Mexico’s finest Bantamweight, Irene Aldana, will attempt to steal gold from “The Lioness,” Amanda Nunes, this Saturday (June 3, 2023) at UFC 289 inside Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia.
It’s somewhat shocking that Aldana is 35 years old, but her career length actually explains the confusion a bit. She began her professional journey in 2012, joining the UFC roster a short four years later. She showed some inexperience and growing pains, losing her first two fights and failing to really make an impact until years later.
Knocking out Ketlen Vieira in 2019 feels like a real turning point. That’s when Aldana became a true contender, and though she hasn’t been perfect since then, “Robles” definitely has the boxing form and punching power to threaten the newly reminted double champ.
Let’s take a closer look at her skill set:
Lobo Gym in Guadalajara, Mexico knows how to train MMA fighters to box. Alongside team mate and now-champion Alexa Grasso, Aldana has represented her team well, utilizing strong fundamentals and form to land heavy shots on the feet.
From the outside, Aldana moves well and feints actively, two great keys to success. “Robles” is always circling laterally, shifting directions often and given her opponent a more difficult target. All the while, she’ll be pumping out her lead shoulder a bit or mixing some low kicks into her movement. In particular, Aldana does a nice job of leaning back with an inside low kick as her foe moves to cut off the cage.
Perhaps more than anything else, what stands out most about Aldana is her educated lead hand. A majority of her volume comes from her left hand, as Aldana works to establish her longest punches. Aldana jabs and double jabs often, either using the punch to cover her lateral movement or advance on her opponent.
Aldana attacks the body well, both by jabbing to the mid-section and looking to rip her left hook to the liver.
Aldana really does a nice job of playing the jab and left hook off one another. She’ll double jab and then throw a jab-hook next time instead, looking to hook around the parry. Sometimes, she’ll feint the body jab and come up with a left hook. Aldana will go straight from a high jab to raise the guard into digging into the liver.
There’s a lot of layers to that left hand (GIF)!
Another element to Aldana’s left hand is her head movement. Aldana is consistently shifting her head from side-to-side proactively. Defensively, it’s great to be a moving target, but she can also be a bit predictable with her patterns, which is no good. Regardless of the defensive consequence, her head movement does allow her to subtly load her weight onto her lead leg. Loading up that way can result in an extra springy jab, or, as Vieira found out the difficult way, a particularly heavy left hook (GIF).
All this left hand talk is not to say Aldana’s right hand is useless.
It’s pretty simple though, typically following Aldana’s jab or hook straight down the middle. She’ll take the cross to the bread basket as well, which is a great idea. Aldana has looked for the right uppercut a lot as well ... to mixed results. More helpfully, Aldana’s favorite counter punch is a quick cross. As she backs off from a combination with her guard high, Aldana will plant her feet and shoot a cross down the middle, hoping to time her opponent reaching.
Against Holly Holm, a severe weakness was revealed in Aldana’s game: offensive foot work. She may do well working the outside, but when forced to walk an opponent down, Aldana’s habit of stepping one leg at a time — rather than being a bit lighter on her feet — can make her look far slower. It’s the old Diaz boxing problem: an inability to cut off the cage combined with slow feet can make for a miserable night against a mobile opponent.
Holm battered Aldana. It was bad. Aldana just kept walking into shots, playing directly into Holm’s preferred style of fighting and getting beaten up as a result.
Aldana hasn’t actually scored a takedown since her UFC debut, a late double-leg that saw Leslie Smith stand up pretty much instantly.
More important is Aldana’s ability to stop the shot. Unfortunately, her takedown defense is a bit of a mixed bag. On the plus side, her style of fighting and physicality tend to hold up well. Scoring the takedown on a long and strong opponent who is moving their feet consistently is rarely an easy task, even if they have some technical weaknesses.
Generally, Aldana’s go-to defense is to pull opponents off her legs and into the clinch. From that position, her size and strength are impactful. Plus, she does good work in using forearm frames to score good head position, at which point she’s able to dig underhooks or at least prevent the takedown.
The issues come in footwork. As mentioned above, Aldana followed Holm all around the cage, and her predictable forward movement left a sitting duck for the reactive double leg takedown. Macy Chiasson looked to employ a similar strategy, finding success when able to get Aldana near the fence and duck into a double leg shot.
Back in Invicta FC, Aldana secured a pair of rear-naked chokes largely by overwhelming her foes with physicality and aggression. She’s since scored a single submission inside the Octagon — an armbar win over Bethe Correia — so let’s focus on that victory.
Admittedly, it’s not the most amazing piece of jiu-jitsu in the world. Correia took perhaps the worst shot in UFC history, and Aldana wisely jammed her face into the fence and stepped into a partial back mount. Correia attempted to sneak out the back door, but Aldana fell on the arm, forcing the submission with a belly-down armbar.
More recently, Aldana actually did some really slick work on the canvas opposite Chiasson. In the first round, Aldana denied a takedown with a whizzer, and she opted to hop over the back and throw on an armbar, Ronda Rousey-style. It worked! Keeping the trapped wrist tucked in her armpit, Aldana was able to nastily hyperextend Chiasson’s elbow joint, which at one point did force a single tap from the BJJ brown belt ... but the fight continued.
In the third round, a seemingly innocuous upkick from Aldana hit Chiasson in the body and finished the fight. I have no explanation here, only a hypothesis. Likely, come confluence of Chiasson cutting a lot of weight, a prior injury, and the perfect placement of the heel from Aldana resulted in the finish (GIF).
What’s funny is that Chiasson was seemingly on her way to a victory before the flukey finish. BUT, she also tapped to the round one armbar, so it’s a great win from Aldana any way you slice it!
Aldana can stand with Nunes and maybe even knock her out. There’s reason to believe the Brazilian is losing a step, and it’s not like she has the foot work or style to really frustrate Aldana like Holly Holm. The biggest issue seems to be grappling, as Aldana has yet to demonstrate the kind of defensive wrestling necessary to turn away “The Lioness.”
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional 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.