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UFC on FOX 23: Shevchenko vs. Pena staff picks and predictions

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Check out the Bloody Elbow staff’s fight predictions for UFC on FOX 23: Shevchenko vs. Pena, set for Saturday, January 28th in Denver, Colorado.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Holm vs Shevchenko Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The BE staff has made its predictions for UFC on FOX 23 in Denver, and only Fraser Coffeen and Stephie Haynes are picking Julianna Pena to beat Valentina Shevchenko in the main event. Stephie is also the only one to pick Jorge Masvidal over Donald Cerrone in the night’s co-main event. No one is feeling nostalgic enough to pick Andrei Arlovski to beat Francis Ngannou.

Note: Predictions are entered throughout the week and collected the day before the event. Explanations behind each pick are not required and some writers opt not to do so for their own reasons. For example, if Phil Mackenzie entered all of his predictions on Wednesday without adding in any explanations, he has no idea if he's going to be the only one siding with one fighter for any given fight.

Valentina Shevchenko vs. Julianna Pena

Mookie Alexander: I just don’t think Pena’s “bullying” style of fighting will consistently work against elite competition. It certainly worked against Cat Zingano, but not before she dropped the opening round. Shevchenko is (obviously) the best striker Pena has fought, she’s dangerous in the clinch, and has shown herself to be pretty damn good with her own set of takedowns. Her bottom game wasn’t exactly impressive in her loss to Amanda Nunes, so I am weary of what Pena would be able to do to her if she can muscle her down. Apart from that, Pena is not a good enough striker to hang with Shevchenko, and I can’t see Pena winning this fight with effectively a grinding effort to take a decision. This fight stays predominantly at a striking distance and Shevchenko picks her apart. Valentina Shevchenko by unanimous decision.

Fraser Coffeen: I’m having a tough time here, I have to admit. On the feet, Shevchenko is an absolute beast - just so much better, and that’s not even a knock on Pena’s striking. But while Shevchenko has a good and sometimes overlooked grappling game, is it enough to beat the ground game of Pena? Over 5 rounds, I guess I just see Pena being able to control the action enough to take 3 of them. But I don’t feel confident here. Julianna Pena, decision

Ram Gilboa: Let’s start with the fact that Shevchenko is a Peruvian-Russian-Kyrgyzstani, born in the then funct USSR – I don’t know, that’s a whole Vale Tudo tournament right there. She possesses killer Muay Thai, built on a southpaw counter-puncher double jeopardy style – you really don’t know where you’re going to get it from with Shevchenko.

The American-Venezuelan Pena, at the last point seen, is an aggressive brawler-wrestler, stress the aggressive. She’s not really a pressure fighter, hers is almost always a straight-on bullish forward charge, and she really won’t stalk her opponents down – but I admit that’s almost semantics when actually getting punched in the face. So on the surface, this match-up sends me back to Machida intercepting cruder forces like Thiago Silva, or Bader.

So they start standing afar, as these fights usually do. In her recent win against Cat Zingano, Pena has shown some susceptibility to the southpaw middle kick, but she also only allows her opponents fractions of seconds to stay in kicking range and fire a kick – and then she’ll try to grab it rushing forward and take them down. Another thing going for her is that with that Zingano fight in July being her last thus far, Pena has now been training specifically for southpaws basically since March. I don’t absolutely reject rushing on Shevchenko. She’s quick on her feet and is tricky to connect on – and especially difficult to outkick - but she also tends to defend going backwards in a straight line, which can work for an aggressive distance cutter like Pena; chasing is faster than retreating, and at a certain point you run out of room to back off to. Only Shevchenko plants herself so swiftly and nicely for counters that rushing in is really a double edged sword here, one that I think would work for Shevchenko in the long run.

This is an asymmetric fight. In pure Kickboxing, Shevchenko probably doesn’t have a use for Pena as a sparring partner, but add wrestling, and Pena looks able to grind Shevchenko to a halt. In the fight I made up in my mind, eventually the advancing Pena and the shot-picking Shevchenko crash into a clinch. Shevchenko’s clinch work to the body is nothing to mess with, but we also saw her tripped down to the mat from there by Amanda Nunes, to whom Shevchenko lost a very competitive UFC debut. Pena does a lot of her take down work from the clinch herself. It’s very hard to shoot on a superior and confident striker with good footwork – but from the clinch, Pena should be able to do it, without being worse for wear from the experience. This is where the asymmetry flips and Pena should carpet bomb – only I think the asymmetry in her favour is smaller than on stand up. Shevchenko holds a solid and improving bottom game that should keep her afloat under Pena’s top pressure.

