Valentina Shevchenko vs. Jessica Andrade takes place this Saturday, April 24, 2021 at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida. The UFC 261 PPV card is expected to be headlined by a welterweight title fight rematch between Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal. A women’s strawweight title fight between Weili Zhang and Jessica Andrade is set for the co-main event.
One sentence summary
David: Bullet: meet Kevlar.
Phil: It’s like Maia vs Shevchenko II, if Maia was smaller and better at MMA.
Record: Valentina Shevchenko 20-3, Jessica Andrade 21-8
Odds: Valentina Shevchenko -450, Jessica Andrade +400
Introduction to the fighters
David: Shevchenko has cycled through various fan perceptions. Casual fans are invested thanks to her ‘Chicks With Guns’ aura. Hardcore fans are invested thanks to her dominating, technical style. But the Maia fight seemed to turn the tide, with analysts feeling validated for criticizing her stubborn commitment to raw mechanics, and casual fans getting bored (I guess?). However, Shevchenko remains who she’s always been: an elite fighter who looks great in some matchups, and a little awkward in others.
So what does that mean for a fight with Andrade? This is gonna get awkward.
Phil: Shevchenko has gotten a bit of that Holm or Machida magic, where the exotic novelty is enough for a lot of fans to ignore that she does occasionally have a bit of a stinker. That being said, she remains perhaps the most technically skilled fighter in WMMA.
It’s hard to criticize greatness that much: GSP only used a few tools! Aldo also fought at the lowest pace he feasibly could most of the time! It’s hard to criticize her... but I’m still going to do it! She’s been involved in some of the most torpid, dismal fights I’ve ever seen, dammit.
David: Aside from getting dumpstered by Zhang, Andrade has been the rock of strawweight. Her game hasn’t changed much, as it hasn’t needed to. Rose got revenge on her, but not by much. It’ll be interesting to see just how far her style can take her.
Andrade’s brand of tank-shaped pugilism tends to have a high floor, but a low ceiling. If there’s anyone who won’t be intimidated by Shevchenko’s spinning backfists, and cracking counters, it’s definitely Andrade.
Phil: I asked people on twitter about who they considered to be the best weight-class shifters they’ve ever encountered, trying to figure out who had been the most successful at fighting decent competition on their first jump to a new weight class. The list was surprisingly small: most successful transitions took on layups (Cormier-Cummins etc), and there were many more who looked like trash in their debut (McGregor-Diaz being a notable one).
One example that people threw my way? Jessica Andrade. And you know she might be one of the best ever at it. A two weight class jump to strawweight, and she looked phenomenal against Jessica Penne. Similarly, going up to flyweight she absolute crushed another very decent fighter in Katlyn Chookagian. Pure power and unbreakable will go a long way.
What’s at stake?
David: No matter the outcome, barring something stupid like an illegal strike, the fight sets up the future of flyweight quite well. Either Shevchenko wins assertively, and her myth grows, or Andrade proves a worthy adversary, and we’re looking at an immediate rematch.
Phil: I think the main thing is: can Shevchenko have a memorable title fight? Her win over Jedrzejczyk was impressive and dominant, but it does not stick in the mind. Other than that, she has knocked some people out, and I can’t even remember who they were. Was it Chookagian and Eye? Can she have a fight that is actually competitive, one that isn’t either a mercy kill of an overmatched opponent, or a bit of a slog?
Where do they want it?
David: While I agree with the broad assertion that Shevchenko’s game can wax and wane in terms of dominance (or at least the degree of her dominance), I don’t think these pendulum swings are necessarily match-up dependent. Shevchenko had all the tools to assert more dominance over Maia, but she stuck to rote transitions instead of a progression of damage on the feet. It can be frustrating to watch, but I don’t mind. Shevchenko is not here to take any chances. She’s here to win. And that’s what she does when she’s not fighting Amanda Nunes.
