Later this year, in the conclusion of this season’s The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC will crown its first women’s flyweight champion. The organization’s best 125-pound fighter though, is currently hanging out a division above her natural weight, and at Saturday’s UFC 215, may just emerge with the bantamweight belt.
To do that, Valentina Shevchenko will have to conquer the formidable Amanda Nunes, the 29-year-old Brazilian who in her last fight sent Ronda Rousey crashing into retirement with a brutal technical knockout.
These two have history; in March 2016, Nunes defeated Shevchenko via unanimous decision. Generally, that type of result does not call for a rematch in such proximity. However, while the outcome was not in doubt at the final horn, the fight was notable in the way the momentum swung wildly from the eventual winner to the loser.
After a fairly uneventful first round, Nunes dominated the second, using her size and strength advantage to overwhelm Shevchenko on the ground. For the round, Nunes landed 43 strikes to Shevchenko’s five, and two of the judges fairly scored the action 10-8 after the one-sided beating. A win seemed assured. Yet on the way to victory, a funny thing happened: Nunes ran out of gas.
If you just tuned into the third and final round, you would have never believed what had just transpired before. In a complete turnaround, Shevchenko took Nunes down early, threatened with an armbar, and spent the rest of the round pouring on the offense. During those five minutes, she out-struck Nunes by the stunning tally of 41-3.
The result allowed both fighters to head home with the feeling that they were the better fighter; Nunes walked away with the victory, while Shevchenko could leave with the belief that she had not lost as much as she had run out of time.
As they head to the rematch, that’s significant. The book on Nunes (14-4) has long been an aggressive start followed by a tank that rapidly depletes. It’s a script that played out against Alexis Davis years earlier when Nunes was stopped late in the second round, and against Cat Zingano, who TKO’d Nunes in the third round of their 2014 fight. Against Zingano, Nunes completely fell apart, getting out-struck 79-5 in the final two rounds after comfortably winning the first.
Against Shevchenko (14-2), we watched the same phenomenon unfold again. Since Nunes has never demonstrated a fix to this problem, there’s a likelihood it resurfaces if she is forced to fight into the championship rounds for the first time in her career.
It’s realistic to assume the outcome may hinge on whether Nunes has corrected this flaw. Her late fades have been so pronounced that in bouts that have gone past the first round since 2011, she’s lost six of seven contested rounds. Moreover, she’s never won a third round in her career.
To get there, Shevchenko will have to navigate the minefield present in Nunes’ early explosions. Nunes possesses a kind of fight-changing power rarely seen in bantamweights, as evidenced by her 10 knockouts in 14 career wins. Most of her success is predicated on her boxing, with a left hook/straight right combo among her favorite techniques. She occasionally sprinkles in front kicks as well. But the thing most noticeable in Nunes’ offense is the energy she expends in unleashing it. Nunes rarely throws off-speed strikes meant as range-finders or to disrupt timing; it’s usually pure ferocity designed to be knockout blows. Her strikes are not always clean, but her aggression serves to blunt that, as she often throws combinations that slow her opponents into covering up or outright retreat.
That kind of offense has mostly served its purpose for her, as evidenced by four first-round knockouts during her current five-fight win streak. But it’s also high-risk, high-reward stuff, because when the opponent is still standing there two rounds later, fatigue has rendered her a sitting duck.
Shevchenko’s game is tailor-made for this kind of strategic matchup. The 29-year-old southpaw, who has experience in professional boxing and kickboxing, is a far more polished striker than Nunes. She has sharp kicks that often target the body, a strong right hook, and is well-seasoned in the clinch. From the position, against Nunes, she landed a damaging knee in the third that sent her rally into motion.
If there is a knock on Shevchenko, it is a continued streak of slow starts. In three of her four UFC bouts, she’s lost the first round, mostly because she does not throw a lot of volume. While she clearly values quantity over quality, at the end of five-minute rounds, the judges often credit the busier fighter over the one who landed a smattering of solid strikes.
To her benefit, in a five-round fight she has a little more time to play with. Armed with the knowledge of Nunes’ late fades, Shevchenko has downloaded plenty of data to take into the rematch.
If the fight goes to the ground, Nunes - a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt - should hold a clear advantage in the position. She has illustrated hellacious ground and pound on multiple occasions, is slick at getting to her opponent’s back, and only looks for submissions after wearing her foe down. Nunes dominated the position with her size and power in the second round of their fight, but when she tired, Shevchenko had no problem working Nunes over from the top.
Shevchenko has six career submissions, including one in her most recent win against Julianna Pena, and won’t be easily overwhelmed there. And again, as Nunes tires, the momentum will shift Shevchenko’s way.
It’s clear that the challenger’s mission is to survive the champion’s early barrages and let her aggressiveness work against her. It’s equally clear that Nunes has to find a way to successfully pace herself for the first time in her career.
Which one is more likely? When in doubt, go with the proven track record. Shevchenko has already proven that her slick striking is effective enough to dodge and counter Nunes long enough to fatigue the champion. And when that happens, Shevchenko is likely to do what many fighters before her have done to Nunes, taking the late rounds. By virtue of the five-round fight, the pick is Shevchenko to outlast Nunes and win by decision.