Just as she did in her previous fight, the Brazilian answered all the lingering questions that remained in her clash with Dern, navigating a dicey second round on the canvas with the world champion Brazilian jiu jitsu player to secure a unanimous decision victory with scores of 49-46 across the board.

What started out as a competitive clash of styles turned into a one-sided affair by the time the bout reached the championship rounds, as Rodriguez maintained her pace and output against the increasingly tired and increasingly hittable Dern. She landed 37 significant strikes in each of the final two rounds, widening her lead and further asserting her dominance the longer the fight went until the final horn sounded and her winning streak was extended to three.

post vegas 39 marina

After starting 2021 carrying a bit of frustration after a difficult and disappointing 2020, Rodriguez heads into 2022 stationed at No. 3 in the rankings and on the short list of possible challengers for champion Rose Namajunas; the last 12 months having transformed her from a hard-to-peg commodity in a talent-rich division to a two-time headliner with heaps of momentum propelling her forward.

As much as her finish of Ribas is the effort that will stand as the biggest moment on her personal 2021 highlight reel, it’s her victories over Waterson and Dern and everything those fights showed that should be the key takeaways when talking about Rodriguez’s breakout year inside the Octagon.

LOOK BACK: The Rise Of Marina Rodriguez | Rodriguez Continues Her Push Forward

In those two contests, the Brazilian went a combined 10 rounds with a pair of fighters positioned ahead of her in the rankings. She fended off 11 of 13 takedown attempts, and in the lone instance in each contest where she found herself on the ground, Rodriguez showed she’s able to defend and neutralize her opponents effectively enough to avoid taking any real damage or getting finished.

On top of that, she showed that she could maintain her strong output and steady pace into the championship rounds, closing out each contest by turning the final five minutes into a decisive frame in her favor, leaving little question as to whom the superior talent was by the time the final horn sounded.

While there are always questions about how a fighter will perform the first time they’re thrust into the championship spotlight and share the Octagon with a championship-tier talent, those are the only questions that remain unanswered by Rodriguez at the moment, and that’s only because she hasn’t had the chance to take those tests as of yet.

Heading into her fight with Ribas, Rodriguez told me, “I really would love to have a three-fight year in 2021, and of course, always facing fighters that are well-ranked in my weight class.”

Not only did she get her wish, but she got a pair of main event assignments and a trio of victories as well, rebounding from a challenging 2020 with a breakout campaign in 2021.