Newly crowned women’s Flyweight queen, Alexa Grasso, seeks to defend her throne opposite prior roost-ruler, Valentina Shevchenko, this Saturday (Sept. 16, 2023) at Noche UFC inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Flyweight has proven to be the correct division for Grasso. She quickly put together an undefeated (4-0) run after jumping up 10 pounds and seemed better prepared to push the pace, resulting in her title shot against “Bullet.” In that performance, Grasso really put it on the champion. The fight was back-and-forth, but Grasso hit Shevchenko cleanly in the face more than anyone in recent memory. Shockingly, getting cracked a few times affects decision-making, and when Shevchenko made a mistake, Grasso capitalized perfectly with an opportunistic rear-naked choke (watch highlights).
Let’s take a closer look at her skill set and see if she can do it again:
Lobo Gym deserves credit for developing good boxing fundamentals in MMA fighters. Grasso keeps her hands high, puts together combinations well, and gets her head off the center line more than most — all good traits that serve her well in extended exchanges!
Often, Grasso likes to give ground. Even as the woman who commonly has the shorter reach, Grasso is more than willing to work at long range. She’s able to do so on the strength of her footwork, as Grasso doesn’t just hang out and wait to get jabbed up. She’s switching directions and showing feints, forcing her opponent to play along or fall behind.
Most MMA fighters tend to reach when they punch at distance. They’ll march or lean forward, even switching stances while throwing in the hopes of connecting. As a result, whoever attacks Grasso is often falling into her range, even if she was the smaller fighter. When this happens, Grasso tends to answer really well, most often by slipping her head inside and firing an overhand.
Grasso doesn’t just apply the cross counter, however. Usually, that’s just the start of her combination, as Grasso tends to counter in three and four strike combinations. The right hand and left hook are her main weapons (GIF), and she does well to continually get her head off the centerline while in the pocket.
Kicks are a significant part of Grasso’s offense. She does well at interrupting her opponents advance with a quick switch kick with the lead leg or more of a side kick from either side. In addition, those pocket combos that make up so much of Grasso’s attack are very often punctuated by a low kick.
Grasso’s strategy against Shevchenko was a notable departure from her usual approach, though her usual strength of good boxing form was on display. Most notably, Grasso operated as more of a pressure fighter, and she did so mostly from the Southpaw stance.
Pressuring the kicker is an obvious enough move — does anyone at 125-pounds beat Shevchenko in a range kick contest? — but the Southpaw move was really brilliant. It effectively took away one of Shevchenko’s best range weapons, the powerful left round kick. Instead, Shevchenko opted to use quick and relatively harmless inside low kicks as well as the jab at distance.
The jab gave Grasso problems, because a high guard in MMA offers little protection from a snappy jab sneaking through the center. Still, Grasso got more of the boxing match that she desired without Shevchenko’s left kick in play, and that’s worth taking some jabs.
How did Grasso win the boxing exchanges? It comes down to a few factors. For one, she took her head off the center line more than Shevchenko did, which is a huge difference-maker. Secondly, Grasso fired more punches to the body, an effective response to Shevchenko’s usual pull-and-fire preference.
Most importantly, Grasso repeatedly got inside Shevchenko’s check right hook, a signature “Bullet” weapon. Without the usual benefit of an extra bit of range, Shevchenko’s reliance on the shot became predictable. Set up by her body work and consistent pressure, Grasso was able to sneak her left cross inside the check hook, a connection that’s especially dangerous — think Kamaru Usman vs. Jorge Masvidal, or Sean Strickland’s knockdown vs. Israel Adesanya just last weekend! Those examples are all orthodox vs. orthodox, but the principle is the same when both athletes are Southpaw.
Grasso has three losses in her UFC career, and getting outwrestled played a role in each defeat. Earlier in her career, it seemed like physicality and inexperience were holding her back. Grasso would attempt to defend properly, but she would get out-hustled or fall into a trap. Both of those issues seem to have improved over the years as Grasso has settled into the Flyweight division and accrued Octagon time.
Even so, she struggled against Shevchenko’s level changes. In the clinch, Grasso did well to frame at the waist or change angles before Shevchenko could really grab hold of her. Below the waist, however, Grasso was bowled over pretty much any time that Shevchenko timed the shot well.
That’s a concern ahead of the rematch.
Offensively, takedowns have grown to be more of a part of Grasso’s strategy. For example, she took down Joanne Wood twice. The first came as Wood tried to crash into the clinch and immediately fire a knee. Grasso countered perfectly, catching the knee and framing with her other hand to topple Wood over. Later, Wood overextended with an overhook throw, allowing Grasso to circle towards the back and take her the other direction. The back take against Shevchenko was less of a takedown and more of a full-on flying spider monkey leap towards the back mount, but it worked!
Grasso is a brown belt, and both of her career submissions happened in similar fashion within her last three fights.
Against both Wood and Shevchenko, Grasso jumped the back quickly and immediately attacked the neck. The element of surprise is a real factor, and often, the initial couple seconds when gaining the back mount are a fighter’s best chance at sneaking under the chin before their opponent is fully aware of the position they’re in. Such was the case of the “Bullet” submission, as Grasso transitioned from side stepping a kick to having her arm wrapped around the chin/throat in literal seconds (GIF).
The Wood finish was a touch slower but demonstrated a nice wrinkle of technique, namely that Grasso did very well to immediately switch choke arms and create the opening for the neck. She first threatened with one side, then as soon as Wood started to push that arm off her face, Grasso cut across with her other arm, sacrificing a bit of control to immediately attack the neck a second time.
Grasso should be favored here. She’s the younger fighter with far less combat sports mileage, and she demonstrated last time that she can effectively gameplan for elite opposition.
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.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire Noche UFC fight card right here, starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance (also on ESPN+) at 10 p.m. ET.
To check out the latest and greatest Noche UFC: “Grasso vs. Shevchenko 2” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.