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Styles Make Flops: Holly Holm vs Valentina Shevchenko and Strategic Matchmaking

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Bloody Elbow's Connor Ruebusch takes a look at the matchmaking behind the UFC on Fox 20 main event between Holly Holm and Valentina Shevchenko, and predicts a tedious, tepid fight.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Holly Holm and Valentina Shevchenko are two of the best in the bantamweight division. Shevchenko's last fight was a fairly close loss to Amanda Nunes, the current champion. Holm's last fight was a last-second loss to Miesha Tate, from whom Nunes took the title. Matching these two together makes absolute sense from a rankings perspective.

I suspect, however, that UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby had other aspirations for the contest. Holm and Shevchenko are not only two of the best in the division, but two of the best strikers. In a five round contest, there are likely no two better. Pitting these women against one another, then, seems a surefire recipe for a fun fight. Fans like striking matches, and nothing would vault Holm, who gained serious recognition for dethroning superstar Ronda Rousey, into title contention faster than an action-packed kickboxing battle.

Whether Holm and Shevchenko will turn in such a contest is uncertain, however. In fact, the style matchup here seems to portend a slow, methodical, and quite possibly dull fight.

THE TRINITY

If you compare prospects in MMA and boxing, one thing will become readily apparent: nine times out of ten, the promising young boxer is undefeated, while his MMA counterpart is anything but. The reasons for this are many, but all of them involve matchmaking.

In boxing, promoters have long held to an age-old rule--some call it "the trinity"--and it goes like this: swarmer beats boxer, boxer beats slugger, slugger beats swarmer.

Boxing promoters, you see, have had a long time to analyze the tendencies of their fighters; people have been making money from fistfights for well over 200 years. And the promoters--as well as the trainers and managers, bettors and fans--have seen enough pugs come in and out of the prize ring to know that the vast majority of them adhere to one of three broad styles.

Some of them swarm. We call this pressure fighting, but it isn't always that pretty. Swarmers can be rugged and reckless, or they can be surgically precise--all that really matters is that they come forward, and keep coming.

Others box. These are the out-fighters, the clever technicians. Where swarmers close the distance, boxers maintain it, using jabs, feints, and evasive footwork to stay away.

Then there are sluggers. These fighters hit, hard. Oftentimes they get hit hard, too, and keep coming. Unconcerned with closing or opening the distance, controlling the ring or dancing around it, these bruisers focus only on doing damage with their fists, forcing the other man to fight them at all costs.

As the trinity ordains, these types match up with one another in certain, predictive ways. The swarmer beats the boxer. His constant pressure is anathema to the out-fighter's game. The boxer beats the slugger, whose lack of craft and forethought makes him a prime target for the boxer's lancing, long-range blows. And the slugger, who only wants to trade blows, beats the swarmer, whose aggression puts him right in the power-puncher's crosshairs.

    Slugger vs Swarmer; Diego Corrales vs Jose Luis Castillo I

That is how boxing brass have been matching fights for centuries, and it works. Using this simple, reductive formula, promoters and managers alike are able to protect their fighters, not only giving them easy matchups, but carefully cultivating their skills, giving them more and more difficult tests as time goes on. When a boxer can beat a swarmer, a swarmer a slugger, a slugger a boxer--then the fighter in question is done growing, more or less. All that remains is to prune.

COMPLEXITY

There are other predictive formulas. Boxing promoters have long held to the belief that two southpaws make for an ugly, awkward fight, for example. When removed from the hierarchy of the trinity, fighters' styles can drastically alter the shape of the fight. Two boxers don't typically make for an action-packed fight, while two swarmers or two sluggers absolutely do. The trinity encourages rock-paper-scissors matchmaking, but there is equal value in seeing two rocks smashed together, and definite reasons to avoid a contest between two limp pieces of paper.

Matchups can be manipulated not only to push a certain fighter, but to increase the chances of an exciting fight.

As an analyst, I find the swarmer-boxer-slugger trio to be a little too reductive. There are certain fighters who don't fit neatly into one of these archetypes. A boxer-puncher, for example, tends to exhibit the skill of a boxer, with the fight-readiness of a slugger. A pressure fighter might swarm, but he might also box to recover his stamina, and his pressure might be slow and methodical. A brawler might slug it out, but he might also set up his attacks and fight from long range. And what of the ultra-specialized counter puncher, whose game works well wherever he can force his opponent to make mistakes?

    Counter puncher vs Swarmer; Juan Manuel Marquez vs Juan Diaz I

The archetypes become even more complicated in MMA. Fighters whose personality might have made them boxers in the squared circle might be equally comfortable shooting for takedowns and working top control within the cage. Counter fighters who might use the pocket to their advantage when laced into a pair of eight ounce gloves might avoid grappling range at all cost when faced with an opponent who desires to take them down or stall them against the fence.

