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Head to Head: Valentina Shevchenko Vs. Julianna Peña

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Valentina Shevchenko vs Julianna Pena UFC

On Saturday night the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado, plays host to a fight between top bantamweight contenders Julianna Peña and Valentina Shevchenko. The two women find themselves at the top of the pile of contenders at 135 pounds.

Miesha Tate has retired. Ronda Rousey may be doing the same. Holly Holm is fighting for UFC gold at 145 pounds at UFC 208. Space has formed in the bantamweight division, aiding Peña and Shevchenko’s rise to the top.

Whether reigning bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes opts to fight for the 145 pound title or not, the winner of the Peña – Shevchenko bout seems a lock to fight for the bantamweight belt at some point.

To help figure out who is going to get that win and tell you all you need to know about both competitors, Victor Vargas and Stephen Rivers take a look at their respective chances of getting the win on FOX on Saturday.

VARGAS on PEÑA

Season 13 of The Ultimate Fighter was the first season to ever allow women to participate. Veterans like Tonya Evinger, Colleen Schneider, Tara Larosa, Shayna Baszler and Roxanne Modafferi were all thought to be shoe-ins as finalists or winners, but most of those weren’t able to get in the house and the ones that did were dispatched in the opening elimination fight.

The first fight of the season was between Shayna Baszler and Julianna Peña. The lesser known Peña was given little chance against the WMMA pioneer, but she made easy work of “The Queen of Spades” by submitting the catch wrestler in the first round.

Semi-finalist Sarah Moras was also submitted and Peña put in a dominant ground and pound display against former boxer Jessica Rakoczy to win the TUF 13 contract.

Not much has changed since 2013. Peña has not shown too much improvement in other areas. A catastrophic knee injury following the Rakoczy fight put her on the sidelines for over a year and was most likely a cause for her stagnant skill set. Nevertheless, her grappling has become more layered and educated.

“The Venezuelan Vixen” is a ball of fury and her stand-up exemplifies that. Bullrushing her way into the clinch has been Peña’s modus operandi since her debut, but she hasn’t stopped in finding ways of getting the fight to the mat.

Peña’s last fight with former title challenger Cat Zingano showed how much she’s matured. Zingano is well-rounded, and as ferocious as Peña. It didn’t matter, as Peña was patient and determined and was able to outgrapple the powerful wrestler.

Shevchenko has some respectable grappling skills, especially in the clinch but she will be at a disadvantage at any point that Peña is able to clasp her hands together around her. “Bullet” is an appropriate nickname for Shevchenko. Aside from being a firearm enthusiast she is also lightning fast. Being fleet of foot will be essential for her victory. Shevchenko’s win over Holm showed how proficient her striking is.

Hindsight being 20/20, it’s rather obvious why Shevchenko was able to out-slick the former champion. Holm is an out-fighter first and foremost. The Rousey fight was a class A study in how to evade and punish an aggressive, novice striker. Holm countered excellently because Rousey was doing half of Holm’s job by rushing in with her chin up in the air.

Shevchenko was the naturally quicker fighter and Holm is notorious for throwing feelers out to gauge distance. For a striker as experienced and knowledgable as Shevchenko, Holm was a treat.

As backward as it may seem, Peña might be a trickier opponent despite her lack of striking. Peña like Holm, is an out-fighter. Unlike Holm, Peña is one out of necessity rather than choice. Peña has not developed any nuance in her striking game and that may be to her advantage. Shevchenko is adept at reading opponents, since Peña has no educated manner of attacking opponents it makes her a bit more unpredictable.

Peña will bumrush her way into the clinch and will most likely be able to take her down. On the mat, Shevchenko is passive, very defensively oriented but Peña is good at both attacking and her last performance showed she’s getting better at maintaining top position and riding. Shevchenko’s footwork is great and will pose problems for Peña but getting the fight to the floor and maintaining top position for three of the five rounds sounds manageable.

Prediction: Julianna Peña by a close competitive decision.

