Valentina Shevchenko vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk co-headlines UFC 231 this December 8, 2018 at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
One sentence summary
David: Your favorite Cynthia Rothrock film come to life.
Phil: OK, I have now learned how to spell “Jedrzejczyk” but I’ll be damned if I don’t have to go back to google “Kyrgyzstan”
Record: Valentina Shevchenko 15-3 | Joanna Jedrzejczyk 15-2
Odds: Valentina Shevchenko -340 | Joanna Jedrzejczyk +280
History / Introduction to both fighters
David: Shevchenko has been an elite fighter for so long, her Big Moment has always felt like just a matter of time. Maybe it’s just me, but I actually gave her the slight, overall edge against Amanda Nunes. But that’s neither here nor there. Shevchenko is a dancier, female Joseph Benavidez: the essential difference being that there is no female DJ opposing her. Unless that’s who Joanna becomes at flyweight. It’s hard to speak to Valentina’s subtle improvements over the years since the UFC decided to feed her lamb meat in her last bout.
Phil: A combination of in-cage conservatism and straight-up tough fights have kept Shevchenko from breaking through. She was picked as the bounce-back fight for Holly Holm after Holm’s shocking loss to Miesha Tate, which was a decision which seemed silly at the time and absolutely boneheaded in retrospect, as the Kyrgyzstani calmly picked the Jackson-Wink product apart from the outside. Then she had that godawful title fight against Amanda Nunes. I think the UFC engine is waiting to get rolling behind her: a blonde who’s equally happy dancing, fighting and shooting things ticks a lot of demographic boxes for them.
David: Joanna had a swagger of seriousness, and violence that all but vanished overnight. Now she’s become an easy target of criticism for diminishing Rose’s traumatic past, wishing away the losses, calling herself the best female fighter ever with a win over Shevchenko (hmm) and whatever the heck her point was with this odd scene. Still, whatever your thoughts are on how Joanna comes across these days, she’s still an elite fighter. And elite fighters don’t care about your feelings. They’d prefer to just hurt them with a fist.
Phil: Weaponizing internal delusions is an important part of being a successful fighter. The interesting thing about Jedrzejczyk is that she’s done it... a little more publicly than is typical. To point out that she looks kind of nuts is to miss that almost anyone who does this whole face-punching thing is a bit unbalanced. From McGregor’s musings on how Khabib was “blessed” with the right hand that knocked him down to Diego’s conviction that 165 will be the weight class where he finally claims gold, this is a sport for overconfident weirdos. That being said, it doesn’t appear to be affecting Joanna much from a fighting standpoint, as she dismantled Tecia Torres rather handily last time out.
What’s at stake?
David: It’s career-defining for both women. To me, Shevchenko beating Joanna bodes well for her future: the division will take time to get going, and Shevchenko is a stylistic nightmare for everyone ABOVE her weightclass. I just don’t see how she doesn’t become an unstoppable, hip-swinging killing machine. Joanna all but gets relegated to Dan Marino status i.e. Joanna Contender.
Phil: Stakes don’t get much higher. Despite contending for a brand-new strap, both women were backed into corners as the de-facto #2 fighters in their respective divisions. While I suspect this isn’t the last time we seem them fight, there is a significant risk that the loser is seen as a bust.
Where do they want it?
David: Shevchenko is — for my money — probably the best counterpuncher in MMA. That she’s a marksmen in real life is probably not a coincidence. We’ve seen plenty of counterpunchers in the sport through the years. Like brawlers, wrestlers, and grapplers, counterpunchers come in many different styles. What separates Shevchenko from a broad archetype are her mechanics. She doesn’t just wait for an opening. She darts in, baiting out her opponent’s punches, and wounds with a searing right jab, and an array of strikes from her strong side that penetrate quickly. She’s also pretty good on the ground too, where trip takedowns, and yeoman’s work within the guard are the rule of law. It’s a good fight for Shevchenko on the surface. But again...only on the surface.
Phil: The prototypical MMA southpaw tends to work from the rear side: think Cro Cop, or RDA, and the cross mixed with the body and headkick series. As mentioned, Shevchenko works much more off her lead side, favouring the jab and (particularly) the right hook over the top of her opponent’s jab. Her Muay Thai background is evident in her low kicks and her clinch work, where she’s one of the more adept footsweep takedown artists in the game. She’s also excellent at countering kicks, which was one of the reasons why she turned out to be such a nightmare for Holm- she was able to time and parry Holm’s oblique kicks in order to open up the outside angle. It’s a tricky technique, and speaks to Shevchenko’s long experience in dealing with push and round kick variations.
David: Despite the perception of Joanna as a “a once great fighter now at a crossroads”[/narrator voice] it’s all kind of silly when you break it down. Her rematch with Namajunas was painfully close. I didn’t have a problem with the decision, but I think Joanna was the superior striker in the later rounds as the leg kicks paid off in preventing Rose from sliding in and out for effective punch entries (which is how she got iced in the first bout). So for all the rumors of her demise, she’s still an ELITE striker. Few fighters can chain, and sequence actual attacks with a position of attack so seamlessly. She bounces around with expert lateral movement, opens up with chopping leg kicks, and unleashes hellish flurries to close the distance. That second fight with Rose was one of the best technical displays of pugilism I’ve seen in years. It’s also something that bodes well for her against Shevchenko.
