September 7, 2017

UFC 215: Nunes vs. Shevchenko for Dummies: Thirteen Things You Need to Know

By Schwan Humes

This Saturday at UFC 215, UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion Amanda Nunes and challenger Valentina Shevchenko will come full circle in this highly anticipated rematch of their UFC 196 fight from March 2016, a fight in which Nunes “defeated” Shevchenko by unanimous decision. This win pushed Nunes into the title fight that started the second most dominant bantamweight reign in women’s mixed martial arts. For her part, Shevchenko was recognized as a legitimate threat in the bantamweight division, then she went on to defeat former bantamweight champion Holly Holm and former TUF winner Julianna Peña, which put her into position as the rightful challenger to Nunes.

Today I am going to examine the reasons behind the fight and the history of each fighter, as well as their skills, their strategies, their strengths, and their weaknesses, so that you will have the ability to truly enjoy the fight and understand what it means for both fighters, and I’m going to do so with these 13 points:

13) This fight was made as a result of circumstance, as the women’s bantamweight division has historically been thin. The large majority of fighters in the division aren’t elite in athleticism or developed in regards to their all-around skills. Most importantly, none of the fighters in the division, including the champion, have much of a Q rating in mixed martial arts, much less outside of it in the mainstream media. Two of the biggest names in divisional history (Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate) are retired, both having been stopped in devastating fashion by Nunes. The third biggest star in Holm was handily defeated by Shevchenko, and she has only managed one win in her last four fights, against a fighter who was 1-1-1 in her last three fights prior to facing her. The only other fighter with real name value is Peña, and the former TUF winner was submitted in less than two rounds by Shevchenko. Raquel Pennington and Sara McMann were both on win streaks, but neither had the fan base nor the decisive wins to create interest in a title fight against Nunes (especially McMann, who was stopped in one round by Nunes). This only left Shevchenko, who had two decisive main event wins against the two highest profile fighters in the division in Holm and Peña. More importantly, she was the only fighter in the last two years who had shown the ability to handle Nunes’ striking, athleticism, and ground and pound, as well as put her in a position to be beaten.

12) Amanda Nunes is overrated as a striker. I don’t say this meaning that she can’t strike or isn’t one of the better strikers in the bantamweight division; she can and she is. But based purely on technique, awareness, diversity, and versatility, she isn’t world class. When she has faced legitimately skilled strikers (Germaine de Randamie, Shevchenko) she hasn’t shown any of the devastating ability, offensive fluidity, or efficiency she has shown when facing the grapple-heavy fighters in the division (Tate, Rousey, McMann). Much like her countryman Jose Aldo, Nunes has consistently done her best work striking against fighters who aren’t world class mixed martial arts strikers, much less world class strikers. The difference being Aldo refused (read: was unable) to effectively apply his grappling/wrestling, getting starched by Conor McGregor and Max Holloway. There are many women in the UFC with better, more technical offensive/defensive striking, footwork, counters, kickboxing, boxing, positioning, and volume (Katlyn Chookagian, Joanna Jędrzejczyk, Claudia Gadelha, Shevchenko, Irene Aldana, Michelle Waterson, and Rose Namajunas to name a few). Nunes, unlike Aldo, willingly and effectively applied her grappling and wrestling, finishing de Randamie and getting the decision over Shevchenko.

11) Nunes is an attribute-based striker/fighter. A lot of her success in plying her trade as a striker is rooted in her physical durability, her physical strength, her explosiveness, and her punching power; unlike the majority of girls in the division (outside of Rousey), Nunes can hit for power, not for average. This means that she can set or change the tone of a fight with any single strike, which affects both her efficiency on offense and her consistency on defense, as most fighters are wary of getting into exchanges with her or attempting to walk her down to set up takedowns with strikes. The ability to end fights with one shot changes the dynamic of most fights. On top of her physical strength and her explosiveness (which enhance her ability to determine where the fights take place, as she can explode into takedowns or out of bad positions on the ground) Nunes also has the strength to bully opponents in the clinch, control them on the ground, and physically wrench them off when they attempt single, doubles, trips, or body lock type takedowns.

