April 18, 2019

Five for Fighting: 5 Things You Need to Know About Modafferi vs. Shevchenko at UFC St. Petersburg

By Schwan Humes

UFC on ESPN+ 7 takes place on April 20th and will feature a marquee matchup in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s women's flyweight division, as former title challenger and mixed martial arts pioneer Roxanne Modafferi faces brand new signee and blue chip prospect Antonina Shevchenko. Today I am going to take a look at the matchup from multiple perspectives to discuss the whys, whats, and hows behind this matchup of fringe contenders at 125 pounds:

1) Name Value

Shevchenko is 1-0 in the UFC, scoring a dominant if unremarkable win over Ji Yeon Kim in her promotional debut. Modafferi is 1-2 in the promotion, sandwiching a win over former Invicta Flyweight Champion Barb Honchak between losses to former UFC Flyweight Champion Nicco Montaño and TUF finalist Sijara Eubanks. Given the pair's combined .500 record in the division, one might wonder why these two fighters find themselves on the main card of an event. That’s easy -- Modafferi is a mixed martial arts pioneer of sorts, having competed in multiple organizations on multiple continents for the better part of 15 years. Very few fans of mixed martial arts, new or old, don't know who she is or what she has done.

On the opposite side we have Antonina Shevchenko, a neophyte in the world of mixed martial arts who can fight. However, she is a fighter who has accomplished very little in regards to titles or wins over world class opposition, one who at 34 is fairly late to the game, yet she finds herself on a UFC main card facing one of the few well-known faces in the division, as well as in women's MMA as a whole. This is because she shares a last name with her sister Valentina, former title challenger at bantamweight and current champion at flyweight. In many aspects of life who you know often overshadows what you know, and the fact that Antonina is getting a main card spot against a name fighter is proof of that.

2) The Truth About Modafferi’s striking

In women’s mixed martial arts, a large majority of the fighters are much more accomplished and established grapplers or wrestlers who are learning striking on the fly. This isn't to say they can’t really develop into complete strikers -- they can, if they are given the time and surrounded with sufficient resources in regards to coaching, drilling, and sparring. As it stands, most are fighters who learn systems of striking instead of learning how to strike; it's like having a bunch of kids who know how to run plays, but don’t really know how to play the sport they are competing in. Unfortunately this is where Modafferi falls. A tenured grappler who is known for her comically bad striking, Modafferi has been developed into a educated, disciplined, and purposeful striker, but one who lacks the feel and creativity to come up with organic combinations or make adjustments on the fly. She leans heavily on rote striking combinations, setups, exits, entries, and defensive tactics; much of this is a result of being so late to the game in regards to immersing herself into striking, and the other part is because of her relative lack of physical tools.

The best thing about Modafferi’s striking isn’t that she is much of a threat offensively or very elusive defensively; it's that her work with John Wood has developed her poise, her timing, and her ability to make reads. These things make her harder to hit the way opponents want to hit her. It helped her learn how to maximize her awkward movement and offbeat timing, turning it into a plus instead of a minus. It also allows her to find patterns in her opponents’ striking, or recognize the setups being used, so that she can either get her leads and counters off or find entries into clinches or takedowns she isn’t athletically inclined enough to get otherwise.

3) Bad Style Matchup

Roxanne Modafferi is a solid but unspectacular striker, in regard to the complexity of her offensive layers and setups, and even more so as it pertains to her ability to cleanly and efficiently defend or counter an opponent's strikes. Why this is a problem is that Shevchenko is one of the finest strikers currently inhabiting the UFC. As stated before, most women (as well as most men) in mixed martial arts are much more accomplished grapplers and wrestlers than they are strikers. This puts them at huge disadvantages when facing seasoned and accomplished strikers, which Shevchenko is.

The forty-fight veteran is 39-1 in kickboxing and is a former WMC Muay Thai champion; she has also spent extensive time training in boxing and getting her black belt in Tae Kwon Do. On top of that, she has grown up, trained, sparred, and developed with her sister Valentina, who herself is a world class striker, having won numerous titles in kickboxing/Muay Thai (including but not limited to WMC lightweight Muay Thai championship, WMF Muay Thai World championship, and the World Combat Games Muay Thai gold medal).

