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UFC 238 Judo Chop - Valentina Shevchenko: A Begrudging Analysis

Bloody Elbow’s Connor Ruebusch breaks down the skills that make Valentina Shevchenko one of the best, most boring fighters in the world.

Valentina Shevchenko’s fights can be… a challenge to watch. Listeners of Heavy Hands will know that I have no particular fondness for the UFC flyweight champion’s fighting style. While there are no shortage of precise, methodical kickboxers among my favorites, there’s just something about Shevchenko’s ceaseless displays of tight, technical proficiency that leaves me cold. Rather than inspiring fascination, her fights demand concentration, each one a feat of endurance.

Yet there are those who absolutely love “The Bullet,” and I don’t just mean her mother and sister. And excluding the small but distinct community of diehard fans for whom Octagon performance is a distant second priority, there are even those who claim to enjoy her fights. Maybe, in the online age, irony really has gotten out of hand. Or maybe some people simply appreciate competence, control, and consistency.

As an arrogant boy, I consider this difference of opinion an outright challenge. But as a wise and beneficent man, I am willing to concede that Shevchenko demonstrates these qualities. And I am willing, if not eager, to be convinced that she is worth watching.

So I will spend the rest of this piece studying Shevchenko’s fighting ways. If by the end I still cannot suffer her fights for entertainment’s sake, I will have at least gained an appreciation for Shevchenko, the fighting intellectual in the process. However you feel about her, I invite you to join me. Unless you’re actually a fan.

Just kidding. Let’s go.


The first thing we have to acknowledge about Valentina Shevchenko is that she is not, and I realize this comes dangerously close to a compliment — a bad fighter. She might be described as a limited fighter, or even a passive fighter, but there is no denying that Valentina Shevchenko is good at what she does.

About 90 percent of what she does is countering with right hooks. Here’s one she nailed Holly Holm with in 2016, just after Holm lost the bantamweight title to Miesha Tate.

Click image to enlarge. GIF

1. Shevchenko (black and white trunks) comes forward cautiously with a few feints, backing Holly Holm up with each one.

2. Since Holm refuses to attack, Shevchenko inches forward, till she is just outside Holly’s range.

3. Holm tries to time her. She lunges forward, throwing away a left cross.

4. Her goal is to land a long right uppercut after, but Shevchenko slips to her left, evading the punch by a hair.

5. Shevchenko’s own right hand cracks Holm on the chin.

6. Shevchenko pivots as she throws the hook, so that Holm’s final left hand also misses the mark.

7. After escaping on that angle, Shevchenko takes a look into Holm’s eyes and decides she’s ripe for another go.

8. She moves forward aggressively, feinting subtly as she steps diagonally to her right, apparently positioning herself for another right hook.

9. Instead, Shevchenko merely fakes the right hook.

10. And then nails Holm on the chin with a straight left hand instead.

While Shevchenko’s style can leave something to be desired (excitement, for example), her technique is undeniably sharp. In this sequence, she slips a punch, lands a clean, powerful counter, and finds an angle to evade the next shot coming her way. All of those things happen at almost the exact same moment, right in the midst of her opponent’s combination. She does all of this just shortly after carefully and cleverly finding her range, suckering her opponent into a losing exchange. And immediately after, operating with the simply understanding that an opponent who has just been dazed by the right is more or less ready to eat the left, she buckles Holly Holm before finding yet another angle and getting back to safety. That’s technical striking.

Among MMA fans, the very definition of the word “technical” is nebulous at best. In general, however, it tends to get attached to those strikers who pointedly avoid a brawl, especially ones who move a lot and keep a lot of space between themselves and their opponents. Slow-paced? Evasive? Fight like a faded shadow of either Muhammad Ali or Winky Wright? Brother, Joe Rogan is gonna call you technical so many times your head’ll spin.

In reality, not all out-fighters are especially technical, just as not all brawlers are formless and crude. When Shevchenko’s bout with Holm was announced, people were excited for a display of elite kickboxing prowess on both sides. Because both women do most of their work with single strikes and quick bursts from long range, the T-word got tossed around an awful lot, and things were expected to be fairly even.

But when the fight happened, Shevchenko only had a little trouble with Holm early. By round two, she had her totally figured out. Over and over, she frustrated Holm with light, almost teasing pressure. She drew out the former champion’s shots, evaded them, and made Holm pay. Over and over, hardly adjusting, never changing a thing she did not have to change. In total, Valentina threw 14 fewer strikes than Holm, but landed 46 more. That is efficiency, and efficiency is almost always the product of proper technique.


Few words describe Valentina Shevchenko better than “control.” She is controlled, she fights controlled, and she controls her opponents. That the sight of all of this control makes it decidedly difficult to control my own eyelids is probably no more than a minor drawback, from Valentina’s perspective.