10) Valentina Shevchenko is not an attribute-based striker/fighter; her success is founded on superior technique, ring/cage IQ, manipulation of distance, and timing. Unlike Peña, McMann, Nunes, and others, Shevchenko is surprisingly average in regards to her level of athleticism. She is unable to blow through top shelf opposition, nor has she shown the ability to turn a fight around instantaneously or finish a fight instantaneously (without her opponent making a huge error, as Peña did). This means she has less room for error, because she has no way to force openings. Instead she has to lean on her ability to bait opponents into giving her an opening, but even when she is successful in that venture, her lack of explosiveness or power turns what could be fight-ending counter or lead into just another well-placed, well-timed counter or lead. The final pitfall of this lack of top-end athleticism is that to defend, counter, or escape tough positions, she has to be technically and strategically perfect, as that lack of ability won’t allow her to explode out of bad spots; instead, she must meticulously work through them. This also applies to her offense, as she has to go through a series of steps to set it up, or put opponents in spots that allow her to exploit their holes in technique or cage/ring IQ. Instead of being able to create fight-ending or fight-turning offense, Shevchenko more times than not has to take the long road to any and every victory she achieves at this level of mixed martial arts.

9) Shevchenko is a world class striker. She had had a total of 58 kickboxing matches, losing only two (56-2), beating luminaries such as former ISKA world champion and IKBF European champion Ania Fucz, and current UFC Strawweight Champion and former IFMA/WKF European champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Shevchenko also won multiple championships herself, including but not limited to the WMF, WMC, IFMA Royal Cup, and WKC K1 championships.

8) Shevchenko is a southpaw who prefers to set, maintain, and win using a slow pace built around a controlled aggression defined by efficient and measured counter-striking. She is very good at setting and controlling range, using a combination of footwork, feints, and positioning to extend or maintain it, as well as a variety of jabs and inside low kicks that limit an opponent’s ability or willingness to effectively close distance. This inability to get into the range or position they are strongest in forces them to either rush in, telegraphing their attacks, allowing Shevchenko to defend and/or counter their offense, or remain at an uncomfortable distance that limits their offensive output, which lets her dictate terms of engagement without putting herself in danger.

7) Shevchenko is a low output counter fighter at heart. While she is more than capable of leading a fight, especially given the inconsistent and comparatively low level of striking in the bantamweight division, and is more than skilled enough to put fluid and sharp combinations together, she prefers to let her opponents give her openings to land her strikes. These opportunities are created in their attempts to close distance to get in position to land meaningful offense, throw volume to attempt to overwhelm her and holster her offense, or load up as the look to land big fight-defining offense. Shevchenko’s bread and butter is her right hook; her ability to adjust the timing, angle, and placement of it allows her to catch opponents as they come into or exit out of range. Her cheat code specialty is her ability to check hook opponents as they attempt to trap or tie her up, which disrupts their aggression as she pivots out smoothly to create an escape and reset the fight in open space. Shevchenko’s counters are almost exclusively potshots and single shots, but where she is shaky in output she is masterful in placement, delivery, and snap, not giving up range or defensive openings. Her straight left is her most dangerous single strike, she occasionally keeps opponents on their toes with a spinning backfist or kick, and when she has asserted control of a fight, she begins to flash fluid punch-kick combinations to the head and body.

6) Nunes is a finisher -- whether it’s on the feet, on the ground, with strikes, or with submissions, very few fighters have shown the ability to close the show as consistently and explosively as Nunes. She has finished thirteen fights out of her fourteen wins, three by submission (Tate, McMann, and Raquel Pa'aluhi), and ten by KO/TKO (including Ediane Gomes, Rousey, and current Bellator champion Julia Budd). Nunes isn’t just finishing second or third tier fighters; the large majority of the women she is stopping are former or current champions, or at the very least highly ranked fighters in the division.

5) Size matters. Shevchenko’s success at bantamweight has been impressive, as she has shown textbook standup, top end durability, cage IQ, efficiency, and a much improved grappling game. What makes it so impressive is the fact that she really could fight at flyweight, if not strawweight. Every fight she has engaged in has had her at huge disadvantages in regards to size and strength. In two fights against technically inferior, but bigger and stronger opposition (Holm, Peña) Shevchenko was bullied in numerous instances. Even in her first fight with Nunes, the disparity in size and strength was noticeable when the two fighters tied up, and much more noticeably when the two engaged in grappling exchanges. Once again Nunes will have a size, weight, and strength advantage that will create opportunities for her to take the lead in the fight, as well as minimize the effect of the work Shevchenko does when fighting in clinches, be it taking her down, controlling her on the ground, or landing strikes.

