With Amanda Nunes’ drubbing of Ronda Rousey at UFC 207, it’s back to business as usual for the women’s bantamweight division. With no certain challenger for Nunes, the two most highly ranked contenders In the division will face off for the presumed opportunity to challenge for the belt.
#ValentinaShevchenko came to be regarded as the number-2 female bantamweight in the world on the back of two upset victories, a close but convincing split decision over divisional stalwart Sarah Kaufman in her UFC debut, and a surprising five-round striking clinic against former champion and now featherweight title challenger Holly Holm. Sandwiched in between these two victories was a decision loss to Nunes.
#JuliannaPena’s Octagon appearances have been sporadic, but her in-cage performances have remained as consistent as those of any of her peers. Entering The Ultimate Fighter on a two-fight losing streak, Pena dominated each of her three opponents on the show, before earning a first-round TKO victory over Jessica Rakoczy in the finale.
Sidelined with a grave knee injury, Pena returned 17 months later, TKOing Miliana Dudieva, once again in the first round. Following convincing decision victories over Jessica Eye and Cat Zingano, the latter taking place at UFC 200, Pena seemed primed to challenge Nunes for the belt, but Rousey’s return put any such plans on hold.
In a division where styles decide outcomes more than any other, Pena and Shevchenko are specialists with the necessary roundedness to compete effectively, and consistently, against a wide variety of styles. This is a relative rarity for women’s bantamweight, as evidenced by the perpetual turnover in the top five of the division over the last year or so.
Shevchenko has made a strong claim to being her division’s finest technical striker, the only asterisk around such a claim being her aforementioned loss to Nunes. Nowhere was this more apparent than in her counter-punching masterclass against fellow southpaw striker #HollyHolm.
Holm and Shevchenko are both low-output fighters, their biggest issue perhaps being their inconsistent application of offense. Rather than attempt to beat Holm on volume alone, Shevchenko gradually tore down Holm's defensive layering and took her apart with crisp angles and step-In counters.
From the opening round, “The Bullet” had great success moving with Holm’s advances and herding her into the counter right hook. Undersized as she may be for the bantamweight division, Shevchenko was able to compete with the noted physicality of Holm, even taking the former champion down in the first round.
Heading into the bout, Holm’s prohibitive favorite status was predicated largely on what was believed to be a significant advantage in technical striking. Instead, Shevchenko gamed all over Holm for the 25 minutes of their contest, adjusting to Holm’s angles and corralling her into counters, chipping away from distance with low kicks. Despite the former champion’s boxing pedigree, this seemed to be exactly the area in which she was most thoroughly outclassed, eating counters from the Muay Thai specialist during most every punching exchange.
Shevchenko was able to shut down an elite kickboxer using primarily simple mixups and razor-sharp footwork. By repeatedly threatening with the counter right hook, she forced Holm to react to her lead hand, mixing in strong jabs and hand fighting to compound the threat, never giving Holm just a single tool to worry about.
In her monumental upset against #RondaRousey, Holm was easily able to strip Rousey, a relatively rudimentary striker, of her most effective tools. Because of Rousey’s limited number of weapons on the feet, and the narrow scope of their application, it was a simple matter for Holm to dismantle her game.
Shevchenko, though not as athletically gifted or physically dangerous as Rousey, is a fighter without any broad weakness exploitable enough for a fellow elite bantamweight to simply run through. She possesses great natural instincts, avoiding dangerous positions both on the feet and on the mat, and plays a game deeply rooted in the fundamentals.
Like current interim featherweight champion Max Holloway, Shevchenko could best be described as a technical opportunist. As broad as their striking arsenals assuredly are, both seem to take a workmanlike approach to the minute-by-minute battle. There’s a sense of practicality underlining their games; a strike is never thrown thoughtlessly, and shot selection is measured. While either is capable of throwing a flying knee or a spinning back fist, they are not thrown simply for the sake of doing so, but because they work effectively into the current flow of the striking exchanges.
While Holloway will sometimes forgo this philosophy in order to maintain a consistent striking output, Shevchenko is more likely to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Rather than throw a sub-optimal strike, she will often throw nothing at all, missing good opportunities for offense while pursuing even better ones.
While adjusting to an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses is an admirable approach, it is not fit for Julianna Pena. The pathologically aggressive Washingtonian is a grappler not unlike her Sik-Jitsu teammate, Michael Chiesa. A bulldozing wrestling game enables a top game which is predicated on extremely tight positional grappling, vicious ground striking, and opportunistic submission hunting in scrambles.
As a striker, Pena’s game is still developing, but as a grappling specialist, she is perhaps the division’s current gold standard. From the front headlock, she is adept at circling to the back, applying weight to keep opponents grounded, and using the position to open up opportunities for advantageous scrambles. She is capable of passing guard in several different ways, pressure passing and using strikes to off-balance an opponent or even dedicating to more focused passes such as the knee slice.
Though her effectiveness from top position is unparalleled, Pena is notably less effective off of her back. Until the midway point of the second round of her most recent contest, a decision win over Cat Zingano, Pena was manhandled, outwrestled and tossed around the cage by the former title challenger. She was able to avoid dangerous positions, but mounted no offense of her own and, until reclaiming top position in the second round, seemed content to remain on bottom.
It was a disheartening start for the “Venezuelan Vixen.” However, once Pena took control of the momentum of the bout, she never gave it back. Like glue, she stuck to Zingano, granting no space and slowly attempting to take the back; this is not uncommon in Pena’s fights. Once she attains a dominant position, her technical consistency makes it very difficult for opponents to escape.
From each position, and even during transitions, Pena sports some of the most brutal ground and pound in the division, reminiscent of the champion, Nunes, dropping long strings of punches and elbows on opponents, content to do so from guard with the intention of eventually passing to mount.
These are the bantamweight division’s two best fighters not named #AmandaNunes, and either could provide a stern test for the champion in a five-round contest. The result of their showdown, then, could come down to technical consistency.
Pena will undoubtedly be the aggressor, bulling forward while attempting to impose her takedown game. Once in top position, she should experience little resistance, and find herself with a massive grappling edge. Similarly, Shevchenko is likely to once again take on the role of the savvy counter puncher, reacting to Pena’s offense and denying her the angles necessary to work her wrestling game, creating separation where necessary inside of the clinch.
The consistency of each fighter can largely be attributed not to their A-games, but to the deep set of tools with which they can escape from unfavorable situations. This makes it difficult to describe this bout, one with real championship implications, as a simple striker vs. grappler matchup. What is certain, then, is that each woman is deeply skilled in her area of specialization, facing an opponent with the tools to deny them the phases of the game in which they are advantaged.
From a technical perspective, no fight in the recent history of the women’s bantamweight division has carried such intrigue, showcasing two elite technicians at the peaks of their powers with the fate of the division potentially at stake.