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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC 222’s Yana Kunitskaya

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Esther Lin for Invicta FC

Invicta FC women’s Bantamweight strap-hanger, Yana Kunitskaya, will square off with the most dominant female fighter in mixed martial arts (MMA), Cris Cyborg, this Saturday (March 3, 2018) at UFC 222 inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.

If you’re like me and rarely keep up with watching Invicta FC events, Kunitskaya was probably an unknown name prior to the previous few weeks of UFC advertisements. Luckily, I’m obligated to do my homework and find out about such things, and I’m here to pass my research on to you. As it were, Kunitskaya gained her title after a controversial pair of bouts with Tonya Evinger. Initially, Kunitskaya scored an armbar submission, but the referee got in the way a bit. The rematch saw Evinger overwhelm Kunitskaya on the mat, but “Foxy” would not be denied, capturing the Bantamweight crown in her next bout after Evinger was called up to face Cyborg.

Now it’s Kunitskaya’s turn to face the Brazilian, so let’s take a closer look at her skill set.

Striking

With a background in Taekwondo and boxing, Kunitskaya has a pretty unique approach to MMA striking. In addition to her martial arts background, Kunitskaya has been training at Jackson-Wink MMA for some time now, and she definitely has some of their usual rangy kickboxing habits.

Indeed, Kunitskaya has a very active kicking game. On the whole, she operates as a something of a pressure kicker, looking to keep her opponent on the edge of her strikes and walk them into the fence. Kunitskaya is often able to strike from an extra step of distance, one where fighters cannot usually land. To do so, Kunitskaya advances behind the lead leg check, stepping that leg high to prevent any low kick as she moves forward. Lifting the lead leg is also something of a feint, as Kunitskaya will attack off the forward step.

Most of the time, Kunitskaya will throw a teep kick up the middle as her rangiest weapon of choice. Bringing her back foot toward the front in a foot replacement movement, Kunitskaya is able to cover a lot of distance to spear her foe with the straight kick. Lifting the lead leg hides that movement, making it more difficult to counter. In addition, Kunitskaya likes to step into spinning kicks. She doesn’t spin directly from her stance like most fighters. Instead, she steps her right leg forward into Southpaw, covering extra distance before spinning into an already long range weapon. Kunitskaya can spin into a standard back kick or wheel kick, but that extra step helps ensure her kick won’t come up short.

If Kunitskaya is another step closer — at the regular kickboxing range — it’s largely about her left hand and right kick. Kunitskaya doesn’t often follow up with her right hand unless she’s throwing a bit recklessly, but she picks at her opponent with the jab and left hook well enough. She’ll also fire right kicks to the lead leg and head, though she doesn’t always set them up.

Outside of the occasional alternating left hand-right hand slugging (GIF), Kunitskaya doesn’t strike much from the pocket. Instead, she’s either all the way out or all the way in, striking from distance or working from the clinch. Inside the clinch, Kunitskaya makes use of strong fundamentals. She keeps her head in good position, ready to drive her forehead into her foe’s chin, a position that is difficult to answer with effective strikes. Given the chance, Kunitskaya will also cross frame her opponent’s face, breaking her posture and attacking with knees.

Wrestling

Kunitskaya does not often look for takedowns. Opposite Raquel Pa’aluhi, Kunitskaya was able to reverse takedown attempts a few times when her opponent really tried to force the throw, but from the fights that I’ve seen, Kunitskaya is not all that interested in pursuing the takedown.

Defensively, Kunitskaya did a great job opposite Pa’aluhi. On the outside, the long range and kicks up the middle were a strong deterrent to any shot. When Kunitskaya did push into the clinch, her head position largely kept her safe, although she did get head-and-arm tossed a couple times.

Alternatively, Evinger’s combination of size and wrestling experience proved too much for Kunitskaya. Evinger pressured immediately, and Kunitskaya made the mistake of trying to counter with round kicks. Against a pressuring wrestler, round kicks are more likely to result in an easily caught leg than any type of effective damage, which is how Evinger was able to score several of her takedowns.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Considering her reputation as a kickboxer, Kunitskaya has shown some very effective Brazilian jiu-jitsu from her back. She’s all about aggressive guard work, which can leave her vulnerable but is a valuable tool nonetheless.

In both of her matches with Evinger, Kunitskaya rolled up at an angle to attack her opponent’s arm. In the first match, Evinger tried to defend by pushing off on Kunitskaya’s face with her foot — not kicking her face, which is an important distinction — but the referee yelled at her to stop. The referee should not have made his request, and Kunitskaya was unable to finish the armbar as a result. The referee was in the wrong, but Kunitskaya secured a dangerous position on her own and very may have finished regardless of his interference.

In the rematch, Kunitskaya was unable to land that same armbar, but she did score with transitions from the submission. In this week’s technique highlight, we analyzed some of Kunitskaya’s transitional grappling.

Defensively, there is a definite risk to throwing up constant armbars and rolling for leg locks. If fighting a strong top fighter and those submissions don’t work, the defending fighter will likely land in a dominant position past the guard. That’s precisely what allowed Evinger to land back control, and she finished Kunitskaya with a rear-naked choke not long after.

Conclusion

At this point, it seems that the Invicta FC Bantamweight title is essentially an invitation to get pummeled by Cyborg and join UFC. The odds are hideously stacked against Kunitskaya, who is outgunned and without any major technical advantage opposite Cyborg. Barring a miracle, Kunitskaya at least can look forward to a UFC career at 135 pounds that should be more successful than her Octagon debut this weekend.

*****

Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur champion 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.