January 31, 2017

UFC on FOX 23: Julianna Peña, The Jig Is Up

By Schwan Humes

On Saturday night at UFC on FOX 23, the “dominant” run of Julianna “The Venezuelan Vixen” Peña came to a an exciting, albeit incredibly one-sided, end with her submission loss to Valentina “The Bullet” Shevchenko. This isn’t to pour dirt on Peña or her career; she is still a physically talented, intelligent, hard-working, and charismatic YOUNG fighter. She can get better, she can do better. All she needs is refinement -- she needs some constructive criticism in order to become more aware of what she can do, what she can’t, and how best to navigate the choppy waters of combat sports towards a path of success in the form of a legitimate top ten ranking and hopefully a world championship. What I am going to do today is talk about how and why she isn’t at that level. I will also discuss who is at fault for the less than stellar effort Peña produced when she faced her first real test in the division.

Hallmarks of Peña and her style have been and continue to be cardio, activity, physicality, athleticism, and aggression; for a fighter who has achieved so much in such a brief period of time, she has remained stunningly stagnant in her technical growth and strategic awareness. Unlike most fighters who leave the TUF house, especially those with her sort of work ethic and talent, Peña didn’t improve. The same things that won her fights in the house were the same things she leaned on to win fights when she fought on the big stage, against the “best” in the world (or at the very least girls who were better than what she faced on her way to the TUF title).

When discussing a fighter, coaches often point to physical ability first; without a certain amount of athleticism no fighter can really get past a certain point in combat sports, or any sport to be honest. Without that component, all the technique, IQ, tactical awareness, strategy, and game plans won’t make up for that; it’s a harsh fact, but a fact nonetheless. The problem comes when a fighter and his or her team begins to lean on these things as a crutch instead of using them to enhance and diversify the foundations of skills, strategy, and situational awareness. Peña and her team didn’t do that, they focused on the results her talent got her, on the takedowns her aggression and athleticism got her, and on the escapes and reversals her pace, body control, and explosiveness got her. They focused on the (limited) success her athleticism, length, and aggression allowed her on the feet, never paying attention to the obvious holes in her game that had her walking a tightrope in all her fights, having to forge huge comebacks or go tit for tat for razor thin wins. This is part of the process, but not when fighting faded veterans (Shayna Baszler), lesser talents (Jessica Rakoczy), or top talents with historically inconsistent fight games (Jessica Eye and Cat Zingano).

A lot of Peña’s problems come down to range and her inability to maintain it, which allows opponents to routinely get in on her, force her into the cage, and repeatedly take her down. The other side of this is Peña’s inability to extend her range in a way that creates opportunities to get clean entries into clinches, or use her strikes effectively; she is either punching from too far out and coming in hot and unbalanced, or she is swinging wide, missing because she hasn’t set her shots up at all. The solution is easy, a consistent and busy jab.

The jab works as a line of defense interrupting opponents’ attempts to punch their way into range because it interrupts their forward progress and the rhythm of their shots. It also acts as a distance-gauging tool to allow fighters to know where their opponents are and how far they need to get in to get their hands on them. Or it just acts as an obstacle to force people to work around in order to get into the range they need to effectively clinch or shoot. Offensively it allows a fighter to push opponents back, making them defensive, incapable of throwing volume or putting combos together, as well as trapping them on the cage where that fighter can put together combos, potshot, or get their hands on opponents, beating them up in the clinch and taking them down. The jab, alone, does all of that, yet Peña hadn’t developed one, even though the need for one was there.

There are other things I could mention, specifically her footwork, which made her entries beyond awful. Some will say “she is a grappler; what does footwork have to do with anything?” Well, Demian Maia’s ground work is put in play because of his crisp, deliberate pressure footwork which allows him to navigate strikes, cut off space, and get in cleanly, delivering efficient, safe, and positionally advantageous takedowns. The point of me addressing the jab specifically was to communicate how big a difference one addition could make for any fighter, especially one with Peña’s physical ability, length, and aggression. But her camp (or Peña herself) refused to develop this, so her title aspirations and top five ranking slipped away as a result.

Peña hadn’t been developed properly. She hadn’t taken the time to round out her game in the gym between fights, and she hadn’t been effectively schooled in solid fundamentals (particularly in striking, mainly because striking isn’t great in the part of the country she got her start in). Nor had she been moved appropriately in her fights. And even with all of these egregious errors, had her camp acknowledged and accepted the fact that she wasn’t improving instead of glossing over the bumps and potholes she hit on the road to her top-tier ranking, all those things wouldn’t have mattered; she could have gotten back on course. But they didn’t, and all these things culminated in a loss that anyone with common sense could have predicted. However, the manner in which it was done was beyond unexpected for even the most savvy coach or analyst.

In a lot of ways, Julianna Peña is the middle class version of Ronda Rousey -- not the pedigree, but similar approaches, similar gifts, and in certain ways, similar physical skill sets and mindsets. Unfortunately for Peña, lacking Rousey’s pedigree in a specific art didn’t just limit her ability to draw the overpowering support of the fans, it left her exposed and ultimately beaten, falling way short of the goals she had set for herself. Rousey at least was on the road to all-time great status, if she hadn’t already secured it; Peña has a hell of a lot more work before she can approach that. This is all because she, much like her nemesis Rousey, focused too much on the results, and not enough on what happened on the way to achieving them; changes weren’t made soon enough, if at all. And a lot of money, acclaim, and momentum went away as a result. I won’t say Peña was exposed -- I’ve been speaking of her MANY limitations for years (the same way I did for Rousey) -- but I will say that she got a much needed, albeit embarrassing, wake up call. I hope she takes heed; we have seen what happens when fighters can’t or won’t make necessary changes, or worse yet, when they make them too late.

UFC on FOX 23: Shevchenko vs. Peña took place January 28, 2017 at Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.

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