Two years ago, UFC strawweight Marina Rodriguez made 2021 her year.
To kick off the new year, Rodriguez bounced back from a loss to former strawweight champion Carla Esparza with a dominant performance and TKO victory over Amanda Ribas. Then in May, Rodriguez jumped up to 125 pounds and challenged Michelle Waterson-Gomez in her first UFC main event.
A unanimous decision victory over the fan-favorite earned Rodriguez her second main event slot later that year back down at strawweight against submission ace Mackenzie Dern. Despite Dern’s seven minutes of ground control, Rodriguez’s dominance on the feet, where she landed 51 percent of her 279 significant strikes thrown, made it easy on the judges to choose a unanimous victor.
Rodriguez’s 2022 campaign started off just as promising as where 2021 left off. At UFC 272, Rodriguez defeated Yan Xiaonan by a razor-thin split decision. But in mixed martial arts, a win is a win, so a fourth straight victory set up a high stakes main event at the UFC APEX last November against Amanda Lemos.
Seemingly split one round apiece heading into the third, Rodriguez’s hot streak was met with a thunderous right hand from Lemos. Falling back to the cage, Lemos landed vicious follow-up strikes until the referee was forced to step in and stop the fight.
Not only was this Rodriguez’s first loss in over two years, but it meant she needed to repeat 2021 all over again if she hopes to achieve her one aspiration as a mixed martial artist: becoming a UFC champion.
“I just want to be the champion,” Rodriguez said before her bout against Lemos. “It's all I think about, it's my only focus. After I make it happen, I'm sure I will be able to think of something else and I will be able to fulfill other dreams that I'll only have after becoming the champion.”
With that in mind, Rodriguez wasted no time getting back to training and staying in fight shape while waiting for a call from the UFC. The call finally came early this year, when Rodriguez was offered a three-round clash with Virna Jandiroba at UFC 288: Sterling vs Cejudo.
“We started 2023 focusing on correcting everything that was missing in my last fight,” Rodriguez said. “So, we were prepared waiting for a new opportunity.
“I hadn’t fought in a few months and when they offered [this fight] I accepted right away. I want to stay active.”
The last time fans saw Jandiroba compete was nearly a year ago when she defeated Angela Hill via unanimous decision thanks to her impressive work on the mat, controlling Hill for nearly half the fight. Rodriguez anticipates a similar gameplan and grappling-heavy approach from Jandiroba, and has taken these last few months to sharpen her jiu-jitsu game.
“Many people say it’s a style match, Muay Thai vs jiu-jitsu,” Rodriguez said. “Since joining the UFC, I’m used to fighting grapplers; they all want to take me down. So, I’ve improved consistently in these past years, and I believe it’s going to be a great fight.
She’s definitely a jiu-jitsu specialist, she has a lot of faith in that, and we’ve been preparing to face her in that way, cancelling out her strengths.
A specialist is exactly the type of fighter Rodriguez wants to face every time she steps in the Octagon. Rodriguez believes competing against opponents with different styles helps her develop unique skills she can use later on in her career and contributes to her evolution into a complete martial artist.
“Every new opponent makes us improve in every way,” Rodriguez said. “I think that’s the great magic of MMA, right? To evolve according to each opponent will really help in the future when you really need all those skills.”
At first, Rodriguez’s goal for this fight was concise: to win. But after suffering that loss, Rodriguez also wants to remind fans of the fighter they saw win four consecutive fights: an aggressive striker who’s always looking to get the job done inside the distance.
If she executes her game plan on Saturday in Newark, New Jersey, Rodriguez wants to keep the ball rolling and hopefully get back into the title picture with a couple more wins later this year.
“If I fight and win and if I have no injuries, I could do two more fights [this year],” Rodriguez said. “Now I’m focused on fighting, performing well and improving, and the belt will be a result when the UFC wants it. We understand how it is, so I want to work, I want to fight.”