Saturday 8th December saw a battle of wills between Valentina Shevchenko and Joanna Jedrzejczyk. The two had fought three times before, in Muay Thai, when they were both much younger, with Valentina winning each time. Their fourth and probably final bout however, was under MMA rules, for the newly created UFC Women’s Flyweight Championship. With Valentina coming down in weight from 135, and Joanna coming up from 115, this was the best fight in WMMA since Holly Holm vs Valentina Shevchenko (which we have talked about before) in terms of pure quality of match up.
Their fights in Muay Thai compared to this one, however, are like night and day.
Thug Rose, the only woman in MMA to beat Joanna twice (which I wrote about here) used feints, distance and brutal counters in order to defeat Joanna. While the Polish warrior makes for an excellent anti-wrestler, stuffing takedowns and drawing them into striking exchanges, a savvy striker has proven difficult for Joanna in the past, so it seemed only reasonable we would see Shevchenko draw her out and defeat her standing.
While this was partly true, rather than repeat their previous fights and solely use her Muay Thai Shevchenko embraced the mixing of martial arts. Blending her excellent Muay Thai clinching skills with her judo black belt, Valentina used her size, strength and sweeps to take Joanna down and get the better of her on the ground. Ironic that it was ultimately a striker to be the first of Joanna’s opponents to effectively out wrestle her.
The game plan for both ladies was about distance. Joanna likes keeping opponents on the end of her jab and kickboxing up a storm. Valentina on the other hand prefers a fighter to come into no man’s land only to be met with a strike coming in. In this fight, Valentina was either all the way in or all the way out.
Rather than mixing her takedowns with her striking in a more conventional way, Shevchenko was reminiscent of what Ronda Rousey could have been, had she learned intelligent striking. Shevchenko was keeping range, before closing the distance with a hook, immediately tying up, a quick judo throw or Muay Thai sweep attempt later she would be on the ground and had promptly denied the Polish fighter any sort of middle ground in which to strike.
Should a takedown attempt fail, particularly one from a head and arm position, Shevchenko would simply pivot back round and throw up a knee to the head. This safety knee allowed her to stay in control of the fight regardless of how successful her takedowns were. Joanna could simply never feel safe.
Joanna attempted to feint and pressure with the jab like she normally does, but Shevchenko’s distance control was simply better. Front kicks to the face were frequently thrown, putting Joanna off of advancing too frequently, less she end up like Overeem. While Joanna’s corner repeatedly called for a long straight right, another strong technique for use against a southpaw, the issue was that Valentina was constantly slipping backwards, and the straight right would land at the very end, minimalizing its power.
Throughout the fight, Joanna’s most effective weapon was her right body kick, a classic open guard technique. It was certainly effective at gradually draining Valentina overtime, contributing to Valentina’s cardio disappearing later in the rounds. Unfortunately we just didn’t see enough of it, as Joanna could not comfortably throw without running the risk of being taken down.
So what does this loss mean for Joanna, who is now 3-2 in her last five contests? Not much. Losing to a stylistic nightmare of a match up, then going up in weight to lose against a bigger fighter who had beaten her three times before is hardly anything to be embarrassed about. If all else Joanna is still arguably the best woman to ever fight in MMA – and her willingness to go up in weight against such a difficult opponent speaks volumes.