How Josh Emmett, Yair Rodriguez earned interim title opportunity

Josh Emmett made his professional MMA debut on Oct. 8, 2011. Barack Obama was in his first term as president. Tom Brady had just three Super Bowl rings, with four more championships and six total appearances yet to come. It had been less than a year since Jose Aldo made his first UFC featherweight title defense.

More than 11 years later, Emmett will appear in the co-main event of UFC 284 on Saturday in Perth, Australia, when he takes on Yair Rodriguez for the interim featherweight championship. Featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski will face lightweight champion Islam Makhachev in the main event. Volkanovski plans to defend both belts if he defeats Makhachev.

For some reason, despite his great success — Emmett is 18-2 overall in MMA and is 9-2 in the UFC — he hasn’t fought on the main card of a pay-per-show until now. Despite his strong record and victories over elite opposition like Calvin Kattar and Dan Ige, Emmett’s profile has been relatively low given his lack of appearance on the UFC’s most high-profile shows.

That will change in a big way on Saturday when he meets Rodriguez, who has become one of the promotion’s most popular and exciting fighters. Rodriguez is ranked No. 2 at featherweight and Emmett is fifth, so when the UFC made the Volkanovski-Makhachev fight, there were others it could have chosen to compete for the interim featherweight title other than Rodriguez and Emmett.

Josh Emmett will appear on the main card of a pay-per-view show for the first time on Saturday when he meets Yair Rodriguez in Perth, Australia, for the interim featherweight title in the co-main event of UFC 284. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Emmett, though, was never all that concerned. He knew he’d done more than enough to prove himself worthy.

“Just slightly but not really, because I felt I was the next clear choice to be the one for the title,” Emmett told Yahoo Sports. “Since Alex is moving up to try to become the champ-champion, which I think he totally deserves and has earned, I knew they’d have to make some type of interim title. The way I looked at it, and the way I honestly believe, is there was no argument that I should have been next. So this was the best-case scenario [to get an interim title fight].”

Rodriguez lost to former champion Max Holloway in an amazing bout on Nov. 13, 2021, that was Fight of the Night and one of the best fights of the year. He came back to defeat Brian Ortega in July to pretty much seal the deal for him in terms of a championship opportunity.

His body of work is strong — he’s 3-1 in his last four with finishes of Chan Sung Jung, Jeremy Stephens and Ortega and the sensational fight with Holloway — and he felt he’d proven himself worthy.

“I’ve been looking for this opportunity for a long time and I feel that I deserve it,” Rodriguez said. “The [interim] title shot was open and I saw it as my opportunity to jump into fight, regardless of who they chose to be my opponent.”

ELMONT, NEW YORK - JULY 16: (R-L) Yair Rodriguez of Mexico and Brian Ortega talk after their featherweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UBS Arena on July 16, 2022 in Elmont, New York. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Yair Rodriguez earned his title opportunity by defeating Brian Ortega in July. Rodriguez fights Josh Emmett on Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 284 for the interim featherweight title in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

The Emmett-Rodriguez fight would be the favorite to be Fight of the Night if there were odds on that sort of thing. As it is, Rodriguez is a -180 at BetMGM to win, with Emmett at +150.

Emmett has a wrestling background, but he’s an aggressive, high-contact fighter who has sacrificed his body for the cause. He suffered significant facial injuries in a 2018 loss to Jeremy Stephens that kept him out of action for 13 months. He returned and then tore a knee in the first minute of a fight with Shane Burgos that kept him out of action for 18 months.

He’s one of the grittiest fighters in the sport and didn’t let the injury stop him. He fought the final 24 minutes with the injury which, he said, “hurt like hell.” He still won a decision.

He is bracing for more because of Rodriguez’s style. Curiously, they said nearly the same things about each other.

“Yair is a talented guy and you have to understand there’s going to be some adversity you have to get through when you fight him,” Emmett said. “He’s an extremely tough guy and I know he’s a significant challenge.”

Rodriguez spoke as if he were reading Emmett’s words.

“I know he’s an excellent fighter, one of the best in the world,” Rodriguez said. “He’s so, so tough and it’s never going to be easy fighting him. He’s going to make it hard, but you have to be able to stick with it and keep going.”

If Volkanovski wins and adds the lightweight belt, it will make his fight with the Emmett-Rodriguez winner that much bigger. Volkanovski has repeatedly said he wants to defend both belts and not just pick one. UFC president Dana White said Volkanovski has earned that decision.

But even if Volkanovski loses to Makhachev, he’ll still be the featherweight champion available to fight the winner, even though it won’t be as lucrative a payday, perhaps.

“Of course I’ll be pulling for [Volkanovski] because that will make it better for a fight between me and him eventually,” Emmett said. “But I can’t really think too much because I have a huge fight ahead of him that demands my full attention.”

Josh Emmett celebrates his KO against Michael Johnson after their mixed martial arts bout at UFC Fight Night, Saturday, March 30, 2019, in Philadelphia. Emmett won via 3rd round KO. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

Josh Emmett is 18-2 overall and 9-2 in the UFC, but will be making his first appearance on the main card of a pay-per-view show on Saturday when he fights Yair Rodriguez at UFC 284. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

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