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Valentina Shevchenko’s frustration at disputed loss should come with a lesson

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Conservative game plan plays role in UFC 215 defeat.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Just a few minutes after Bruce Buffer looked over the math, double-checked the addition and read the scorecards to the UFC 215 main event, Valentina Shevchenko unloaded in frustration. Seemingly on the brink of capturing the UFC women’s bantamweight championship, the dream was ripped away in a split decision that went against her, and for the champion Amanda Nunes.

“I really don’t understand why the victory goes to the other side,” she said in the Octagon. “For two takedowns in five rounds? She didn’t hit me with one punch. Nothing significant. Look at her face. Her nose is red from my punches. Why she is ‘and still’ [champion]? I don’t understand. Even when I was on the ground, I hit very hard from the ground position and I really don’t understand why [Nunes won].”

Since she’s asking, here is an explanation, one as clear as the gash on her leg, the one she kept pointing out as proof of how hard she had hit Nunes during the course of their fight. And that is this: Shevchenko needs to turn up the heat. She is gifted and smart and technical, but none of those things translate into points. This is a sport that rewards offense, the more dynamic the better. It’s a sport that conflates aggression with effectiveness. Much of the time, Shevchenko only brings the latter.

It’s easy to see how she reached this point. This is what her style has evolved to be, and it’s mostly served her well. For crying out loud, she was 56-2 in kickboxing, and she walked into the cage on Saturday night with a 14-2 record. A combined 60-4? That’s not just difficult to criticize; it’s dumb. Shevchenko crafted a style that has translated into winning, and she will probably continue to do just fine if she stays the course. After the fight, she seemed to suggest she would.

Asked by ESPN in the post-fight press conference if she would adjust going forward, Shevchenko shrugged.

“MMA is not only [about] who gives pressure,” she said. “It’s a very tactical fight. I don’t know why they took this decision but I can say my punches were more effective than hers. We can see videotape and see who was landing more.”

She is right and she is wrong. MMA is not only about pressure, but on the other hand, aggression is prized and scored. We can historically prove that to be true. The action is fast enough that judges (and fans) can’t always see what lands cleanly and what misses by a whisper. When outputs are close to even, scoring becomes a tossup. When opposing talents are elite, the margins blur. We often find ourselves trying to differentiate between parallel performances.

Shevchenko is a victim of two things: of her own tactical approach, and of an eternally flawed system. This is a quandary, of course, because she has spent years perfecting her style only to find its limitations within the system. But limitations must dictate evolution or end in failure.

Shevchenko had a duty to evolve here, one determined by her opponent’s past troubles. Prior to UFC 215, Nunes had ended 12 of her 18 career bouts in the first round. But when things hadn’t ended so quickly, she’d historically fallen apart. In fact, she had lost 6 out of 7 career rounds contested after the first round. With that in mind, it would have been to Shevchenko’s advantage to push a faster pace and induce fatigue in the champion. Instead, she mostly fought her typical style. Circle, circle, feint, wait, circle, counter...

Perhaps she figured Nunes was going to charge forward like a hellion any second. Perhaps she put the onus on her opponent to come forward. But that never happened. Instead, it was Nunes who evolved, pulling back and finding a comfortable pace that she could keep over the duration of 25 minutes. The approach proved pivotal for both. While Shevchenko won both the second and fourth rounds on two of the judges’ scorecards, Nunes had enough left in the tank in the fifth to take Shevchenko down twice and seal the fight.

Prior to the fight, if you had told keen MMA observers that the two would go into the fifth tied at two rounds apiece, most would have undoubtedly predicted that the belt was about to change hands. If only she’d done more beforehand, perhaps it would have. But it was her approach that failed her as much as Nunes’ preparation had her ready.

From Shevchenko, the rematch was missing almost all of the nasty clinch work that took place in the first, a position in which she landed some of her best strikes, including a knee that knocked Nunes backward and shifted the momentum of the bout. It was also short on wrestling; she only tried a single takedown. It was short on almost everything draining. This time, it was mostly a kickboxing contest for the first four rounds. Without Shevchenko dictating uncomfortable positions, Nunes could—and did—cruise. That set the stage for what would happen in the fifth and what would happen on the scorecards. Nunes was fresh enough to get the takedown, and even if you question the judges’ opinions—two scored it for Nunes even though Shevchenko landed 27 strikes to Nunes’ nine—Shevchenko allowed Nunes to conserve herself for when it mattered most.

Shevchenko will have to live with this, with what was so close, and what could have been. She may look at the judges and question their scoring, but that was not the only questionable decision made in the fight. If only she turned up the heat. If only she pushed Nunes toward the breaking point. If only.