Holloway edges Rodriguez in back-and-forth bout

Yair Rodriguez, blood coming from several cuts on his face, pointed his finger and planted it in Max Holloway’s chest. Holloway, face swollen and bleeding from above his right eye, took his fist and patted it against Rodriguez’s face.

Holloway’s legend continued Saturday with a unanimous decision (49-46, 48-47, 48-47) win over Rodriguez in the main event of UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas. And Rodriguez’s own lore has leveled up after a warrior-like performance in a losing effort.

The back-and-forth bout, which ended up as one of the best of 2021, could have been a torch-passing moment from Holloway, the former UFC featherweight champion, to the up-and-coming Rodriguez. Instead, Holloway, nicknamed “Blessed,” earned another huge win in a historic career and Rodriguez raised his stock despite defeat.

Rodriguez pushed Holloway to the very brink, rallying with an elbow that cut Holloway open in the fifth round. But Holloway held on.

“If you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best — and the best is ‘Blessed,’ baby,” Holloway said in his postfight interview. Both fighters were taken to the hospital after the fight.

Holloway is arguably the best featherweight in UFC history, holding the 145-pound title from 2017 to 2019 with three title defenses. ESPN has Holloway ranked tied for No. 9 in the world in its pound-for-pound MMA rankings. At featherweight, Holloway is ranked No. 2 and Rodriguez is No. 8.

“Max is an amazing fighter,” Rodriguez said. “He has a lot of experience. He’s done an amazing job. I have nothing to do but accept [the loss].”

Afterward, Holloway was non-committal about what he wants next. He mentioned a possible title fight at lightweight, another shot at the man who took the featherweight title from him in Alexander Volkanovski, and even being on “the shortlist” for a fight against Conor McGregor, who beat Holloway in 2013.

“We’re ready whenever,” Holloway said.

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Rodriguez, even coming off a more-than-two-year-layoff, was ready right from the start. His lightning-fast kicks gave Holloway fits the entire fight and in the first he was landing them to the calf and to the body — plus a big front kick to Holloway’s face. Holloway countered with his volume boxing, but Rodriguez landed some big punches of his own.

In the second round, Holloway began to gain some momentum, putting forth more combinations with his hands and going to the body with punches. Rodriguez slipped in the third round and Holloway gained solid positions on the ground, going for several submission attempts and landing ground and pound.

In the fourth, Holloway was in control on the feet and landed a takedown from which he landed ground and pound. Rodriguez came back fresh in the fifth with more kicks and a spinning elbow that cut Holloway open above his right eye. When the final bell rang, the two men could do nothing but give the other their due respect.

“His boxing is pretty good,” Holloway said. “He moves like a boxer and then he turns elbows. … This guy is a freakin’ beast.”

Holloway (23-6) snapped a two-fight losing streak — both against Volkanovski — with an all-time dominant, unanimous decision performance against Calvin Kattar back in January and has now won two straight. The Hawaii native has lost to just two men since 2013 — Volkanovski twice and Dustin Poirier in an interim lightweight title fight.

Holloway, 29, owns the most wins (18), most KO/TKO wins (8) and most stoppage victories (10) in UFC featherweight history.

Rodriguez (13-3, 1 NC) was undefeated in three straight fights coming in and has just two losses in 10 UFC fights. The Mexico native had not fought since a unanimous decision win over Jeremy Stephens in October 2019. Rodriguez, 29, owns the record for the latest knockout in UFC history, a spectacular back elbow finish of “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung with one second remaining in the fifth and final round in November 2018.

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