Current Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) women's bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes will be watching closely tonight (Sat., Jan. 28, 2017) as Valentina Shevchenko and Julianna Pena battle it out for No. 1 contender rights at UFC on FOX 23 live on FOX from inside Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. The bout will be contested over the course of five rounds and will feature a matchup between one of the best strikers in the division and one of the best grapplers. It will mark Shevchenko's second-straight main event spot on a FOX card while Pena will get her first taste of a UFC headliner.
In order to sift through the impending action we take a closer look at what "Bullet" and "The Venezuelan Vixen" need to do in order to leave UFC on FOX 23 victorious. As part of the fastest changing division in all of mixed martial arts (MMA), Shevchenko and Pena will be expected to deliver on arrival in a crucial battle of top contenders. Here are their keys to victory for tonight's mashup in the Mile-High City.
1. Establish range early...
As one of the best strikers in women's MMA today, Shevchenko is at her best when she's able to find a home for her combinations and kicks. The Russian is well-experienced inside as a Muay Thai specialist, but she can strike from range with the best of them. Just ask Holly Holm.
Against a strong grappler like Pena, it's going to be extremely crucial for "Bullet" to strike from distance, land on the outside, keep out of arm's length and take away Pena's ability to grab a hold of her. Kicks will most likely suffice, but the quicker Shevchenko can back Pena up with punches the better chance she has of keeping this fight standing.
2. Make Pena pay inside...
While Shevchenko's greatest opportunity to stifle Pena resides in her ability to create spacing, attack from the edges and pick apart the "The Venezuelan Vixen", there will be some windows inside to score points. Assuming that Pena is able to get inside here and there, Shevchenko needs to make her pay with every clinch and tie up.
As previously mentioned, Shevchenko is a Muay Thai wizard who most certainly possesses the combat acumen to launch heavy knees and short elbows inside. Those are exactly the type of techniques and offensive weapons she needs to implore in order to make Pena second guess her willingness to press the action chest-to-chest.
1. Close the gap on the feet...
As important as it is for Shevchenko to maintain distance and find a home for her strikes from distance, it's even more vital for Pena to be able to close the gap on the feet and grab a hold of the Russian striker. With a longer frame and two-inch reach advantage, Pena will have an immediate edge in attempting to get inside.
The 27-year-old grappler has been able to stifle tough and physically imposing strikers before, such as Jessica Eye and Jessica Rakoczy, but Shevchenko is a different beast. She's a sensational counter striker that is capable of landing knees, uppercuts, hooks and combinations at every turn. Pena must remain patient in her approach to get inside, but her chances of winning rely on her being able to get there.
2. Grind her opponent down...
While some fight fans would love to see the maturation of Pena on the feet and see if she has evolved her standup to the point of being a threat in the striking department, the former TUF winner will lean heavily on her grappling skills to limit the effectiveness or Shevchenko. By any means necessary, Pena must drag Shevchenko to the canvas, gain control, dictate the pace of the fight, score points in bunches and grind her away.
In all four of her UFC victories, Pena has secured at least one takedown. More importantly, she has pulled off a total of 19 passes on the ground through just eight rounds inside of the Octagon. That sort of pressure and unpredictability from top control is going to make or break Pena's chances of defeating Shevchenko later this evening.
Prediction: Shevchenko via unanimous decision
MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC on FOX 23 fight card, starting with the UFC Fight Pass "Prelims" matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. ET, and then the remaining undercard balance on FOX Sports 1 at 5 p.m. ET, before the FOX main card start time at 8 p.m. ET.