RIVERS on SHEVCHENKO

Valentina Shevchenko can do more than win on Saturday night. She has the tools to make Julianna Pena look bad. That would leave no doubt that Shevchenko is the next contender for the 135 pound title.

Everything about Shevchenko’s three-fight UFC run has been remarkable. Sarah Kaufman is one of the greatest bantamweights of all time. Shevchenko took a fight with her on nine days notice and won. Not bad for a UFC debut.

Amanda Nunes has wrecked every opponent she has faced since moving to American Top Team, apart from Valentina Shevchenko. During that run, Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate — the two greatest bantamweights in MMA history — had nothing for Nunes. They lasted a combined four minutes and four seconds. Shevchenko took Nunes to a decision, and won the third round in their fight.

Then there was Holly Holm. A bigger, longer, expert striker who had put in two stellar performances against Rousey and Tate herself. Shevchenko won four of the five rounds in her fight with Holm, eventually cruising to a decision win.

All mightily impressive, but Kaufman, Nunes, and Holm are all very different fighters to Julianna Pena. That’s why I’m expecting this to be the easiest fight of the lot.

The knock against Shevchenko is that she is gun-shy early in fights, unwilling to trade and open up on the feet. In a five round fight, that is less of a problem than it was over three rounds against Nunes.

Playing into that is the fact that Pena, for all her tenacity and dogged determination, is not a natural finisher when faced with legitimate opposition. Both Jessica Eye and Cat Zingano survived on the ground before losing to Pena by decision. Facing Amanda Nunes — a better and more dangerous grappler than Pena — Shevchenko survived there too, and had gas left in the tank in the subsequent third round.

Also of note in a five round main event is that we have seen Shevchenko fight for 25 minutes in the past. We know what we get from her. Technically sound is a term that does not do Shevchenko justice. There is no wasted motion, and that contributes to Shevchenko’s ability to increase her output as the fight goes on.

This is not to say that Julianna Pena has cardio issues in a five round fight, — although chasing an opponent while being countered effectively will tire anyone — but we haven’t seen her in the main event rounds before. It could become a factor.

Shevchenko times her counter strikes better than anyone else in the 135 pound division. She adapts quickly during fights, and lands with regularity when opponents commit. The harder they chase as the fight gets away from them, the more Shevchenko punches them square in the face.

If Pena tries to work into the clinch, Shevchenko is not only able to land with power from that position, but is also physically strong and hard to muscle around. Pena’s ability to womanhandle previous opponents has played a part in her success. If Pena is unable to do that against Shevchenko, this becomes an almost unwinnable fight for her.

Pena often takes one or two strikes just to get into range and grab a hold of opponents, but that brings no guarantee of success here either. Shevchenko is the quicker and more mobile fighter and should be able to outmaneuver Pena more effectively the longer the fight goes on.

That is really how I see this fight playing out. I don’t see Pena being able to take the fight into areas where she has an advantage often enough. On the feet, it is hard to put into words how much better Shevchenko is than Pena. It is a vast gap that will only get wider with each passing round.

Prediction: Shevchenko by TKO in the main event rounds, or one-sided decision.

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Fight Announcements

Jacare Souza vs. Kelvin Gastelum Official for UFC 224

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Brazils second UFC event of the new year added another middleweight contest. UFC officials announced, Kelvin Gastelum will face Jacare Souza in Rio de Janeiro at UFC 224.

The inevitable main card booking of Souza comes after headlining UFC on Fox 27. The Brazilian fighter is 3-2 in his last 5. His recent contests only look worrisome in comparison to the entirety of his long career. Prior to his past 5, Souza held an eight fight win streak. In that period of time, he defeated Gegard Mousasi, Derek Brunson (for the first time), and Chris Camozzi twice. Despite the drama words and numbers on screens create, his recent record is nothing to have concern over. A split decision loss to Yoel Romero in 2015, and a 2017 TKO loss to division champion, Robert Whittaker is manageable. Defeating Derek Brunson in the opening round of their main event bout kept him deep in the milky opaque froth that is the middleweight title picture. Clearly his position in that photo lies upon the upcoming match up.

