As featherweight champion Max Holloway and challenger Brian Ortega make their walks to the cage before the UFC 231 main event, those in attendance at a sold-out Scotiabank Arena will still be digesting what should turn out to be a thrilling co-main event between Valentina Shevchenko and Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
More than six years ago at UFC 152, in the same venue as Saturday’s pay-per-view card in Toronto, Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and Joseph Benevidez competed for the inaugural UFC flyweight title in a bout that essentially introduced mainstream MMA fans to the 125-pound weight class. Johnson emerged victorious after a five-round split decision and used it to springboard his career, eventually becoming an all-time pound-for-pound great thanks to his UFC record 11 consecutive title defences. Shevchenko and Jedrzejczyk now have a similar opportunity as the UFC reintroduces the women’s flyweight title.
Jedrzejczyk had already built a solid legacy as a strawweight great but following two consecutive losses to current champ Rose Namajunas — the only two defeats of her MMA career — she needed to hit the reset button. She bounced back with an impressive unanimous decision win over Tecia Torres in July but the weight cut down to 115 pounds had started taking its toll on the Polish star.
So when the opportunity was presented to Jedrzejczyk to become a champion again, while not having to significantly decrease her caloric intake and deplete her body, she leaped at it.
“After my victory on Saturday, I will prove that I’m the G.O.A.T. [greatest of all time] of women’s MMA,” Jedrzejczyk said earlier this week at the pre-fight press conference.
She can make history by becoming the first two-weight women’s champ in UFC history. To do that she must get by Shevchenko, something she failed to do on three separate occasions in the past.
With that in mind, here’s a closer look at the UFC 231 co-main event.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Fighting out of: Lima, Peru via Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Weight: 123.5 pounds
Arm reach: 67 inches
Background: Muay Thai, kickboxing
Team: Tiger Muay Thai
MMA record: 15-3
UFC record: 4-2
Notable wins: Holly Holm, Julianna Pena, Sarah Kaufman
Notable Accomplishments: Multiple Muay Thai and kickboxing world championships; one half of the first pair of sisters in the UFC (Antonina Shevchenko also competes at flyweight), most strikes landed during a single fight in women’s UFC history
Fighting out of: Olsztyn, Poland
Weight: 123.75 pounds
Arm reach: 65 inches
Background: Kickboxing, Muay Thai
Team: American Top Team
MMA record: 15-2
UFC record: 9-2
Notable wins: Claudia Gadelha, Carla Esparza, Karolina Kowalkiewicz, Jessica Andrade, Tecia Torres
Notable Accomplishments: Former UFC strawweight champion with five successful title defences; former kickboxing champion; most fights/wins/time spent in Octagon in UFC strawweight history; holds UFC record for most all-time strikes landed in UFC title fights
— UFC Canada (@UFC_CA) December 7, 2018
Jedrzejczyk took women’s MMA by storm when she debuted in the UFC in 2014, overwhelming her foes with a blitzkrieg of fists, shins, elbows, knees, footwork, sprawls and a Chuck-Liddell-in-his-prime killer instinct.
Despite all her accomplishments, she’s a sizeable underdog against Shevchenko.
Even though she has tasted defeat in her past, Shevchenko’s persona is similar in many respects to that of stoic lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. They both hail from Russia — Shevchenko from Kyrgystan, Nurmagomedov Dagestan — but have each accrued a strong North American following. They can give you a smirk and say something amusing in their distinct broken English accents. They can also flash you a steely gaze that says, ‘You are nothing more than meat and bone to me,’ a look their previous opponents are familiar with.
Anything can happen in MMA and fighters often cloak their strategy heading into a bout. However, it seems a safe bet that the bulk of this fight will take place on the feet.
“It will be a great standup war” is how Shevchenko describes the matchup.
