May 3, 2017

UFC 211: It’s About to Get Real -- Jessica Aguilar vs. Cortney Casey

By Schwan Humes

Next Saturday night on the undercard of UFC 211, we have an intriguing matchup between two fighters on opposite ends of their careers who nonetheless find themselves at a crossroads.

First we have relative mixed martial arts newcomer Cortney Casey. A hot prospect outside of the Ultimate Fighting Championship who came in on short notice to compete in the Octagon, Casey was long on talent and potential, but very short on experience and fanfare. In her first two fights Casey was matched tough, facing perennial contender Joanne “Jojo” Calderwood and mixed martial arts veteran Seo Hee Ham, which resulted in two unanimous decision losses. Casey bounced back, making good on the potential she had shown outside of the cage, winning two fights in a row, including a submission win over Randa Markos. Casey dropped another unanimous decision to the second best fighter in the division, Claudia Gadelha. Now with a UFC record of 2-3, Casey hopes to bounce back again and fast track herself into the rankings (and legitimate contender status) by defeating the former World Series of Fighting champion and world-class strawweight Jessica “Jag” Aguilar.

Aguilar, much like Casey, is on the comeback trail after losing her debut in the Octagon to Gadelha by unanimous decision and then being forced out of the cage for almost two years due to an ACL injury. At thirty-four years old, Aguilar is on the back end of her career and looking for an opportunity to regain the momentum that she had when she was introduced to the UFC roster. Today we take a look at Aguilar’s career, her fight styles, and the opportunities for her moving forward if she can in fact win next Saturday night.

Jessica Aguilar is an 11-year, 24-fight veteran of mixed martial arts; over the length of her career she has evolved from a methodical and physical submission wrestler to a well-rounded, seasoned, and disciplined MMA fighter with a balanced set of skills. Aguilar is experienced, durable, and deliberate in her approach to fighting. This is the result of fighting in a number of high level organizations (Hook n Shoot, Bodog, Vale Tudo Japan, Bellator, UFC) as well as facing a who’s who of female fighters (Emi Fujino, Angela Magana, Lisa Ellis, former UFC Strawweight Champion Carla Esparza, all-time great Megumi Fujii). Very few women in the division have the depth of experience and the variety of opposition that “Jag” has, which has allowed her to maintain her status as one of the best female mixed martial artists since even before she stepped foot in the Octagon. It also has allowed her to continue to compete at a high level in spite of the fact that she a) isn’t in her physical prime, and b) was never the most dynamic or dominating athletic talent competing. However, that combination of technical growth, strategic awareness, and experience helped guide her to 19 wins and a championship under the World Series of Fighting banner.

The excellence and dominance Aguilar showed during her reign in the WSOF created a hard ceiling for her, as the organization couldn’t bring in the names necessary to maximize her earnings or her career potential, so she was granted her release and signed to the Ultimate Fighting Championship to make good on her reputation as one of, if not the, best strawweights in the world. And her introduction into the Octagon would be a rough one, as she was matched up against Gadelha. The fight with Gadelha was eye-opening, as Aguilar was outstruck, outgrappled, outworked and physically outclassed throughout the majority of the fight on the way to a unanimous decision loss. This loss left many wondering if Aguilar was EVER as good as advertised or if she had just gotten to the big stage too late in her career to make a run.

Aguilar is a well-developed mixed martial arts fighter, but the heart of her game is her wrestling. While she is far from dynamic athletically, Aguilar has shown excellent timing and technique, often relying on feints or pressure to create opportunities for reactive takedowns, as well using strikes to mask her entries. Unlike many fighters who rely on explosion and physical strength to drag or muscle an opponent to the ground, “Jag” has shown excellent penetration on her steps and has become notorious with her ability to suck in her opponents’ hips and get enough lift to complete clean takedowns off of the doubles she so favors. She is an effective submission grappler, but is most effective breaking opponents down with top control and consistent strikes on the ground. Even when Aguilar isn’t able to complete takedowns, the physical and grinding nature of her attempts -- especially when she can force an opponent to the fence -- often wear down and eventually break down the majority of her opposition. On the feet, Aguilar is meat and potatoes, building her offense on deft but not spectacular footwork, a lot of measured movement, a steady jab, and an active right hand which she either follows the jab with, or leads/counters with, using hooks and crosses, often doubling up on them. Outside of that basic combo and individual weapon, Aguilar uses an outside leg kick to set up her hands or to disrupt an opponent’s ability to close and extend distance. She leans on these things to limit an opponent’s offensive opportunities, opportunities which are due in large part to her rather slow feet and below average defense (poor head movement, fighting on the back foot). Aguilar also often resorts to the double forearm guard and blocks as her most consistent lines of defense. Aguilar is a sharp, experienced, and disciplined fighter, but her lack of athleticism, explosiveness, and power limits her ability to do damage on the feet, and her one-note style of striking, i.e. applying pressure and coming in behind her jab, almost guarantees that she will be ineffective if and when an opponent can stop her pressure or better yet, force her backwards.