Alright, I confused the hell out of myself. So, we’re back down to principle: given enough time, the technician should beat the brawler each time. Both fighters also showed faultless cardio for their styles – Pena’s style is the more taxing and she never took it through full five rounds like Shevchenko did against Holm – and we’re a far way from men’s heavyweight where time just ends like this. Valentina Shevchenko by decision.

Zane Simon: I’m really trying not to let the fact that I just don’t like Pena’s style or her personality reflect my pick, but it’s hard for me to reconcile both those things. Pena is bigger and stronger and maybe faster, but she can’t strike and she’s looking less dominant with better competition. I think this is the tipping point where her lack of a reasonable punching game really starts to hurt her, especially since Shevchenko is one of the only fighters she’s faced who consistently makes good decisions in the cage. Valentina Shevchenko via decision.

Staff picking Shevchenko: Bissell, Nick, Mookie, Ram, Phil, Zane
Staff picking Pena: Fraser, Stephie

Donald Cerrone vs. Jorge Masvidal

Mookie Alexander: I just can’t pick against current Cerrone, right now. He looks better than ever at 170, and while Masvidal is going to be virtually impossible to put away, Cerrone’s volume will be what takes him over the top. Masvidal isn’t a great finisher, so I don’t foresee him stopping Cowboy (and if he does, it’ll be a body shot), but Masvidal is so damn tough that I’d be stunned if Cerrone stopped Gamebred. I’m expecting almost exclusively kickboxing here, and that favors Cerrone. Donald Cerrone by unanimous decision.

Ram Gilboa: Cerrone is a hunter with a Barrett M82. He walks forward a bit flat-footed, finds a mark, holds and shoots single, heavy rounds. Lately he found a burst mode and even a take down mode, and now looks unstoppable at welter, with 4 wins, 4 stoppages in his credit.

But, Masivdal is not someone you want to trade hands with, and Cerrone isn’t taking him down soon, especially now when his shots lost their surprise. Gamebred’s boxing is well more developed and nuanced than Cerrone’s, and his wrestling is stronger. I also doubt he’ll try to test Cerrone’s submission game himself – but I don’t doubt he’ll test his chin. I think this plays out on the toes, and the tie breaker here will be Cerrone’s quick kicks, with his front foot being especially annoying to Masvidal, until the killer shot. Cerrone by TKO, round 3.

Zane Simon: I just feel like this is gonna be a much cooler fight in theory than practice, kinda like Thompson vs. MacDonald or Edgar vs. Faber. Masvidal has too much trouble pulling the trigger and Cerrone has become so comfortable working creative combinations at range and changing gears as he needs to. I think he can stay a firm step ahead all fight as Masvidal struggles to get into second gear. Donald Cerrone via Decision.

Staff picking Cerrone: Bissell, Nick, Fraser, Mookie, Ram, Zane, Phil
Staff picking Masvidal: Stephie

Andrei Arlovski vs. Francis Ngannou

Mookie Alexander: Right, so Arlovski is way better than anyone Ngannou has faced, so if I were a betting man, the odds being so heavily in favor of Ngannou would send me running as far away from this one as possible. Arlovski still packs a punch, is very hard to takedown, and you need to be an elite grappler like Josh Barnett to submit him. The problem? Ngannou hits hard, and it’s a bit of reductive analysis to boil it down to that, but Arlovski’s chin isn’t good enough for him to take more than three hard shots to the dome. Ngannou will crack him and win. Francis Ngannou by KO, round 2.

