April 20, 2017

The BJB Breakdown: Lena Ovchynnikova: Face of The Division Or Force in The Division?

By Schwan Humes

At Bellator 177 last Friday night, Lena Ovchynnikova completed a turnaround in her fledgling career as a Bellator flyweight. After a competitive but lost first round where Ovchynnikova was close to being finished on multiple occasions, she came roaring back in the bout, utilizing a variety of leg kicks, straight lefts, 1-2s, intercepting knees, and throws to eventually break down Helen “Hellraiser” Harper en route to a second round stoppage. This win brought her record to 2-1 in the Bellator cage. Today we are going to take a look at Ovchynnikova’s history as a combat sports athlete, her brief tenure in Bellator and what it has taught us about her as a fighter, and the outlook for her and the flyweight division moving forward.

Ovchynnikova was a high profile signing for a multitude of reasons, but first and foremost was her combat sports resume outside of the world of mixed martial arts. She had an extensive career in Muay Thai kickboxing, medaling in multiple amateur events (gold medals in the ISKA European and WPKA European championships), and winning world championships in a variety of professional organizations, including the WBC, WKKC, and ISKA. Of even more importance, as it pertained to Bellator’s newly-minted flyweight division, was Ovchynnikova’s time competing in mixed martial arts. With a record of 10-2 at the time, Ovchynnikova was one of the more experienced fighters in women’s mixed martial arts. For comparison, the number one strawweight contender, “Thug” Rose Namajunas, has had less than ten fights.

In Ovchynnikova’s Bellator debut, she entered the cage against mixed martial arts neophyte Rebecca Ruth. Though Ruth was a legitimate and active fighter, it was clear she was brought in as a “soft opening” for the new signee Ovchynnikova. Ruth had a winning record, size, and some good physical tools, but make no mistake, this was supposed to be a showcase fight highlighting the skills of the new Bellator acquisition Ovchynnikova. But there is a reason we fight the fights, and that was never truer than Bellator 150 on February 26, 2016. This is where Ruth outworked, outfought, and physically manhandled her way into a three-round unanimous decision win. This was a BIG setback, especially for someone who was considered to be one of the “faces” of the division. Ovchynnikova showed grit, as she refused to give in to the pressure, physicality and continued assault from Ruth, and she flashed sharp, technical strikes, mobility, accuracy, and athleticism, but the fact remains that she lost, and she did so in a manner that left no questions in regard to the result. The loss had many people questioning the legitimacy of Ovchynnikova’s record and the reason she was brought into the organization.

In the next 14 months, the highly touted flyweight star corrected her course with two consecutive wins: a tepid decision win over Karla Benitez at Bellator 164, then her win over the 4-1 Harper last Friday night leaving her with a Bellator record of 2-1. But she has also gained a better idea of who she is and what she has as a fighter.

Most of Ovchynnikova’s wins have been by submission via armbar, which is surprising because Ovchynnikova is a tenured striker, who has competed at a world class level as an amateur and professional Muay Thai fighter. Outside of this success in the grappling phase, Ovchynnikova’s game is defined by two things: her southpaw stance and her outfighting style. Ovchynnikova eschews applying pressure and using volume, and instead she favors using her length, footwork, and athleticism to create space and maintain distance. She sets traps for her opponents as they try to close distance and force “in the pocket” exchanges. She takes full advantage of the aggression of her opponents by creating space that she knows her opponents are going to attempt to close; this puts her in perfect position to fill that space with strikes. It works because her opponents repeatedly run in and over-pursue, which allows her to get off in the clinch or execute the occasional head and arm throw.

The biggest and most consistent weapon in her toolbox is her straight left hand; while it doesn’t carry the power or explosiveness of Conor McGregor’s , it is every bit as sharp and accurate as his. Her jab is used inconsistently, but effectively, mostly as a range-finder and table-setter for other weapons in her arsenal, including her lead leg outside leg kicks, her rear leg inside leg kicks, and rear leg body kicks. But for all her technical brilliance at range, Ovchynnikova is very much ineffective in the pocket, and has a great deal of trouble when facing an opponent who won’t be dissuaded by her volume and range of strikes. When an opponent is able and/or willing to get and stay in the pocket, Ovchynnikova’s usually reliable defense becomes porous, and her normally efficient and layered offense becomes wildly ineffective. On top of that, the footwork and length that allows her to defend takedowns becomes exposed as less than stellar. This routinely puts her in spots where her lack of refined guard work and scrambling ability creates opportunities for opponents to land strikes and threaten with submissions.

In Ovchynnikova’s last two fights we saw the best of her sharp and active striking and her precise and disciplined footwork. Ovchynnikova picked Benitez apart at range, taking her out of position, allowing her to flash her straight left hand repeatedly, and consistently landing with accuracy, as well as using a variety of kicks to attack the inside and outside of Benitez’s legs. Against Helen Harper, Ovchynnikova also used her straight left hand, but the fight was determined by a busy and efficient clinch striking game, one which used a series of lead and intercepting knees, and the occasional head and arm throw, to break Harper down.
Against Ruth however, we saw the worst of Ovchynnikova, as she was repeatedly taken down, outworked, and beaten up in the pocket, as well as manhandled in clinches and consistently pressured. In every fight that has taken place in the Bellator cage, Ovchynnikova has been forced to use an abundance of energy to establish and reestablish distance, throwing an inordinate amount of strikes to score points and slow the forward pressure of her opponents. In her last two fights, this technique gave her a large measure of success. Unfortunately, against Ruth, this caused her to be largely ineffective for large periods of time. Even when she was effective in regards to landing, she was ineffective at being able to do any sort of real damage to Ruth or to consistently get away from the damage Ruth was inflicting on the feet or on the ground.

Two of the three fights Ovchynnikova has been involved in in Bellator have been very exciting. That has led to Ovchynnikova developing a reputation as an exciting fighter. What’s concerning for fans of Ovchynnikova and for Bellator, however, is the fact that she is small for the weight class. She has seemingly been given all she can handle against women who can all fight, but are inferior to her in regard to all-around technical skills, combat sports experience, and athleticism. As the division continues to grow, the level of skill, seasoning, and athleticism of the women in it will increase the likelihood of her being put in some difficult spots. As I often say, “a win is a win,” but not all wins are created equally. Ovchynnikova’s wins have gotten her back on track and have resulted in her regaining some of the goodwill she lost in her loss to Ruth, but those wins haven’t done much to eliminate the holes and the concerns that appeared after that brutal loss. The fact is, she is either losing or being involved in “competitive” fights with women whose talent isn’t anywhere near world class. This causes most people to ask if her ceiling truly matches the profile of her signing and the pedigree of her combat sports history.

Two things are clear. First, Scott Coker and company are 110% committed to the support of Lena Ovchynnikova. In their eyes, she is a star in the making, with her Muay Thai accomplishments, her experience in mixed martial arts, her athleticism, and her look. And in a new division, with few high profile established fighters, her opportunities to become a face and potential contender seem to be fairly certain. That being said, the fact that Ovchynnikova is neither a true flyweight nor seemingly able to truly dominate second- and third-tier flyweights is a big concern when asking if she can in fact make good on the promise that got her into Bellator. The opportunities are going to be there for her, but the question is: Will she be able to make the most of them moving forward?

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