In mixed martial arts circles, one of the many inside jokes common amongst the sports hardcore fanbase is the idea of “Sea-level Cain.” It’s a poke at the well-respected former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, who is actually well known for his high-level cardio, but who seemingly succumbed to the altitude of Mexico City in his defeat at UFC 188 to Brazilian Jiu-jitsu legend Fabricio Werdum. Sea-level Cain is the idea of a nearly indestructible Velasquez at sea-level, but whose fans excuse his loss in Mexico City to the unusually high altitude the city resides in.
The city of Denver, Colorado is notorious for its thin air and the effects on athletes who come unprepared to compete in the Mile-High City’s 5, 280 feet above sea level altitude. UFC Fight Night 159’s Rodriguez versus Stephens main event will take place in Mexico City, Mexico which interestingly enough has an altitude of 7, 382 feet making it a place where conditioning may ultimately play a pivotal role in any number of the fights featured on ESPN+ Saturday night. If some reports are to be believed, Jeremy Stephens is taking the altitude very seriously in the lead up to his fight against Rodriguez, having reportedly arrived in Mexico City well in advance to his scheduled September 21, 2019 bout.
Yair “Pantera” Rodriguez (11-2, 4 KOs) is an extremely talented Tae Kwon Do specialist who reportedly possesses a black belt in Judo and Hapkido, which coupled with his youth, athleticism and sharp reflexes make him a legitimate threat in the Octagon. Some of Rodriguez’s greatest tools in the cage include his lightning fast leg kicks which he uses to absolutely brutalize his opponents and his ability to improvise, adapt and overcome in the heat of battle.
While Tae Kwon Do holds a special place in my heart and it is no doubt an effective part of Rodriguez’s overall arsenal, there are certain habits many Tae Kwon Do specialists become accustomed to doing over time that are simply a bad idea in the modern world of professional prize fighting, among them being the propensity to rely on a kicking heavy attack with the dreadfully inappropriate side effect of keeping their hands down, which is never a good idea when your opponents are attempting to separate you from consciousness.
As a result, Rodriguez’s opponents can and often do put hands on the Tae Kwon Do specialist, most notably Yair's last opponent Chan Sung Jung, who found regular success throughout his bout against Rodriguez with his punching technique before ultimately succumbing to a brilliantly placed elbow from Pantera in one of 2018’s wildest endings by knockout with only a second remaining on the clock in the final round of the main event at UFC Fight Night 139.
By looking at “Pantera” alone, one will notice he appears to be have quite long legs, which no doubt aides his Korean Tae Kwon Do background, but there are several area’s Stephens can look to exploit in this match up should any kind of game plan exist beyond simply knocking Rodriquez cold in Mexico City Saturday night. Exploiting the timing alone of Rodriquez’s rangy kicks, which are quite regularly thrown with his hands down may play a pivotal role in how Stephens approaches Rodriguez in the cage this weekend.
As UFC Hall of Famer Bas Rutten is fond of pointing out, one of the cardinal sins in mixed martial arts is throwing leg kicks which aren’t first set up with punches. As luck would have it, one of the key offensive strategies in dealing with a fighter who regularly puts his hands down is to punch them in the face, something Rodriguez’s opponent Jeremy Stephens (28-16, 19 KOs) is known for doing with great effect.
With Yair’s excellent reflexes, he is also susceptible to feints which can be read and in turn used to set up various striking techniques and combinations in exploiting Rodriquez’s propensity to take the bait. Beyond the reflexes and rangy kicks, “Pantera” can also be fleet of foot in the cage and at times utilizes the huge space within the Octagon to full of effect in a strategy former UFC great Lyoto Machida perfected. Stephens will no doubt have to come prepared to cut off the cage while expecting the unexpected; controlled demolition being the key to victory for a Jeremy Stephens who comes to bang each and every time he steps foot inside the Octagon.
With Stephens owning more losses than Rodriguez has fights total, there are factors that are going to come into play during this fight which ultimately may not be readily apparent to casual mixed martial arts fans. Stephens is a 33-year old veteran of the sport who has a lot of mileage on his tread, should Stephens fail to get Rodriguez out of there early his overall record indicates that “Lil’ Heathen” is at great risk of losing the battle of attrition to Rodriguez if the fight goes the distance and see's the judges score cards..
Jeremy Stephens is a violent competitor in the Octagon who has historically struggled with his conditioning in the later stages of the fight, leaving him vulnerable to fatigue and ultimately coming up with the short end of the stick in decisions as a result.
With Mexico City’s unusually high altitude, which is a major contributing factor to fatigue, the fact Stephens has arrived in Mexico City well in advance to UFC Fight Night 159 is a pretty good indication Stephens is coming to win. Coming off back to back loses to the legendary Jose Aldo and rising UFC star Zabit Magomedsharipov, look for a Jeremy Stephens with his back against the wall Saturday night to do everything in his power to avoid “Sea-level Stephens” from going viral. Its going to be a barn burner at UFC Fight Night 159 live on ESPN+, tune in to catch all the action.