While it has always been an element of her MMA game, the move to 125 pounds has given Shevchenko ample opportunity to demonstrate her top control on the ground. Her suffocating pressure and powerful precise ground-and-pound are tremendously effective, but they would be useless without her takedowns. Even during her Muay Thai career, Shevchenko was a skilled takedown artist, catching kicks, sweeping legs, and flinging other women around in the clinch. As a mixed martial artist, her offensive wrestling has only improved.

Click to enlarge image. GIF

1. Holm presses Shevchenko into the fence in an over-under clinch. She throws several halfhearted knees.

2. Shevchenko times one of them. As Holm lifts her leg, Shevchenko twists, pulling down on Holm’s lat and nearly dragging her to the ground.

3. Holm rushes into Shevchenko, trying to tie up. For a moment, Shevchenko considers grabbing the double collar tie.

4. Instead, she quickly drives in an underhook as Holm barrels forward.

5. Really drives it in, nearly knocking Holm over again in the opposite direction as she leverages up under her arm.

6. Holm regains her balance, clinging to the over-under clinch.

7. But all of the wrenching has gotten her to square her feet. Shevchenko laces her leg tightly around one of Holm’s, falling forward to apply pressure.

8. Still falling, driving forward while Holm’s trapped leg stays behind.

9. Right into half guard, and top control.

Too many fighters are mentally as well as physically passive in the clinch. They treat it as a place to rest and recuperate, like so many boxers. Shevchenko treats the clinch much the same way she treats striking from range: she is rarely in any particular rush to do anything dramatic, but she is always doing something. Setting traps, securing grips, attacking takedowns, and landing strikes—she selects her attacks carefully, and commits to them ferociously.

Her takedown game seems to draw from both Muay Thai and Judo. What both martial arts share is a focus on redirection and timing. In this sequence, Shevchenko is constantly trying to wrench Holm onto one leg, turning one way and then the other. When Holm steps in close for stability, standing hip-to-hip with Shevchenko, the Bullet grapevines her leg and quite expertly hits an inside trip.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that Shevchenko is an excellent athlete, powerful and quick. To underscore that fact, take another look at that last example. Holly Holm is a great athlete herself, and especially strong in the clinch. She is also more than capable of fighting at 145 pounds, having spent a long pro boxing career at 147, whereas Shevchenko was notably outsized at 135. Consider how much larger Holm’s frame is, how much broader her shoulders, and then watch Shevchenko yank her off balance, wrap her up tight, and drive her bodily to the floor.


Controlling opponents is one thing, but we have also already noted how well Shevchenko controls herself. Her movements are as tightly regulated as a Chinese gymnast’s, only one gets the distinct impression that Valentina is actually, perversely, enjoying herself.

The result is a style that might be called clockwork kickboxing. One fight after the next, round after round, Shevchenko pecks away with no more than ten relatively inoffensive strikers per minute. Aside from the occasional dazzling spin, her strike selection is every bit as conservative as her output. Jabs, straight left hands, right hooks, inside low kicks, and various combinations of the above. Short combinations, generally.

She manages the distance carefully, ever watchful, constantly aware of her opponent’s entire body. The opponent moves forward six inches, she moves back six inches. The opponent retreats two feet, she advances two feet. Always on the cusp of range, always ready to step in with one or two quick pecks before getting right back to safety. Watching it can be as frustrating as dealing with it, but the point stands that Shevchenko’s game is immensely frustrating to face. Consistency is the key.

Like the great Georges St-Pierre (sorry, Georges), Shevchenko has mastered the subtle gamesmanship of prizefighting. She seems to have inherited the GOAT’s knack for besting the foe in each and every phase of the fight, breaking them piece by piece.

Shevchenko is not a risk-taker, but she does take pains to dominate her opponents in her own special way, trapping them in her kind of fight, which doesn’t always feel or look like a fight at all. Plenty of empty space, but very little breathing room. Thus far, only Amanda Nunes, with her exceptional reach and surpassing athleticism, has been able to outwork Shevchenko, but still could not dominate her, nor take over the fight as a whole.

So I admit it. Valentina Shevchenko is a good fighter. She is not an exciting fighter. In fact the whole business of prizefighting, wild and bloody and passionate, seems utterly at odds with Shevchenko’s cold, mechanical disposition. Watching her fight is like watching Mark Zuckerberg eat toast; all the right body parts are technically doing all of the right things, but something is... off. Like a Terminator, without any particular interest in terminating anything. This is violence in the uncanny valley.

But she is a good fighter, even a great one. Now excuse me while I take a nice, big bite out of a bar of soap.


For more analysis like this (most of which is, fortunately, about other fighters) check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, your #1 podcast for the finer points of face-punching.

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