Victor Rodriguez: And here it is. There seems to be a fight on almost every card these days that’s just guaranteed to be depressing. Ngannou has been a holy terror, and didn’t even know what MMA was until about just about five years ago. He won’t have as much of a height advantage on Arlovski, but carries a lot of weight. Arlovski’s boxing is sharp, and despite having lost more than just a step from his prime, he’s still spry and quick for a man his size even at his age. The biggest problem here for me is Arlovski not being as confident with his striking knowing how badly he gets knocked out. If he’s gunshy and overwhelmed, Ngannou is going to ruin him with the quickness. Despite his Sambo background, Andrei isn’t going to to for a takedown or a submission - at least not early in the fight. He’d rather go down in flames and duke it out, but Ngannou has enough power to stop a bull elephant. I want to think Arlovski uses his veteran savvy and accuracy to pull this off, but Ngannou has the hot hand and we haven’t seen him in trouble from strikes just yet, nor have we seen him get taken down despite fighting really good heavyweight wrestlers. Even with my heart set on Andrei, can’t help but think Francis claims another scalp here. Francis Zavier Ngannou by Sonic Blast Man punch to the dome.

Fraser Coffeen: I’m an Arlovski fan for life. After drifting away during MMA’s dark days, my first PPV back was UFC 55 to see this terrifying Heavyweight killer in action. Turns out he kind of never was the killer we thought at times, but he’s still a terrific fighter who has earned a place in the list of all time Heavyweights. But man, in 2017 this is such a terrible fight for him. Arlovski has become skittish about being clobbered over the years, and here he is against a man who is very likely to clobber him. It’s Heavyweight, so anything can happen, but I worry that the Pitbull looks kind of bad here and just gets crushed. Francis Ngannou, KO R1

Phil Mackenzie: This is like a bizarro version of Big Country-Lewis. A physical freak who has largely beaten up on people who have attempted to outgrapple him, but who hasn't been tested on the feet much. In Lewis-Nelson, Big Country lunged into the clinch repeatedly and gassed himself out trying to muscle the gigantic Lewis around. Like Nelson, Arlovski is a crafty but one-handed power puncher and his sheer experience probably gives him an edge in the striking. The question is whether he can stop himself from clinching up and I'm going to say... no. Arlovski clinches a lot in his fights, often to his detriment. See: Josh Barnett. This is a huge, huge step up in competition and the odds are nothing short of stupid. I will be very unsurprised if Ngannou gets melted in round 1 but Francis Ngannou by TKO, round 2.

Ram Gilboa: A fighter with a patched up chin versus a fighter with terrific KO power in both hands, mmm, let’s see how this will play out. Arlovski is a great fighter. At this point of their respective career he’s definitely the better fighter than 3 year veteran Ngannou. He has the tighter game, he is harder to hit. But I see him getting KOed from Ngannou’s mittwork in the dressing rooms. Regretfully this will not end well. Ngannou by KO, round 2.

Zane Simon: There’s a decent chance that Ngannou looks decidedly uncomfortable for a while in this fight as he faces someone with actual speed and footwork. But sooner or later he’ll land a bomb. Francis Ngannou via KO, Round 2.

Staff picking Arlovski:
Staff picking Ngannou: Bissell, Nick, Victor, Fraser, Mookie, Phil, Ram, Zane, Stephie

Alex Caceres vs. Jason Knight

Mookie Alexander: I do not like picking Alex Caceres fights, because he’s way too inconsistent. He looked outstanding against Cole Miller, then nearly pissed the fight away in round 3. He performed well against Yair Rodriguez, but I don’t understand how any judge scored that fight for Bruce Leeroy. Knight’s a fun character, a fun fighter, a better striker than the really hittable Caceres, but can he fight at Caceres’ pace at high elevation? I’m not entirely sold on that happening. There will be a lot of grappling, a lot of fun scrambles, and I see a really close fight that Caceres edges out. Alex Caceres by split decision.

Phil Mackenzie: It's rough being a fan of Caceres. He'll look great (rounds 1 and 2 against the ghost of Cole Miller) then he'll look terrible (round 3 against Cole Miller). He was competitive against Yair Rodriguez, but never came close to winning or implementing a gameplan that'd allow him to win. In general I feel like Dan Hooker shares much of Caceres' strengths in the striking and grappling departments, and is more consistent, and Knight marched Hooker down and beat him up without too much trouble. Essentially, Hick Diaz has a consistent style that he'll stick to to win fights, and Caceres just doesn't. Jason Knight by unanimous decision.

