In the run-up to their UFC 231 co-main event bout, a great deal of attention was given to the three Muay Thai bouts between Valentina Shevchenko and Joanna Jedrzejczyk. As Shevchenko was victorious in all three bouts, many used this as “evidence” that she was the superior striker coming into the fight. While it creates a compelling narrative, the difference between a Muay Thai bout and mixed martial arts are so significant that it is fair to disregard the previous matchups as irrelevant.
MMA offers agile fighters (such as Jedrzejczyk) more opportunities to evade bigger opponents (such as Shevchenko) as the cage is more open, allowing for the style of quick in-and-out striking that Jedrzejczyk likes to employ. This style would prove troublesome for Shevchenko, as Jedrzejczyk would be able to utilize her speed and conditioning advantages to jump into range, deal damage and hop back out before her opponent could hit her. If Shevchenko didn’t find a way to stop this attack, Jedrzejczyk would be able to rack up significant damage, forcing Shevchenko to overextend and possibly be countered trying to catch the quicker fighter.
Realizing the threat of Jedrzejczyk’s elusive striking style, Shevchenko successfully shut down her opponent’s game by making effective use of the clinch, which leads to a plethora of takedowns. One of the most underappreciated aspects of mixed martial arts is how the threat of the takedown severely hinders a fighter’s striking skills. An inferior striker can outstrike a superior striker if there is a real threat of being taken down.
By creating the fear of being clinched and taken to the mat, a pugilist who is less skilled than their opponent on the feet can force the opponent to change their stance, throw off their timing, and scare them away from fully committing to their strike. To throw a strike that has the potential for a knockout, a fighter has to commit their feet to the floor, which makes them vulnerable to being clinched or taken down. If they are fearful of being taken down, they will not commit their feet to the floor, preventing them from generating enough power to inflict damage.
Due to Shevchenko’s effective use of the clinch and subsequent takedowns, Jedrzejczyk was severely hindered in her ability to implement her nimble striking style, which all but negated the lone advantages of speed and agility she had over her larger opponent. This allowed Shevchenko to force Jedrzejczyk into a more stationary fight on the feet, which suited her bullish striking style and size advantage nicely, allowing her to capture the unanimous decision victory.
Shevchenko’s first takedown of the bout came at just over the first-minute mark. As Jedrzejczyk darted into range in an attempt to strike Shevchenko, Shevchenko ducked under her jab and secured an underhook. Countering correctly, Jedrzejczyk established an overhook to protect her hips and circled away from the underhook. Little could be done though, as Shevchenko executed a rear thigh trip and took her opponent to the mat.
This first exchange, just shy over a minute into the fight, did much more than achieve a takedown. Although Shevchenko never inflicted catastrophic damage to her opponent while they were on the floor, she showed Jedrzejczyk that she was vulnerable to being clinched and taken down when darting into range paid dividends throughout the rest of the fight, as the Polish fighter became increasingly hesitant to hop into range.
While her previous clinch entry came off of Jedrzejczyk’s jab, Shevchenko also made effective use of entering off of attempted kicks. While the nimble in-and-out style of striking utilized by Jedrzejczyk allows for a fighter to enter and exit their opponent’s range swiftly, this changes when the fighter is implementing kicks. A kick requires a much longer “time of commitment” than a punch, meaning that their feet have to be stationary for a longer period. While kicks are powerful, the tradeoff is that this time of commitment opens the fighter up to the takedown.
At the close of the first round, Shevchenko closed in on her opponent after a Jedrzejczyk throws a kick. Although she didn’t achieve the takedown before the round expired, this exchange resulted in Jedrzejczyk returning to her corner with the threat of the clinch looming in the front of her mind.
In the second round Shevchenko was able to capitalize on Jedrzejczyk’s use of the kicks, this time with more punishing results. As Jedrzejczyk throws a right kick, Shevchenko steps out to her right to minimize the force of impact, catching the kick and immediately driving Jedrzejczyk into the fence and to the floor. As Jedrzejczyk posted to get back to her feet, she gave up the double under hooks body lock, which Shevchenko used to hoist her up into the air and slam her back down onto the mat.
Over and over we saw Shevchenko counter Jedrzejczyk’s hop-ins and kicks by meeting her head on, charging in while grabbing a clinch and stopping the lighter fighter’s dynamic movement.
In this clip from the second round, although the clinch did not lead to a takedown, the tactic pays dividends in warding off Jedrzejczyk’s commitment to the “hop”.
In round three, a head-and-arm clinch led to a punishing knee to Jedrzejczyk’s skull upon the break.
Here we start to see Jedrzejczyk more hesitant to bounce into striking range, instead choosing to take a more traditional, stagnant approach that will prevent the overcommitment that Shevchenko had been utilizing to take her down. Still, the larger fighter is able to secure a grip and drive her opponent into the fence, shutting down the dynamic striking of the Polish fighter altogether.
Round four is where the spoils of Shevchenko’s clinching strategy manifest in their entirety. Shevchenko’s insistence upon clinching upon every entry has force Jedrzejczyk to entirely abandon her “in-and-out” striking style in favor of a more traditional, stagnant approach.
Here we see Jedrzejczyk barely outside of her opponent’s reach. While she is moving dynamically, it is mostly up and down, not the back in forth that succeeds in throwing off her opponent’s timing. As Jedrzejczyk is now within range, Shevchenko throws a round kick, and her opponent decides to return fire. As previously discussed, kicks require a commitment to the floor, creating ample opportunity for a takedown. Shevchenko seizes on this opportunity, grabbing her opponent and rag dolling her to the mat.
By the end of the fourth, the former strawweight champion, who is known for quickly darting in and out of her opponent’s effective range and never pausing long enough to be hit, is in a stagnant stand-and-trade slugfest. She is walking down her opponent and setting her feet when she throws, taking shots as a result. This style of fighting is exactly what Shevchenko was hoping for, playing right into her skillset.
Through her constant insistence on clinching Jedrzejczyk every time she leaped into range, Shevchenko was able to frighten the smaller combatant into a more static, traditional style of striking that allowed Shevchenko to circumvent her opponent’s speed advantage and land significant shots. We can see this manifest in the discrepancy of Jedrzejczyk’s approach between the beginning and the end of the bout.
Here, while she is fresh in the first round, the former strawweight champion is able to make effective use of her speed and agility, darting in and out of Shevchenko’s effective range. Unable to catch her, the only way Shevchenko can inflict damage is to rush head first into Jedrzejczyk’s “hop” while her feet are committed to the floor.
As opposed to the end of the fight, when Shevchenko’s effective use of the clinch has forced Jedrzejczyk to abandon the in and out approach and move into traditional striking range. From here, she has the option to retreat away from takedown threats more effectively but is now susceptible to being hit by her opponent’s much stronger strikes. In this clip we see the two combatants trading blows from a traditional striking distance, a situation that greatly favors Shevchenko’s size and power advantages while making Jedrzejczyk’s attributes of superior speed and agility almost useless.
By coming up with an analytical game plan that scared her opponent away from utilizing her strongest advantages, Shevchenko was able to force the bout into engagements that favored her. By punishing the quick in-and-out darts with the threat of the clinch and subsequent takedown, Shevchenko was able to draw Jedrzejczyk into engagements that resembled their Muay Thai fights all those years ago. Although they were competing under different rule sets, Valentina Shevchenko was able to use a well thought out and near perfectly executed approach to force the fight onto terms that she wanted, and she rightfully earned the UFC Women’s Flyweight Championship for it.