Muay Thai champion, Valentina Shevchenko, will throw down with overwhelming grappler, Julianna Pena, this Saturday (Jan. 28, 2016) at UFC on FOX 23 inside Pespi Center in Denver, Colorado.
Shevchenko has made a pretty major impact in a short amount of time. She’s won two of just three UFC bouts, with her sole loss coming to the current champion. While that would normally be a big setback in earning a title shot, the momentum was entirely in her side while she battered Nunes in the final round.
“Bullet” followed that close loss up with a clear-cut victory over former champion Holly Holm. If Shevchenko can secure another win here, she has a great chance of stealing the strap.
Let’s take a closer look at her skill set.
Shevchenko is a multiple time K-1 and Muay Thai champion, holding a professional record of 58-2 in kickboxing. She’s also won a pair of professional boxing matches, and Shevchenko’s counter fighting style has proven very effective thus far in her mixed martial arts (MMA) career.
Working out of the Southpaw stance, Shevchenko is very much a counter puncher and absolutely despises initiated exchanges. Shevchenko stays very light on her feet, ready to counter, and waits for her opponent to move.
As she showed opposite Holly Holm, Shevchenko will wait... and wait... and wait.
To encourage her foe to lead, Shevchenko will attack with non-committal blows to score points. This was most necessary opposite Holm, her fellow Southpaw counter puncher. In that match up, Shevchenko quickly stabbed at her foe with inside low kicks and sharp jabs, putting some pressure on Holm to make a move.
Whenever her opponent attacks, Shevchenko frequently returns with a pair of signature counter strikes, which I analyzed in this week’s highlight video.
Shevchenko is very skilled at countering kicks as well. If her opponent throws a kick to the body or head without setup — which isn’t uncommon if her opponent is fighting Orthodox — Shevchenko will spring forward and fire off either a left cross or her usual counter hook. Either way, it’s an effective tactic, as her opponent is not in position to absorb or counter a punch. Opposite Holm — who maintained more distance — Shevchenko instead countered with low kicks, blocking or checking her foes kick before returning with one of her own.
Additionally, one of the most unique traits I’ve seen in Shevchenko is her habit of countering outside low kicks — again, a common tactic for an Orthodox fighter taking on a Southpaw — with spins. Against Sarah Kaufman, Shevchenko utilized both spinning kicks and spinning punches to punish her opponent’s quick low kick attempts (GIF).
As a counter puncher, Shevchenko is quite hard to hit cleanly. Part of that is due to her excellent habit of waiting for her opponent to engage before smothering their attempted offense in the clinch. Ducking down, Shevchenko will step towards her foe and look to grab the head and an underhook. Similarly, when she relies on her check hook, Shevchenko does well to get her head off the center line.
Once in the clinch, Shevchenko is a very effective striker. She does an excellent job of using head position to turn her opponent and force her into the fence. Once there, Shevchenko will attack with hard elbows and knees. It’s a really strong area for "Bullet," as she breaks her opponent down quickly from in-close.
A black belt in Judo, Shevchenko has proven to be a solid wrestler so far. Thanks to her background in Judo as well as Muay Thai, Shevchenko possesses some very solid clinch wrestling that is well-suited to MMA.
While attacking from the clinch, Shevchenko does a very nice job blinding her opponent to the threat of the takedown by bashing her with elbows and knees. While her opponent is defending strikes, Shevchenko generally does a very nice job of pivoting and moving her opponent around. Sometimes, she’ll mix a foot sweep into that movement and look to sweep her foe to the floor (GIF).
Alternatively, Shevchenko will use her defensive striking skills to move into the aforementioned head-and-arm position that — for whatever reason -- is quite popular at every level of Women’s MMA. To her credit, Shevchenko moves into the throw fluidly and steps into mount quickly, making it more difficult to reverse (GIF).
In the recent bout with Holm, Shevchenko proved just how good her clinch takedowns really are. Relying on basic attempts like the inside trip or head-and-arm throw, Shevchenko timed her attempts and entries very well, allowing her to catch Holm off-balance and land in top position (GIF).
Defensively, Shevchenko is definitely at a bit of a disadvantage, as she likely is more suited for the Flyweight division. That said, her takedown defense has been pretty solid thus far. While Nunes found success with clinch trips and by catching kicks, Shevchenko rejected the Brazilian’s shots far more often than not.
Thanks to her counter punching style, it’s difficult to land double legs on the Russian. In fact, Shevchenko doesn’t just defend takedowns, she actively batters opponents for trying. In this, she uses similar techniques to her past opponent — and current UFC Strawweight queen — Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
If Shevchenko is able to stop a shot, she usually responds with one of two attacks. For one, she’ll latch onto a double-collar tie and jam knees into the body or head before switching to elbows. Alternatively, Shevchenko will weigh heavily on a whizzer or head lock, breaking her opponent’s posture. Once that happens, Shevchenko will jam her forehead into her opponent’s jaw to prevent any reshot and use the created space to deliver more elbow strikes.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
The weakest part of Shevchenko’s game is undoubtedly her grappling. She’s not terrible in that area, but it’s obvious from watching her grapple that Shevchenko is not exactly comfortable from her back.
In short, Shevchenko does not have a very strong defensive guard. She may search for opportunities to stand up, but she isn’t setting them up very well. Against more skilled grapplers, that provides opportunities for her foe to land hard shots or advance into a dominant position.
That said, Shevchenko did a couple of things very well in her bout with Nunes. In the first round, Shevchenko actually landed a slick tripod sweep on her opponent towards the end of the round. She set it up much like Gegard Mousasi has in the past, using upkicks to disguise the trip (GIF).
Additionally, Shevchenko managed to survive the jiu-jitsu black belt’s back mount in the second round. Besides anything else, defending the back mount is about focus and toughness, and "Bullet" passed both tests. Despite being in some deep trouble, she remained calm, fought the grip, and kept her chin down.
Shevchenko is a world-class fighter with the skill set of a champion, even if she is still a bit rough around the edges in the MMA world. Against one of the division’s biggest and best pressure wrestlers, Shevchenko will prove whether or not she can be a champion at 135 pounds. If so, “Bullet” has real potential to snag a second strap in the event a women’s Flyweight division is opened up in the near future.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an undefeated amateur fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.