There are additional layers to consider within the context of MMA. And as a young sport, with no more than three decades of real prominence under its belt, MMA's promoters and managers have not yet determined the recipes for ideal matchups. Why else would Sage Northcutt, a promising young out-fighter, be given the swarming Bryan Barberena in his second UFC bout? Or Matt Lopez, an aggressive wrestle-boxer, be matched with the ultra-experienced submission specialist Rani Yahya in his promotional debut?

Why else would Sean Shelby match Holly Holm with Valentina Shevchenko, in what is almost certain to be a slow-paced battle of distance control and cautious counters?

PAPER VS PAPER

Holm and Shevchenko are not identical fighters. Holm, a former boxing champion, is a classic southpaw. She relies heavily on her long left hand and, with her options expanded in MMA, a dangerous left high kick to follow it. She throws in high volume, but lands relatively little. Even against relatively inexperienced strikers like Raquel Pennington, Holm managed to land only 48 of an astounding 214 strikes.

This disparity exists for two reasons. On the one hand, Holm is never keen to get too close to her opponent. She flashes punches with no intent of landing, aiming only to occupy her adversary's eye and maintain the distance. That reluctance to fight in close also leads her to miss a great deal, however. She has a habit of pulling her punches rather than committing herself to the pocket with every strike.

Shevchenko's game is very different. A pure counter striker, Valentina very rarely leads, choosing instead to let her opponents make the first move. Her numbers are not very different from Holm's. In her two three-round UFC fights, Shevchenko landed an average of 30 significant strikes. Her methods, however, are very different. Where Holm lands about 35 percent of a large volume of strikes, Shevchenko throws less, but lands at a 54 percent clip. In her UFC debut, Shevchenko landed a staggering 72 percent of attempted significant strikes on Sarah Kaufman. Holm approached these numbers in her title-winning battle with Ronda Rousey, scoring at a 71 percent clip, but in other bouts, against less recklessly aggressive opponents, her average is just 32 percent.

Shevchenko throws less, but lands at a higher rate. This is because she lets her opponent lead, and only pulls the trigger when she sees a clear opening, usually when the opponent has overextended herself on the attack.

Though the wider array of available techniques and strategies changes things, mixed martial artists do tend to fall into one of five basic styles. There are out-fighters (boxers), pressure fighters (swarmers), counter fighters, brawlers (sluggers), and boxer-punchers (a blend of out-fighting and brawling).

Holly Holm is an out-fighter, while Valentina Shevchenko is a counter fighter. Looking at both boxing and MMA, we can see how these two styles, and styles like them, tend to match up.

Guillermo Rigondeaux is one of the very best out-fighters in boxing today. He is also a masterful counter puncher. Either his opponent makes a mistake and Rigondeaux hurts him, or his opponent refuses to engage and Rigondeaux coasts to a pedestrian decision. In Joseph Agbeko, Rigondeaux found a tentative opponent who refused to pressure, and the fight was rather dull.

Terence Crawford was touted as the next big thing in 2013, and in the years since he has lent some serious weight to that assertion. In his HBO debut, however, Crawford met Andrey Klimov, an out-fighter who was none too eager to risk his undefeated record by rushing in. Though Crawford has some dog in him, the fight turned into a contest of two out-fighters, and the action was slow as a result.

    • Boxer vs Boxer; Bernard Hopkins vs Chad Dawson II
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Floyd Mayweather came as close as ever to losing his undefeated record when he faced Marcos Maidana in 2014. The fact that Mayweather, the boxer, overcame the traditionally difficult swarmer matchup is a testament to his skill. And yet, when the two rematched, Maidana made an adjustment. Rather than swarmer or slugger, he fought as a boxer-puncher. The fight was more or less just as close as the first one, but far less dramatic.

And that is where things get tricky.

Style is tied to personality. Most young fighters will find the style that suits them best within the first year or two of training. But personalities change over time, especially in a profession as deeply emotional as prizefighting. Smart fighters make strategic adjustments from one fight to the next. A boxer-puncher can become a boxer, a pressure fighter a brawler, a brawler a boxer-puncher.

With Holly Holm and Valentina Shevchenko, there is always the possibility that either woman could make a drastic change ahead of their bout. What seems like an awkward chess match on paper could very well end up a thrilling war of attrition.

I strongly suspect that Sean Shelby was not counting on an unforeseen change of heart when he made this matchup, however. Instead, Shelby seems to have looked at Holly Holm, identified her as simply a striker, and matched her with another fighter of similar tendencies. On the surface, this might seem a recipe for an action fight, but the long history of matchmaking in boxing suggests otherwise.

Most likely, we can expect a low-intensity sparring match. Holm is never keen to engage, and Shevchenko is never eager to lead. Holm will feint and throw out feelers, and Shevchenko will wait on an opportunity to counter.

The importance of this fight is unquestionable. Holm and Shevchenko are two of the best in the division, and the UFC could easily give either woman a title shot with a win. Whether they will want to is entirely up to the fight itself. Whatever he was thinking when he made this match, Sean Shelby may find himself sorely uninspired when the final bell rings.