Modafferi has been figured out, neutralized, and touched up on the feet by much lesser strikers than Shevchenko -- fighters who lean heavily on aggression or attributes to make up for the lack of refinement in their skills. In Shevchenko she faces not only an opponent with superior athleticism to the large majority of girls she has faced, but an outright better craftsman, one who possesses enough seasoning and experience not to be fooled by changes in steps, changes in rhythms and the excessive movement designed to hide entries or shifts into blitzes.

More importantly Shevchenko’s length and depth of experience in a high level structured striking environment almost guarantees that she has specific technical answers to the questions posed by Modafferi -- be it long range weapons to control distance and disrupt forward pressure, or footwork and positioning to get off the centerline and avoid strikes, as well as line up clean lanes for her own strikes. This essentially neutralizes the biggest strength Modafferi's striking creates -- cleaner entries and finishes on takedown attempts. With her striking overwhelmingly ineffectual, her lack of high level wrestling skill and ability will once again be exposed.

4) A Showcase Fight

The UFC in my opinion wants Antonina Shevchenko to win. There are other matchups the matchmakers could have given her with less accomplished or known fighters; but they want her to move ahead in the division and they want her to build her resume with established names. Modafferi fits that description -- a much older fighter (in fight years) and a fighter who is one of the least gifted in regard to size and athleticism. As someone who lacks the wrestling skill and physical ability to decisively force the fight into the ranges she needs to operate in to have a legitimate shot at winning, Modafferi is going to have to walk through fire to get in position to attempt a takedown, and use multiple attempts to get one. This will greatly hinder her ability to maintain position on the ground or do effective work on the ground once it gets there.

The UFC took an unaccomplished striker and exceptional grappler, one who lacks any sort of decisive physical ability to do damage on the feet or get immediate or repeated takedowns, and matched her against a world class striker with a full toolbox of strikes, good takedown defense, and excellent distance management, on top of being bigger, stronger, faster, more durable, and harder hitting. Does that sound like a fight in the favor of Roxanne Modafferi or a fifty-fifty fight between the two? I don't think so. Modafferi can win this fight, as she has experience and a history of success against a higher level of opposition. But her avenues to victory are much more difficult to traverse than Shevchenko’s.

5) A Rookie In the Game

For all the physical tools Shevchenko has, the fact of the matter is that she is late to the game, and surprisingly unaccomplished as it pertains to what she has done and who she has faced; more importantly, she hasn’t been terribly active over the length of her career. Regardless of who she trains with and how good a striker she is, experience in a specific sport matters, and Shevchenko has very little in mixed martial arts. She has won seven fights, yes, but has only fought twice in the last two years and almost had three years between her first and second fight.

Activity is key in any sport. You make your biggest leaps technically and strategically in those early stages as you fight often against a variety of opposition with broad physical and technical skill sets. This allows you to define your identity as a fighter and develop the specific approach and tools an athlete can depend on in tight spots against the best opposition. Shevchenko hasn’t had that, and the gap between what she has faced and what she will face is tremendous. We still don’t know what Shevchenko will do if she can’t have her way, we don’t know what she will do in the tough spots, and we don’t know what she will do when faced with real resistance or the need to fight longer or at a different pace than she prefers. Regardless of Modafferi’s shortcomings, she is by far the best and most accomplished mixed martial artist Shevchenko has ever faced, and that sort of opponent is always a risk.

This weekend we will find out what Antonina Shevchenko has to offer as a mixed martial artist. Is she capable of rising to the heights her sister has, or is she a fighter who waited too late into her career to make the leap into the mixed martial arts arena? She is being given a platform and an opponent that can legitimize her as a fighter and catapult her up the rankings in the women's flyweight division. For Roxanne Modafferi, we will have a chance to see whether she is still a legitimate contender in the division, or if she has come to the end of her resurgence, and will, going forward, be forced into the role of journeywoman or gatekeeper. A loss for Shevchenko, while problematic, isn’t a huge setback for her, but a loss to Shevchenko might be the first step towards Modafferi dropping out of the top ten, and possibly out of the promotion.

UFC on ESPN+ 7
Roxanne Modafferi vs. Antonina Shevchenko

UFC on ESPN+ 7: Overeem vs. Oleinik (formerly UFC on ESPN+ 7: Volkov vs. Overeem) takes place April 20, 2019 at Yubileyniy Arena in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Click HERE for more UFC on ESPN+ 7 Pre-Fight Analysis

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