Amanda Nunes probably finds out her next fight this January 28, 2017 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.
One sentence summary
Phil: The likely next title challenger for what was once Rousey's belt, as the ever-popular and likable Julianna Pena takes on the quiet Kyrgyzstani assassin.
David: Ball buster meets small duster for a title shot against the girl who no one would know who she was with more money spent advertising.
Record: Valentina Shevchenko 13-2 Julianna Pena 8-2
Odds: Valentina Shevchenko -155 Julianna Pena +135
History / Introduction to the fighters
Phil: Who can stop the wave of European strikers from taking over women's MMA? Joanna Jedrzejczyk sits atop strawweight. Holly Holm is going to try to take the hilariously pointless 145 belt against the Dutch kickboxer Germaine de Randamie, in a fight which I suspect will be much harder for her than people might think. Shevchenko is the latest unassuming killer to be slowly carving her way through women's 135. Worth noting that Shevchenko actually trains out of Peru though, with Tiger Muay Thai, and has a small but devoted following there.
David: Probably not. I agree about de Randamie too. Shevchenko is almost too diminutive a figure to trigger such an imposing presence in the division, but here she is. She reminds me of another fighter on the main card: Jorge Masvidal. Technically they don’t have too much in common. Jorge forges his acumen in rhythm, and posture. Valentina forges her acumen in bridges, and bullets, closing distance with unconventional movements and strikes without ever selling out her position. It’s a great matchup to see how she handles someone with a pressure game like Pena.
Phil: OK, so maybe likable and popular doesn't perfectly describe Pena. In all probability, she's currently battling it out with Bethe Correia for the most disliked fighter in the division. From her literal bar-brawling, to her somewhat abrasive interview style, she seems... polarizing. However, being polarizing never hurt a fighter's bottom line, and she's also conventionally attractive, young and athletic, in a division without too many young faces. She has a bright future.
David: Is Bethe Correia really that disliked? I figured people saw her as a waste of time to the title picture (it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that Bethe earned that Rousey title shot, just like it’s perfectly reasonable to argue the division wouldn’t have skipped a beat without it) and modestly annoying for her general bluster and suicide mocking more than someone to actively root against (oh right, that). Knee injuries are tough, and I figured Pena would have a hard time breaking back into the UFC, but she’s not only looked better, but improved. As long as she stops trying to castrate bar owners with her feet, she’ll be a threat to most fighters in the division for awhile.
What’s at stake?
Phil: Title shot almost certainly. Pena beat Zingano, the last woman to beat Nunes, and Shevchenko likely would have beaten Nunes herself if their fight had been a five rounder.
David: True dat.
Where do they want it?
Phil: Shevchenko is a distance striker, standing southpaw, pivoting off, and countering with the right hook. This is a lot of the basis of her game. She has a spearing, lunging jab and a leg kick, but these mostly serve to bait her opponents into leading so that she can counter with the hook. I guess an approximate analogue would be Machida, in terms of approach: in a slow-paced fight, she can pick up the lead, but she struggles to work back from a deficit. She's a very strong clinch fighter as well, with rock-solid TDD and her own array of trips and sweeps. As a TKD black belt, she has more quick, flicking kicks than the power round kicks from a traditional Muay Thai practitioner.
Related to her issues with coming back from a deficit is her tendency to start slow: she dropped the first round to Nunes, and got dropped by Holm.
David: What me impresses me the most about Shevchenko is how compact she keeps her offense. The way she sticks, moves, and plants for counters has the disorienting effect of looking like she’s striking in isolation. Her spinning back fists are as quick and succinct as a good jab. Her style is a wonderful marriage of bridge movement and stalking counters. I feel like she’s less like Machida, and more like a fixed Paul Felder. Her takedowns are an underrated part of her game; like her strikes, they’re well timed and waste little to no motion (her takedowns rarely stall into scrambles). Her biggest issue will be avoiding the lull that comes with patience in the eyes of the judges.
Phil: Sometimes it seems like WMMA is moving incredibly quickly. Rousey was destroyed by Holm. Holm was tapped out by the vastly improved Miesha Tate. Holm was dominated by Shevchenko. Nunes now rules the roost. It can seem like the kind of division where a fighter has to run to stay still.
Pena, then, is something of a throwback. Pathologically aggressive, focused on the clinch, she essentially goes strength for strength with her opponent. That's the kind of style that Rousey used to feast on, one that seemed to be disappearing from the division. As such, in general I'm not hugely in love with her game. While she's an excellent, relentless scrambler with active butterfly hooks and crushing top control, she's more of an enthusiastic wrestler than an effective one. She's also a Rousey-esque striker, winging punches while holding up a left elbow in a frame to catch return strikes as her sole defense. Her best trait is that she is incredibly athletic; perhaps the most purely explosive athlete in the division apart from Nunes, and able to keep a blinding pace as well.
David: Pena treats fighting like the pure viscera it is. Where Shevchenko uses her economy of motion to land, Pena uses her economy of motion to bludgeon. To be fair, this has worked for her. What she lacks in pure technical acumen, she makers up for in persistence. I do think she has very good trip takedowns, though. And the factor in this fight that will be an equalizer for Pena is her strength. I really thought Cat Zingano’s strength would keep her reckless pressure in check, but Pena found ways to outlast Zingano and prove the more durable pugilist against all odds (or so I thought at the time).
Insight from past fights
Phil: I mentioned that Pena isn't a fantastic wrestler, and this was on show in the Zingano fight. When she neglected her underhooks, she got swept, and when she went for them she got thrown. In the end, it was only when Zingano made a large error in going for a kind of mounted triangle / crucifix that Pena really turned the tide, and then relentlessly swarmed the older fighter.
David: The Holm fight is right behind us, and it still displays Shevchenko’s worst habits. Granted, Shevchenko is a technical marvel, but she still sort of leaps in her with straight left. Not only does her lack of power keep it from doing a whole lot, but she sometimes takes herself off balance with it, which could play into Pena’s hands. Shevchenko’s straight left is such a jarring contrast to everything else bout her game. Call it the “pointy elbows” dilemma , if you like. When she throws it, it’s like a resurrected Stanley Kubrick playing Linkin Park for one of his otherwise flawlessly directed scenes.
Phil: No kicking people in the junk for Pena lately. Is this going to be a positive or a negative? Maybe it's something she needs to get out of her system.
David: This feels like Joe Rogan’s specialty, but Shevchenko better wear a labia protector.
Phil: This is a matchup between someone who takes as few risks as possible, and someone who takes all the risks. While Pena has some serious size and muscle on Shevchenko, who is something of a 125er, I can't see the Venezuelan consistently navigating space without getting countered. Valentina Shevchenko by TKO, round 3.
David: I’m tempted to pick Pena based on size, strength, and just sheer momentum. Her brawling attack on the feet, sloppy as it is, doesn’t leave too much space for obvious counters. However, Shevchenko is at her most dangerous the longer the fight goes. Eventually those counters will find their home on the Venezuelan sack shooter, and Valentina should be able to score takedowns of her own. Valentina Shevchenko by Decision.