Ram Gilboa: Knight is a submission guy and brawler at the same time, I don’t remember quite this combination since Jorge Gurgel, and although Knight seems less embarrassed about using his ground skills – he completed a few takedowns inside the octagon - I suspect the story will end similarly. Caceres should be able to use his range and cruise this one fairly safely - even him - to a decision shore. Caceres by decision.

Zane Simon: Caceres is just too inconsistent to be trusted, especially against a pressuring brawler who won’t back down for an instant. Caceres isn’t a great finisher, and unless he KO’s Knight while Knight is wading in with his hands down and chin out, I think Knight’s volume will give him rounds. Jason Knight via decision.

Staff picking Caceres: Bissell, Fraser, Mookie, Ram
Staff picking Knight: Nick, Phil, Zane, Stephie

Sam Alvey vs. Nate Marquardt

Mookie Alexander: It’s middleweight. Weirdness happens. Probably shouldn’t pick Marquardt to avoid getting hit by Alvey’s power shots for three rounds, but this fight could be just dreadful enough that Marquardt wins a waiting game where nobody is bothered to question the decision. Nate Marquardt by split decision.

Phil Mackenzie: This fight could be truly numbingly awful. As I say almost every time I talk about Nate, one of his major problems has always been opening up against southpaws. He just sits, and waits for the right cross counter, and waits, and waits and waits. Alvey is a southpaw. Alvey is a counterpuncher who almost never leads. This could be an utterly horrific staring match. Sam Alvey by unanimous decision.

Ram Gilboa: I guess you grow up redhead you have to learn to fight. Kind of the same story as with Arlovski-Ngannou, only this isn’t heavyweight lalaland. Marquardt is what they call a true mixed martial artist; Alvey is much more limited, but he does have crazy KO power, and he’s a southpaw, and Marquardt have been stopped a lot lately; and by southpaws too. Marquardt and Alvey are former training partners, so Marquardt will probably have the roadmap and sense to avoid one of Alvey’s gamechanging punches for a while, but I doubt he can manage his cardio to keep a step ahead of Alvey through 3 rounds. Ah, maybe he just will. Marquardt by decision.

Zane Simon: Marquardt is just not a guy I’m picking anymore at this point. Sam Alvey via KO.

Staff picking Alvey: Bissell, Nick, Fraser, Phil, Zane
Staff picking Marquardt: Mookie, Ram, Stephie

Raphael Assuncao vs. Aljamain Sterling

Mookie Alexander: Sterling’s gas tank failed him against Caraway, but that’s really not the biggest concern I have with him, even for a fight in Denver like this one. He’s not comfortable boxing people at range, choosing to rely considerably on kicks, and that’s a pattern I’ve noticed with guys like Sterling, Darrion Caldwell, and Phil Davis. I’ll be extremely impressed if Sterling can control Assuncao on the mat for multiple rounds, but unless there’s considerable overall improvement with his striking, I think Assuncao will outstrike him, stuff enough takedowns, and not get completely outworked on the ground (if it gets there). Raphael Assuncao by unanimous decision.

Phil Mackenzie: Interesting to see if Aljo can make this one work out. Assuncao is a similar archetype to Bryan Caraway, but a harder counterpuncher and better boxer, making him a slightly harder matchup. Also, Assuncao beat Dillashaw back before TJ developed his hands, and was just using wrestling and kicks. Style-wise, none of it says good things for Aljo's chances. The main X-factor is how these fighters are trending: Assuncao has had a lot of injuries and is relatively old, and Sterling is a better athlete in his physical prime. Still, on balance have to favour Assuncao to be able to hang out in the pocket and crack Sterling. Raphael Assuncao by unanimous decision.

Staff picking Assuncao: Bissell, Nick, Fraser, Mookie, Phil, Ram, Stephie, Zane
Staff picking Sterling:

Li Jingliang vs. Bobby Nash

Phil Mackenzie: Nash seems like a talented fighter and a solid pickup. Considering he's only coming up on two and a half years as a pro, he displays a lot of calm and fairly decent striking technique together with functional wrestling and good athleticism. The risk for Jingliang is that Nash is a step up in terms of sheer physical explosiveness from the guys he's been beating recently- he relies on a lot of small head movement and maintenance of close range in order to pressure. Possible that Nash simply cracks him on the way in before he has time to adjust. However, The Leech also keeps a pressuring distance which I think will be very uncomfortable for a debutant and is consistently aggressive. Li Jingliang by submission, round 2.