Her core talents aren’t unique. She’s quick on the draw, but patient, and has a variety of skills to augment any given transition or exchange. Where Shevchenko is unique is in how she goes about it. I can’t think of any other fighter who so strictly adheres to mixups, making them at once predictable yet difficult to defend. She’s betting on the curve of the fight to favor here: win the exchanges, knockout or not, initiate scrambles, takedown/submission or not, and let the accumulation of advantages take care of the rest. This is the rare matchup where these sequences have a potential fail rate.
Phil: Shevchenko is, as you have alluded to, a particularly risk averse fighter. That is genuinely quite an atypical trait in MMA. Which is I guess why it is so frustrating to watch? The idea of slicksters and defensive control technicians is far more prevalent in boxing, but MMA is typically dictated by aggression and taking the initiative. Shevchenko’s approach is typically: wait at the edge of range, counter with the hook when the opponent closes in, peck with kicks, and occasionally blitz to keep the timing off. Her final safety zone is the clinch, where she hits admittedly fantastic trips into top control.
David: Andrade has one of the more linear styles in MMA, but it’s a style that continues to serve her well, regardless of weight. Instead of holding up the proverbial ace up her sleeve, she simply rolls her sleeves up, and gets to work. MMA provides such a high density of options at any given moment, it can be easy to get away from linear lines of attack. Sometimes you don’t need options. Sure the takedown might be there. The opening for the spinning backfist has the greenlight. But so does the lead uppercut, or just a meaty one-two.
Over the years, Andrade has incorporated more general movement into her arsenal. It’s not a lot, but it went a long way in keeping her upright in the rematch versus Rose. Despite losing that bout, she handily kept the striking exchanges close versus their first fight, where despite winning, she handily lost the striking exchanges.
Phil: Andrade was someone that I genuinely despaired of at one point. The Namajunas and Jedrzejczyk fights showed someone who was a huge physical force... and very little else. Lacking skill in the clinch, she would grab at whatever was to hand and sling big punches under the understanding that she was infinitely durable and had an endless gas tank and that it would work eventually. The Joanna fight showed the consistent technical limitations of that approach, then she got hurt by Rose, and finished by Zhang.
In the time since, I think she has genuinely looked improved. She has better head movement, she is mixing up her targets (low kicks / body shots) more. None of it is masterful, but it is functional, and that is a scary improvement. Still an open question whether she’s improved that clinch game, though.
Insight from past fights
David: There are zero similarities between Rose and Valentina. Let me make that clear; at least as far as sequencing, and fight affectations go. But we did get to see an Andrade who acquitted herself well technically in the rematch. While some of her head movement was a little extraneous, she did a good job of being less predictable with her punch entries, doubling on the left hook, leading with body shots, mixing it up with bodykicks, and not forcing the attacks as much as she has in the past.
Phil: There are two fights where Shevchenko had to deal with raw aggression, and they were not particularly great looks for her. Julianna Pena ran her into the cage and took her down, and the Jennifer Maia fight was largely characterized by uneventful top control. She does seem to rely somewhat on scaring people off, and if they just run through her counters she has just one layer left to exert control.
David: Nothing that comes to mind. Both fighters are made of steel.
Phil: Can’t really think of any. These are two of the most consistent, stable fighters on roster. Perhaps Andrade’s style catches up to her at some point and she loses some durability?
David: I do like Andrade here. Shevchenko’s takedowns won’t be readily accessible, which will leave her in just enough discomfort to lose points on the scorecards. Two things here: one, I think Shevchenko’s rigid templating of strikes to takedowns will work against her by keeping Andrade within reach and two, Andrade has shown me enough adjustments to think any further evolution could help an otherwise tough matchup turn into something very favorable on paper. I’m making the leap here. Jessica Andrade by Decision.
Phil: If I had more faith in Andrade to fight in the clinch against someone with approximate strength parity and a skill advantage, I’d be more comfortable picking her to chase Shevchenko down with big hooks and bully her. However, I think that approach might extend to her ground game, and if she tries to get back out Shevchenko will just keep her down there. In addition, Andrade’s new, more technical game might just give Shevchenko more room to be comfortable. Valentina Shevchenko by unanimous decision.