(Editor’s note: This piece was originally written for UFC 213, but has been edited and re-published for UFC 215)
Amanda Nunes vs. Valentina Shevchenko headlines UFC 215 on September 9th, 2017 at the Rogers Arena in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
One sentence summary:
Phil: Women's bantamweight continues to raise itself technically and nosedive promotionally in the post-Rousey era.
David: A rematch of the most interesting fight that could be yawn inducing you won’t look away from.
Record: Amanda Nunes 14-4 | Valentina Shevchenko 14-2
Odds: Amanda Nunes +115 | Valentina Shevchenko -120
History / Introduction to Both Fighters
Phil: Amanda Nunes was an obvious talent back in the day, one of those nascent athletes like Sarah McMann or Liz Carmouche who clearly had a ton of physical potential and not a whole lot else. Unlike them, Nunes was trained at ATT, so she started to improve technically at a pretty rapid rate. Her improvements couldn't save her from consistently jumping on finishing opportunities and blowing her tank, then being subsequently wrecked. The weird thing is that she subsequently made it to the very top of her division without that flaw being visibly fixed. She largely just got better at finishing people.
David: Nunes was never really that earthy brawler stereotype so much as she was an over-enthusiastic swarmer once she smelled blood in the water. A lot of things held her back early in her career. She improved enough to strengthen what she was good at, keeping her weaknesses behind the curtain. For the most part, she’s managed to keep those weaknesses hidden. Part of it’s improvement, and part of it’s her competition. Shevchenko promises to put them all on display if it goes past three rounds.
Phil: Shevchenko has been a consistent spoiler in the W135 division since she joined it. An undersized bantamweight, she came in taking a dominant split decision (go MMA judging!) over Sarah Kaufmann. I think I had already anointed her the future champ, before she was put in against Nunes. Since then, she decisioned Holly Holm, and tapped out Julianna Pena. Is it time for another European kickboxer to take over another of the women's divisions?
David: Shevchenko’s career is a lot like her fighting style - calm, consistent, quiet but successful. She popcorned all over the world in smaller shows to finally maker her way to the UFC. She’s an unlikely title contender. With only one finish in the UFC, she’s not all fireworks and violence. But she’s a deserved one.
What's at stake?
Phil: The belt, obviously. The other two divisions remain interesting open questions. Nunes has mentioned (albeit not terribly convincingly) that she'd like to become the 145 champ, and Shevchenko frankly is a 125er. That's her natural weight class. A rematch between Shevchenko and Joanna Jedrzejczyk at 125, for the belt, would make a lot of sense.
David: Does that mean Ronda Rousey could stage a comeback with the best fighters gone from her division? I think she could make a bout of it with Holm. Just saying.
Where do they want it?
Phil: The champ used to get classed as a brawler, sometimes by people who should know better, and... it's not true. Her tendency to go into blood-blind kill mode when she had an opponent hurt was and always has been undeniably present, but her actual style has been as a powerful range kickboxer for a good while now. She slings long, straight punches which she uses small steps to set up at the absolute limit of their extension, and mixes them up with a cracking leg kick. Opponents who try to step inside find themselves running into a counter takedown, and a brutally crushing, pass-pound-sub top game.
For me her closest technical analogue has for a while been Jose Aldo, and she shares a few of his flaws; namely cardio, and not throwing a ton of clinch offense, being more focused on stiff-arming and resetting her distance. If her cardio fails her, as it's tended to, that doesn't work any more.
David: I think brawler is used in a derogatory way. Semantics, granted, but I think that’s precisely what constitutes a brawler - strikers who are sometimes more enthusiastic than technical. Erik Morales was a brawler, but he was a brilliant boxer. John Lineker is a brawler, but he’s dynamic with his strike selection, and one of the more talented boxers at his weight. I agree that Nunes isn’t a brawler per se, but she’s undoubtedly at her best when she’s swarming.
Having said that, she’s definitely a quality range striker. It’s one of the reasons why I figured Nunes would massacre Rousey. Rousey has mediocre wrestling, and doesn’t close distance well while Nunes keeps her distance well until she thinks her opponent is caught from range. She’s an expert at chambering low and high kicks at just the right distance, and she’s good at either lunging in with a left hook, or backing out with punches ready for launch.
