April 8, 2017

UFC 210: It’s About to Get Real - Chookagian vs. Aldana

By Schwan Humes

At UFC Fight Night 106 we had a bantamweight fight between established veterans Bethe Correia and Marion Reneau, and in that fight we had two highly ranked fighters battling to improve their rankings and hopefully maintain a sense of relevancy as potential contenders in a division that sorely needs them. Tonight at UFC 210, we have another main card bantamweight matchup; instead of seasoned veterans, we have two prospects fighting not for relevancy but for legitimacy as they seek to establish themselves as potential contenders, not unproven prospects.

The first fighter is Irene Aldana, a Mexican fighter who made her name in the mixed martial arts world by fighting in the Invicta Fighting Championships. She developed a 4-2 record before being brought into the Ultimate Fighting Championship, earmarked for greatness as a fighter and a divisional, if not organizational, star. That is, before a loss in her debut against cagey veteran Leslie “The Peacemaker” Smith stopped the hype train before it could really get started. On the other side of this equation we have Katlyn Chookagian. The “Blonde Fighter” made her Octagon debut at on UFC Fight Night 91, but she established herself as a fighter to watch through numerous victories outside of the UFC. After a win in her debut, Chookagian suffered a setback to former Strikeforce and UFC title Challenger Liz Carmouche at UFC 205. Now Chookagian is looking to rebound, in hopes of regaining the momentum she developed in her initial win over former Invicta FC champion Lauren Murphy.

With only one win in the Octagon, one might wonder why people were so high on Chookagian. A large part of that was built on who she beat and how she beat them. Lauren Murphy was a legitimately ranked fighter having established herself outside of the UFC with an Invicta championship, and while she hadn’t had stellar results in the Octagon, she had only lost to the best fighters in former title challengers Liz Carmouche and Sara McMann. When Chookagian faced Murphy, she showcased something not often shown in the bantamweight division: smooth, layered, balanced, and CONSISTENT footwork.

In addition, Chookagian employed a high volume of strikes using a small but efficient variety of them, including an active jab, a counter left hook, a sharp one-two, a snappy low kick, and a moderately-used body kick, combined with effective clinch work. What really stood out were the feints, the head movement, and the angles Chookagian routinely entered and exited on. That level of craft, activity, layers, and efficiency of motion isn’t common in men’s mixed martial arts, much less women’s MMA, so the hype that came from this fight was somewhat well-deserved, as she showed a poise, technique, and cage generalship that is rare in MMA, regardless of division, gender, or organization.

But as sterling as her performance against Murphy was, there were still some areas of concern. Murphy, while active, seasoned and gritty, is no one’s athlete. The gap in athleticism between the two enhanced any and all technical advantages Chookagian had on the feet, and it also allowed her to hold her own in extended grappling exchanges in the clinch with the superior grappler in Murphy. But even with all those technical and physical advantages, Murphy was still able to land with power on the feet against Chookagian, and in the second round she was able to take down and keep down the “Blonde Fighter.” Was she able to finish? No, but the ease with which Murphy controlled her and chipped away at her was concerning, and as it turned out, it was a sign of things to come.

When Chookagian was scheduled to face Liz Carmouche on the biggest card of the year, UFC 205, the general consensus was that Chookagian would navigate the open cage with her usual fluidity, mobility, activity, and deliberate aggression en route to a decisive decision win. Someone clearly forgot to let Carmouche know that was the plan, as she came out early in the bout pressuring Chookagian, countering her, cutting the cage off on her, and using striking exchanges as setups for entries into takedowns. And while Chookagian closed the fight strong, dropping and almost stopping the “Girl Rilla,” she was summarily and decisively outworked and manhandled on the way to a split decision loss; that seemingly confirmed concerns that she was maybe a bit of a one-note fighter who would have problems against comparable athletes with a physical/grinding style. This was a huge red flag, as there are numerous fighters capable of fighting that fight in the division, including McMann, Julianna Peña, Cat Zingano, and to a lesser degree, Raquel Pennington and Bethe Correia.

Chookagian is an out fighter at heart, one who quickly establishes a busy jab and even busier (but technical) footwork as a means to out position her opposition, allowing her to enter and exit without receiving much damage. She also uses it as a weapon, forcing her opponents to have to work at a quicker and more consistently active pace to chase, trap, or be in position to strike her or get takedowns. Much like fellow Mark Henry fighter Frankie Edgar, Chookagian’s constant movement, feints, and flurries of offense slowly chop away at her opponents’ mental and physical resolve, allowing her to pull away late. This was exhibited in the win against Murphy or when she turned up the heat late in the loss to Carmouche. But Chookagian’s game is a game of control and consistency; her lack of power and physical strength allows for opponents to have big moments against her or control her with big spots of grappling-based offense as a result of her inability to match physicality or do consistent damage with strikes.

This brings us to Aldana, a fighter who much like Chookagian is trying to establish an identity for herself as a fighter in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. It is no secret the UFC brass would like for her to win and get on some sort of a streak, as she is Mexican and would provide a surefire path to a group of fans who are some of the most ardent when it comes to combat sports. In this fight, she very well might score the victory, as she has three things that have troubled Chookagian in the Octagon:, pressure, activity, and athleticism. While Aldana lacks the physicality of a Liz Carmouche or the grittiness of Lauren Murphy, much less the experience of either of the two, she does combine the things that allowed both to have success against Chookagian.

Aldana is an aggressive boxer, one who places a high emphasis on volume, technique, and power punching. Unlike the majority of women’s bantamweights, she has a smooth and deliberate execution of technique (jab, counter left hook, half leg kick), legitimately good punching power, and the footwork, as well as the conditioning, to get into a position to use volume to drown her opponent. Aldana isn’t much of a kicker outside of the timely low kicks she flashes; the majority of her work is done with her hands. The concern for Aldana is that the weapon she chooses to use is also the weapon she is most susceptible to, as highlighted in the Smith fight, where a technically and athletically inferior opponent overwhelmed her purely with a high volume and variety of strikes. As good as Aldana is when she leads and imposes her will on an opponent, that is equal to how bad she is when an opponent doesn’t allow her to run her over with aggression and can throw with enough power, precision, or volume to force her back. It’s then that her defensive limitations, lack of head movement. and erratic defensive footwork are exposed. This is especially concerning when you look further into her career and see that the two other times an opponent imposed their wills she was TKO’d. And while she made it to the final bell in a (competitive) loss to Smith, she was dropped and clearly beaten up by a fighter who hadn’t stopped an opponent of note in her entire career.

Chookagian should be favored, as she has beaten the better competition in the Octagon and performed better when she lost. She has shown a poise and a versatility in her setups, entries, and exits that allow her to win rounds moving forward, backing up, on the inside, and the outside. Aldana, for all her physical talent and class, hasn’t shown that she has addressed the flaws that have stunted her growth and dinged her record in and out of the Octagon. As much of an offensive advantage as Aldana has regarding power, strength, and aggression, her lack of flexibility and adaptability in the cage is a huge problem going into tonight’s matchup. That being said, she has the technique and athleticism to maximize the openings provided by Chookagian and the skills and volume necessary to repeatedly create those opportunities.

At UFC 210, both women face a stern test against a fellow prospect with the skills and ability to contend in and possibly be the face of the bantamweight division moving forward. In the Octagon we will truly see who has learned from her defeats and who will take the step from suspect prospect to legitimate fighter.

UFC 210: Cormier vs. Johnson 2 takes place April 8, 2017 at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York.

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