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.
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.
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.
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.
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.