4) Live by the sword or die by the sword. More times than not, when Nunes cannot finish, she ends up being finished. A lot of her ability to win fights is built around her ability to physically and offensively dominate. If and when her opponent makes it through her initial onslaught of heavy artillery, Nunes’ lack of sound defensive principles while under duress get exposed and result in her losing. This happened in the two fights where she was finished by TKO (against Alexis Davis and Cat Zingano) and her loss to Sarah D’Alelio, where she was out-hustled en route to a decision defeat. In her one decision win, Nunes slowed dramatically and was being beaten pillar to post by the very same woman she is facing on Saturday night, Valentina Shevchenko.

3) Live by the sword or die by the sword II: The things that define Shevchenko’s game are low output, efficiency, and accuracy; this allows her to be technical, strategic, and masterful in striking exchanges, whether it’s open cage or against the fence. But the same thing that allows her to remain defensively responsible and offensively efficient can also result in her being outworked as a result of her safety first measures, or can make her the victim of perception, as a few big spots of offense from her opponent could overshadow a consistent but less obvious flow of offense from her. (Think Woodley vs. Thompson 1, Condit vs. Lawler 1, or Lawler vs. Hendricks 2.)

2) Amanda Nunes is the better all-round mixed martial artist. While not world class in regards to her wrestling, grappling, or striking, Nunes is very effective in all ranges. Her striking, though attribute-based, has solid fundamentals defined by tight circular movement and surprisingly efficient footwork, given her superior athleticism. Nunes’ feints and fakes are excellent, creating openings or drawing attacks out for her to counter; as she has grown into an aggressive and systematic counter-striker, she has developed a penchant for drawing out counters and countering them with her own. However, the meat and potatoes of her game are crushing low kicks and carefully timed punching combinations. In clinches she is technical, but she often can bull her way into them and physically manhandle her opponents, as the majority of girls in the division lack the skill to neutralize her physicality or the physicality to neutralize her skills. Nunes’ wrestling/grappling game is opportunistic at best, not as defined or developed as her striking, but she can create opportunities to assert herself in those areas as a side effect of her balanced and dynamic striking style, as she has developed a solid set of body lock, trip, and reactive shot takedowns.

1) What happens when Nunes gets tired is key. Regardless of her camps or dedication to training, Nunes has never shown the deepest gas tank, and every fight she hasn’t been able to finish has seen her tire and more times than not lose. The biggest example is her fight with Zingano, where Nunes put a frightful beating on her before gassing and being beaten until the referee was forced to stop the fight. In her previous fight against Shevchenko, by the end of round three, Nunes was gassed and hanging on for dear life, essentially winning the fight based on the work done in a decisive round two. But this time, when she gasses Nunes will have two more rounds to go, and if she holds true to form, she will lose, whether it’s by decision or by some form of stoppage. Nunes is far from untouchable on the ground or the feet, and the second her reserves are taxed, her offense becomes inconsistent and inefficient, and her defense becomes non-existent. The last time we saw a big, strong power striker face a masterful, measured low output defensive counter striker, the tone and direction of the fight changed dramatically the minute said power fighter slowed.

Saturday night in the co-main event of UFC 215, Amanda Nunes has a chance to cement herself as the definitive UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion, regain the faith fans had lost (partly due to Dana White), and take the next step to possible mixed martial arts superstardom. Valentina Shevchenko, on the other hand, gets to finish what she started, as her opportunity for revenge was delayed due to Nunes’ unfortunate withdrawal from UFC 213. A loss puts her at the back of the line and potentially into the flyweight division, but a win makes her the fifth woman to hold the bantamweight belt, and opens up a myriad of options (including a fight against featherweight queen Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino or a potential fight with strawweight queen Joanna Jedrzejczyk). I believe this fight mirrors the original matchup; but with two extra rounds to work, Nunes’ inability to finish early bites her, causing her to gas and eventually be out-hustled by Shevchenko. Or Nunes, in an attempt to extend her gas tank, fights a measured and patient fight (i.e. the fight Shevchenko wants), and loses as she is out-hustled late by Shevchenko. Either way, I believe the co-main event ends with “ANNNNND NEWWWW…”

UFC 215: Nunes vs. Shevchenko 2 (formerly UFC 215: Johnson vs. Borg) takes place September 9, 2017 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

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