MMA Ratings Podcast

April 23, 2021

BJB Breakdown: Valentina Shevchenko - A Closer Look

By Schwan Humes

The story around Valentina Shevchenko is that she is an elite talent, a dominant fighter, a generational fighter; someone who has been able to compete with and oftentimes dominate the best fighters in two weight classes. And while everything I said is completely true, the fact of the matter is that these things don’t tell the whole story. Today I am going to read between the lines and discuss some of the overlooked aspects of who, what, and how Valentina Schevchenko is as a fighter.

Valentina has sold the majority of the mixed martial arts world on the idea that she is a low output fighter who does so because she has placed a high priority on her ability to land clean, consistently, and with power. That is what explained her lack of volume in fights with Amanda Nunes, Jennifer Maia, and Liz Carmouche -- analysts, journalists, fighters, and Valentina herself pointed to the fact that in these fights the opponent didn't take enough chances, therefore her opponents bore the blame for her low output. There is some truth to this, as all three of these fighters, for various reasons, reduced their aggression and volume. But the fact of the matter is when they reduced those aspects, Valentina became not only less exciting, but less dominant as well. There are a few reasons for this, and I am going to explain them to you:

Anderson Silva, Israel Adesanya, Danny Garcia, Adrien Broner. What all of these fighters have in common is that they do their best work on the counter -- they rely on their opponents walking into traps. Either they use volume to create entries to get themselves to positions they want/need, or they try to impose themselves physically and athletically. When they faced opponents that they were not able to dissuade with their counters, they could be outworked. But more importantly, when an opponent refused to engage recklessly or attempted to counter these fighters, their ability to be impactful dropped off dramatically.

The same could be said for Valentina when she fought Carmouche. She turned a rather uneventful performance in large part due to the fact Carmouche refused to commit to anything, be it extended exchanges, volume, or power strikes. In her second bout with Nunes back at UFC 215, Shevchenko turned in another dramatic but ultimately forgettable performance, as the two elite fighters settled into their identities as counter punchers, with each fighter taking no real chances, throwing low output, and spending more time trying to get her opponent to show her hand; it was a fight much like Francis Ngannou vs. Derrick Lewis.

Valentina shines when fighters use aggression or athleticism to do their damage or get to their spots, as she did in her bouts against Holly Holm, Julianna Peña, Jessica Eye, and Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Whether it was countering their pressure, countering their actual strikes, or countering takedowns, she looked the most dynamic when opponents served themselves up to her. When Valentina has to create the openings, when she has to lead the dance, she isn't nearly as effective, accurate, dynamic, or defensively sound.

The oft-missed aspect of this approach is the attributes of the fighter she faces. Valentina is a skilled fighter -- she doesn't rely on her physical tools to ply her trade, or to be more specific, she doesn't use them as a crutch in the ways Derrick Lewis or Anthony Johnson have made a career of doing. But where she is very much an attribute fighter is her tendency to go into a shell when facing an opponent who is comparable or superior to her as an athlete. When she knows an opponent can do her harm or physically bully her, Valentina becomes much more cerebral; she becomes much more careful in her approach, because she knows there is a higher price to pay for any and every opening she seeks to take advantage of.

Against fighters who didn't have the horsepower to hurt her -- Priscila Cachoeira, Katlyn Chookagian, Jedrzcyjck, and Eye -- the number of counters and the urgency in them is much higher. But when she faced Sarah Kaufman, Maia, Nunes, and Carmouche, when similar openings showed themselves, those counters didn't come out as quickly or with nearly the malice they did against the physically outmatched opponents. Did some of her opponents make adjustments in what they do -- feinting more, moving around more, being more picky with the shots they threw? They sure did. But the fact of the matter is that when those openings presented themselves, she didn't take them, or when she did, she limited herself to a probing counter, instead of a punishing one.

The reason for that isn’t so much a matter of her opponent’s skill as it is the physical threat she poses. When Valentina recognizes a viable threat, her approach on a technical level changes, but in regards to her character, her approach changes dramatically. I'm not the only one who notices this -- feel free to contact noted mma analyst, game planner, and scout Connor Reubusch, as well as Phil Mackenzie. If we see it, then I guarantee you that fighters and their camps see it as well.

Luckily for Valentina, her next opponent isn't the type to sit back, she isn't methodical, and she isn't technical in the truest sense of the word. Jessica Andrade is going to give Valentina many opportunities to land counters, string together combinations, and maybe even get some clean sweeps and takedowns. Even this more methodical and disciplined version of Andrade isn't hard to hit, as she still relies on aggression and pace, which will guarantee that the counters Valentina looks for will be there from start to finish.

The bad side of this matchup is that Andrade is the best athlete Shevchenko has faced -- at worst she is in a tie with Nunes athletically -- meaning that Valentina won't have the huge advantages in regards to speed, power, and strength that allow her to dictate the pace and place of fights. The advantages that embolden Valentina and protect her do not exist in this fight, and if history follows suit, this means “The Bullet” is going to be put into positions in the cage she doesn't favor (as she was against Peña), is going to be hesitant to fire off (as she was against Nunes), and is going to have a hard time getting into or out of positions (as she was against Maia).

Valentina Shevchenko is a world class striker, a world class mixed martial artist, the gold standard for the women’s flyweight division and one of the best athletes in the world of combat sports. But that doesn't mean she is above reproach. It doesn't mean there aren't very real limitations to her game, whether it be a matter of technique, strategy, or character. There are avenues to victory against Valentina, there are holes in her game that can allow her to be exploited in multiple phases of the game, and in multiple manners -- strategic, technical, and personal. This weekend at UFC 261, we will see how Valentina reacts to the best opponent she has faced since she moved to flyweight -- the most accomplished opponent, as well as the best athlete. Jessica Andrade poses a very real threat, now let’s see how Valentina navigates it.

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