This brings us to Cortney Casey, a fighter with a 2-3 record (albeit versus some of the best fighters in the division). She is clearly one of the most active fighters, and even though she hasn’t won when facing the best women in the division, she has never really been physically dominated or beaten up; usually the lack of class and refinement is what has led to her lack of consistent success in the Octagon. Casey is big for the division at 5’7 and is one of the most athletically talented and physically strongest fighters at strawweight. The calling card of Casey’s approach is physicality and aggression; she has shown an impressive ability to physically dominate opponents in grappling exchanges on the feet (the clinch) and on the ground (transitions and scrambles).

On the feet, Casey is most effective in the pocket, where her explosiveness, power, and aggression can dictate the terms of engagement as well as allow her opportunities to punch her way into the clinch where she does her best work. Working at distance has never been and still isn’t her biggest strength, but she has developed a reliable jab and sharp low kicks. These techniques help work her into the ranges she is most effective in, instead of forcing her to be overly aggressive or leap in, which would serve her up to be countered by reactive takedowns, lead knees, or right hands. Casey’s defense is still suspect; a lot of her success in not absorbing punishment is in large part due to her power, explosiveness, and the subtle additions she has made to her offense, but she can still be put in bad spots when an opponent is willing to punch with her, as well as when an opponent can consistently pressure her. In both cases her work rate and her footwork tend to fall off noticeably, if not dramatically.

As athletic and strong as Casey is, she hasn’t been able to translate that into takedowns or particularly good takedown defense, as she often relies on her ability to create scrambles or transition to different positions to make up for her inability to control where her fights take place. Casey has shown skill on the ground and a willingness to look for finishes, but her willingness to hunt for submissions rather than work her way back up to her feet has often resulted in her losing rounds based off position alone.

Jessica Aguilar should be favored, as she is by far the most experienced opponent Casey has faced, and while she is very physically limited in regards to athleticism, her savvy and wrestling-based game seem to be the Kryptonite that has continued to keep Casey from beating the “name” fighters she has faced in the division. When a fighter has been able to navigate the dangers created by her athleticism, Casey has been forced to go rounds and eventually be outworked to rather one-sided decisions. The kind of fighters who have been able to do that all have more in common with Aguilar than the two women Casey has defeated. Casey has no way to relieve pressure on the feet if Aguilar is able to dominate there and historically has shown an inability to consistently and effectively defend takedowns, much less get back to the feet long enough to take over a fight or put an opponent in a position to be finished. But although it seems open and shut in favor of Aguilar, Casey is more than capable of coming out and demolishing her; she is that physical, powerful, and aggressive. Aguilar, for all her class and depth of skill, is clearly on the decline physically, and she has never been a competent defensive fighter, meaning that opportunities will be there for Casey from beginning to end. The question is whether or not Casey has developed enough technically and strategically to put herself in position to take advantage of those opportunities.

Next Saturday at UFC 211, two fighters will be trying to prove something to themselves, the fans, and the UFC brass. Cortney Casey is trying to prove she is better than she has shown and capable of beating the better women in the division. Jessica Aguilar is trying to show that her reputation as one of the best strawweights is both well-earned and currently relevant. One will be proved right and one will be proved wrong when the cage door closes and it gets real.

UFC 211: Miocic vs. Dos Santos 2 takes place May 13, 2017 at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.

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