Stephie Haynes: JANGALANG!!!

Staff picking Jingliang: Bissell, Nick, Fraser, Mookie, Phil, Ram, Stephie, Zane
Staff picking Nash:

Luis Henrique da Silva vs. Jordan Johnson

Mookie Alexander: Listen up, people! Big Swinging Johnson is coming, and there’s nothing you can do about it. He was an interesting prospect to watch in RFA, and I’m so glad that Big Swinging Johnson is finally in the UFC and ready to choke some people. Jordan Johnson by submission, round 2.

Phil Mackenzie: What a nickname showdown. Anyway, Frank Waisten's takedown defense looked absolutely horrific last time out, and Johnson has been a willing and aggressive wrestler. Seems a shame, but I think Mr Waisten remains just a fun brawler in the division. Jordan Johnson by unanimous decision.

Staff picking Henrique: Nick, Fraser, Ram
Staff picking Johnson: Bissell, Mookie, Phil, Stephie, Zane

Alessio Di Chirico vs. Eric Spicely

Phil Mackenzie: Spicely seems like an incredibly likable guy who made the best of a very tough matchup when he took out Marreta. Hard not to root for, and also difficult to say how much he's improved under Zahabi. At the risk of being reductive, he seems like a very thoughtful guy and that's often a good Tristar fit. He certainly looked a lot better against Santos. Di Chirico should win this- more athletic, more well-rounded... but he doesn't have quite the dynamism or the endurance to make that consistency count. Bit of a gut pick, but Eric Spicely by unanimous decision

Staff picking Di Chirico: Bissell, Zane
Staff picking Spicely: Nick, Fraser, Mookie, Phil, Stephie

J.C. Cottrell vs. Jason Gonzalez

Phil Mackenzie: Two respectably dynamic, reasonably well-rounded but definitely low tier lightweights. Gonzalez is a bit bigger, has a more threatening grappling game and maybe a bit of a technical striking edge. He also has the tall fighters knack of running into huge looping overhands, which Cottrell does like, so make of that what you will. Jason Gonzalez by unanimous decision.

Staff picking Cottrell: Bissell, Nick, Fraser, Mookie, Ram
Staff picking Gonzalez: Stephie, Phil, Zane

Marcos Rogerio de Lima vs. Jeremy Kimball

Phil Mackenzie: de Lima is the glassiest of glass cannons. You have to go back to 2010 to find a fight which he won which went past the first round. That being said, Kimball is an undersized brawler, so have to assume that de Lima tosses him and crushes him in the first. Play with caution. Marcos Rogerio de Lima by submission, round 1

Staff picking Lima: Bissell, Nick, Fraser, Mookie, Stephie, Zane
Staff picking Kimball:

Alexandre Pantoja vs. Eric Shelton

Victor Rodriguez: You’d think that for a show on Big Fox they’d have a fight like this on the main card, but flyweight remains the red-headed stepchild for stuff like this. I’m saddened that this fight won’t have as much exposure, but it has a ton of potential to be a great exhibition of athleticism and skill. Shelton’s wrestling and boxing are great, his scrambles are fun and his submission defense is decent. Pantoja’s much more reliant on technique and attaches himself like flypaper when given the chance to improve position and establish dominance en route to a submission. Shelton is still growing as a fighter, and should be the underdog in this fight. That said, he’s also the guy I’d favor with his striking and ability to decide where the fight takes place. He should be able to work his game and keep enough pressure on Pantoja without giving him time to get comfortable and work his grappling offense. Eric Shelton by decision.

Phil Mackenzie: Great fight. Shelton's pure athleticism was a bit of a shocker in TUF- Tim Elliott beat him on guile and experience, but there were several points where it looked as though Shelton was just throwing him around. Pantoja is more technically developed, particularly in the grappling, and more experienced (despite being a young guy). However, I think that given a full camp and a managed weight cut, I think the physical differential between the two might be surprisingly stark. Eric Shelton by unanimous decision.

Staff picking Pantoja: Bissell, Nick, Fraser, Mookie, Stephie, Zane
Staff picking Shelton: Victor, Ram, Phil