You won’t hear many fans call Shevchenko a boring fighter, but she is often tentative early in fights and rarely takes unnecessary risks. She’s an effective counterstriker and has shown a willingness to wait until her opponent presents an opening. One of her most impressive victories to date is her five-round unanimous decision win over former women’s bantamweight champion Holly Holm, an elite counterstriker in her own right.
Shevchenko was more patient, more accurate and there was more sting on her shots that night against Holm and it’s a scenario that could play out similarly on Saturday. Jedrzejczyk tends to be aggressive and move forward, which could play to Shevchenko’s favour.
Her patience cost her a couple rounds in her two bouts with bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, the second of which was a controversial split decision with the title on the line, but we didn’t see the slightest hint of timidity from Shevchenko in her most recent tilt when she painted the canvas crimson with Priscila Cachoeira’s blood and exploited a significant advantage on the ground.
Jedrzejczyk showed in her knockout loss to Namajunas that she is susceptible to lead left hooks. She’ll have to be aware of lead rights this time with Shevchenko being a traditional southpaw whose arsenal is equipped with a mean lead hook and check hook. Jedrzejczyk has an affinity for throwing front kicks up the middle and she should employ that strategy Saturday. Right down the pipe is where Shevchenko can be vulnerable, as is frequently the case when two opposite-stance fighters throw down.
Jedrzejczyk moves well on her feet and should have a speed advantage, which will aid in her attempt to avoid the power shots of Shevchenko. She may also carry a bit more power into the cage with her this time.
“I feel so happy,” Jedrzejczyk said regarding the lack of weight she had to cut preparing for this fight. “This camp I realized how difficult it is and how the weight cut and being on strict diet for so many weeks can impact your body, your brain and your performance so this camp was different because I was able to do more. Actually, before every camp I’m like ‘quality over quantity’ but this camp actually it was quality and quantity every single day.
“She’s very tough physically, mentally, she knows what she wants and she doesn’t give up. She never gives up, so I’m looking forward to Saturday but I’m in the best shape ever. You can see that I look strong but I’m very powerful and ready. I’m ready to take this belt home, baby.”
Jedrzejczyk’s work rate is roughly twice that of Shevchenko on the feet. The former strawweight lands 6.44 strikes per minute compared to the former bantamweight’s 3.31 strikes landed per minute.
In the grappling department, Shevchenko has a clear edge despite Jedrzejczyk being fully capable on the ground. Shevchenko boasts decent takedowns and trips from various headlock positions, but only look for her to go in that direction if she’s losing the standup exchanges. Shevchenko has submitted two of her past three opponents so Jedrzejczyk must be wary.
Cardio won’t be an issue for either woman. Neither will a lack of confidence.
There’s no false bravado with these two.
“You know, for me, result is already, like, I know the result. There is no way that I will leave this city without the belt,” Shevchenko said.
If there was a slight edge in confidence it would go to Shevchenko since she picked up three decision victories over Jedrzejczyk from 2006-2008 when the two competed against one another in Muay Thai tournaments.
Jedrzejczyk has been asked about that trilogy plenty in the lead-up to this fight.
“I know how good she is,” Jedrzejczyk explained. “My camp, my coaches [at American Top Team] they know how good she is. They were preparing Amanda Nunes for two fights with Valentina, so we had the perfect plan even before we heard about this fight, even before we signed the agreement for this fight, so I’m more than ready. I look forward, I don’t look back. I take lessons from every single day but I’m moving forward. It doesn’t matter. It was a decade ago. It’s totally different pairs of shoes, different feel.”
Shevchenko, on the other hand, thinks their history will play a role in this fight. She’s also hoping to beat the best possible version of Jedrzejczyk.
“One thing when you are faced [off] with someone who you don’t know, you don’t know the power, the speed and the rest,” Shevchenko said. “I know what to expect from Joanna. I know her power, I know her speed and it’s totally fine with me that she’s ready 100 per cent because I never was looking for a fight with a fighter who’s not ready for the fight.”