Phil: One of the main reasons this is such an interesting fight is that it is stylically almost guaranteed to be fireworks, and the main reason for that is Jedrzejczyk. Were she a counterpuncher, or a conservative sniper, we might be in for the dreaded “chess match.” Instead, she’s one of the more aggressive striking technicians in MMA. A long, rattling jab and cross, and an arsenal of low, middle and round kicks are enabled by tight pivots and some of the best defensive wrestling around. Jedrzejczyk relentlessly attacks any and all takedown attempts, pushing down on the head, cross-facing, stiff-arming and scrambling quickly out of any which might actually be successful. Her historical problem has been something of a lack of power: that fight against Namajunas was closer than remembered, but it was also a consistent story of Jedrzejczyk battling back in almost every round from a deficit which was kicked off by Namajunas’ visibly more damaging punches.
Insight from past fights
David: We can safely throw their 10 year old Muay Thai fights out the window. Not only were those fights 10 years ago, but the fights themselves are like 20% synthetic leather, 20% striking, and 60% tumbling over the ropes. There’s a more subtle presence within them though: namely that Rose trained with Shevchenko in preparation for her bouts with Joanna. Which means what, exactly? Mainly that Shevchenko understands distance management as well as Joanna. Joanna’s second fight with Rose is a good case study in some ways. When Joanna was more effective, she was effective staying at range, keeping her leg kicks in front of her, and resetting rather than pressuring with punch combinations. Joanna did a great job of keeping Rose off her punch entries. The gameplan wasn’t perfect. Joanna lost the fight, and still got tagged. But she lost because Rose simply had better movement early, and when Rose needed to adjust, she accepted the fight on Rose’s terms and became effective staying in the pocket. It was a great display of fight chess. So the question is whether Shevchenko can administer a similar gameplan.
I’m not so sure. Valentina doesn’t move anything like Rose. Where Rose effortlessly slides to the left and right, keeping her head away from the centerline, Shevchenko is more linear: cutting in, then out. Rose tries to maximize her strike entries (finding offense through pressure, and angling forward) while Shevchenko is more about strike exits (finding offense on her backfoot, and cracking back). How that interaction favors one over the other is anyone’s guess. On the surface, I think it favors Joanna. Easier to be the hammer, nail, and all that. Plus judges like that. However, Nunes is a beast, and Shevchenko never once cracked under the pressure. One last thing I’ll note is that Joanna is typically vulnerable (not often) on her strong side. Shevchenko would be wise to look for that right hand spinning backfist.
Phil: I’m always hesitant to throw out early fights, because the general “shape” of who people are and how they interact doesn’t tend to change much over time. In general I find the MT bouts between the two interesting purely because we can see then evolve over time from scrappy brawlers into fighters which sort of resemble the ones we see today. In general I’m still not sure how Shevchenko strategically approaches this weight class: her fight against Priscilla Cachoeira was a good deal more aggressive and grappling-heavy than her fights up at bantamweight, but Cachoeira is also... not very good?
David: These are consummate professionals. Consummate professionals tend to be healthy before the big game.
Phil: Jedrzejczyk’s horror stories about her bones weakening due to the cut down to strawweight are hopefully now a thing of the past. It’s been a while since Shevchenko has been at this weight, but I trust she’s going to make it without issues.
David: I really feel like Joanna has the technical edge here. Just because I believe she can narrate the fight on the feet in more prominent ways. By that I mean she’ll have the higher volume, and over 5 rounds, the judges will like that. My issue here is that Shevchenko is a goddamn tank. Where Joanna could get Rose to back up, I don’t think that’ll happen here. So while I suspect Joanna will win exchanges, I also suspect Valentina will win the pocket, where she can push through Joanna’s offense with body kicks, a jab, and spinning attacks. The end result is something similar to the Namajunas rematch: where Joanna is forced into abandoning her combination pressure for something a little more measured. It reveals Joanna’s versatility as much as her vulnerability, and I think Shevchenko is built for the long haul with an ever so slight edge. Valentina Shevchenko by Decision.
Phil: It’s a fascinating one, probably the most purely fascinating technical and physical clash we’ve seen in Women’s MMA, with the possible exception of Rose-JJ II. In general I think that Shevchenko’s physical advantage won’t have gone away- Shevchenko enjoys being the longer fighter in her bouts, and that isn’t an advantage she’ll have here. More than that, Shevchenko can leverage approximately the same “counterpunches and grappling” game which bought the rather less structured Claudia Gadelha two rounds. While it’s easy to see the possibility of Shevchenko simply being outworked and outpaced by a JJ who is refreshed by her move up to flyweight, and perhaps even being befuddled by the former strawweight queen’s speed, Valentina Shevchenko by unanimous decision.