Phil: Shevchenko is a defined counter striker, working off a counter right hook and probing leg kicks. Her footwork is perhaps the best in the division, allowing her to pivot off to either weak or strong angles and have counter-shots lined up for either side. She's tireless and tough, and as crushingly strong in the clinch as many Muay Thai and kickboxing converts tend to be. Her takedown defense has been decent, if not overwhelming, but I'm not sure if her game off her back is well-designed to take on a top position grappler of the caliber of Nunes. I'm just not convinced that working for submissions from guard is really going to work.
She's clearly a fighter who gets better as the fight goes on, which makes this fight an interesting proposition: does she have a read on Nunes which she can carry through from the first fight?
David: She’s not just a counter striker. But a mid-range counter striker. Which can be “boring”, as her output is inversely proportional to what her opponent gives her. What makes her unique is not she’s practically impenetrable at distance (even with Nunes’ reach, Shevchenko made her miss on a lot of leg kicks). But she’s wonderfully adept in close. She’ll close the distance with a straight left, and use her movement to chain a few strikes or set up the Thai plum for knees. She has a few tricks up her sleeve too. Besides her dancing. But that spinning back elbow is sneaky, and she’s aggressive with it, using it for pressure rather than a spotlight gimmick.
Her grappling is good offensively. She has an understanding of top control and clear knowledge of how to Tetris into submissions once there. But defensively she’s still a little porous. Part of it comes her desire to clinch, so she’s rarely looking to sprawl, which sets her up for trip takedowns. She’s never been submitted, though I consider that a superficial complement, as I don’t think the quality of competition has challenged this aspect of her game. But she’s capable and durable.
Insight from past fights?
Phil: This is a matchup of round-to-round inconsistency. Nunes is well-known for fading out of fights, but Shevchenko also tends to start very slowly. Not only did Nunes beat her up pretty badly in their first fight, but she got dropped by Holly Holm, who is not the world's hardest puncher. Shevchenko's tendency to wait for the counter also means that she may be somewhat reliant on waiting for Nunes to blow her gas tank, rather than being able to actively take it away.
David: The first fight is a good indication of what to expect, early as well as late. Nunes fought an intelligent fight. She scored a takedown, took back control, and didn’t make exuberant entries. To the extent that Nunes faded, it came from her ground and pound and that rear naked choke attempt. If Nunes feels like this battle will be won on the feet, she can settle for a low key kickboxing contest. At that point it’s a question of whether or not Shevchenko can be more aggressive, as she was in the third round. She’s capable of closing the distance on Nunes. But is she comfortable doing that?
Phil: There's only one, and it's a big one: has Nunes learned to control her cardio?
David: I think the bigger question is whether Nunes wants to take the fight to the ground. She’s better in top control, and all of the things that allowed her to win the first bout occurred on the ground. She won the first round on the feet, but it was a consequential win more than anything, as Shevchenko just stood there and gauged distance. Then she got overwhelmed/SkipBayless> in the third.
Phil: I think Nunes has shown more technical improvements than Shevchenko since their last fight, and Shevchenko's takedown defense against Pena was notably concerning. Other than this, Nunes simply has the higher physical ceiling, by a long way. She is far bigger, and far more powerful. If she doesn't blow her own tank, it will be hard for Shevchenko to break it with her slightly passive style. Amanda Nunes by submission, round 2.
David: This is a tough one. I agree that Nunes appears on an upward trajectory whereas Shevchenko, even assuming an upward trajectory, appears at a plateau she’s clearly comfortable with. Moreover, even if we assume Nunes fades as much we project her to in the 4th and 5th rounds - does Shevchenko have the power to close? The tactical deck is stacked against her. Except with MMA’s chaos theory of judging. I think Nunes will fade just enough for Shevchenko to earn critical points down the stretch. The athletic commission butterfly flaps its wings to favor the Soviet Peruvian. Valentina Shevchenko by Split Decision.