Looking ahead for Jacare Souza, assuming he wins, becomes interesting, just as it devastating for Kelvin Gastelum. Gastelum is 3-1 since returning to middleweight, technically his record sits at 2-1 and 1 No Contest. He tested positive for marijuana in a sample collected the night of his bout against Vitor Belfort by USADA in March of 2017. Originally, the outcome of the bout read the way viewers remembered it; a 1st rd. TKO in favor of Gastelum. On May 7th, 2017, the win was officially overturned and changed to a No Contest. He also received a 90 day suspension, adjusted to the day of the failed test (March 11th).

In the aftermath of the failed test, his scheduled contest against Anderson Silva. He then split his next two contests, losing to Chris Weidman and defeating Michael Bisping emphatically, yet under odd circumstances. A win for Gastelum certainly muddies the waters of middleweight contenders, while adding to a good 185 lb. resume.

UFC 224 takes place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on May 12th, 2018 at the Jeunesse Arena. A battle betwen Brazilians is set for the date as Lyoto Machida takes on Vitor Belfort. Other featured bouts include; Aleksei Oleynik vs. Junior Albini*, Cezar Ferreira vs. Karl Roberson*, Alberto Mina vs. Ramazan Emeev, and Davi Ramos vs. Nick Hein*.

*Bouts reportedly set for UFC 224

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Exclusive: Mike Ekundayo, “He could come with anything, I don’t care”

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In a little less than a week, Rise of Champions crowns its inaugural bantamweight champion. The crowning of the first 135 lb. champion marks the young promotions first champion. It makes sense why the promotion owned and operated by UK MMA star, Brad Pickett, and Team Titan head coach, Mickey Papas plan to crown the promotions first champion in the bantamweight division. Pickett competed in the division throughout his tenure with the WEC, and ultimately the entity which absorbed the light weight promotion, the UFC. Even more-so, two young and rising prospects of the division. One undefeated in his professional and amateur career, the other riding a seven consecutive victories, five by submission. The two meet February 17th, Mike Ekundayo puts his career unbeaten streak up against Jonas Magard’s at ROC 5, for the aforementioned, inaugural bantamweight championship.

Speaking to the undefeated Ekundayo before his fight, he believes this opportunity to be inevitable. Born in Hackney, (a borough of London) early in life, Ekundayo was no stranger to cramming his belongings into large cardboard boxes. At the age of 7, he moved from Hackney to Herne Hill, a district located in South London. Two years later he found himself in similar situation, moving from his vaguely new home in Herne Hill to Brixton. A road trip in the car to his new home, took approximately 5 minutes.

It is admittedly, not an easy life. In a harrowing article describing the horrors of gang life in London by the metro.uk, former gang member turned community activist, made the claim, “When you are from Brixton, from Peckham, west London, anywhere in London, you are seeing hardship where a lot of communities can’t reach their full potential”.

In his own words, Ekundayo describes his home as, “not the best start to have in your life. It’s not the best upbringing”. But that couldn’t matter any less for him. Not only does the London resident consistently work to grow his potential, he gets to see it every day. His coaches Brad Pickett and Mickey Papas hold the knowledge as well as first-hand experience, increasing his limits with every session. “We’re all close”, speaking of his coaches and team. “My head coach is Mickey Papas, he’s very knowable in the game. He’s been around for a very long time. He teaches me a lot, I can learn a lot of stuff from Mickey Papas. Sometimes I just think, how does he know all of this? Where did he get this information from?”

He continued, “While I was coming up through amateur, Brad (Pickett) was still an active fighter, but nowadays he’s taken a coaching approach. So he’s coaching us prospects getting us to where he got to and further… He’s been through it all, gotten to the top, and stayed at the top”.

Further discussing his coach, “For UK MMA, you could definitely call Brad a legend. He’s done a lot in his career, and someone who I rate highly as an MMA fighter is Demetrious Johnson, and of course Brad has got a win over (him). I feel like just being surrounded by someone like Brad, you’re working towards the right things. When he passes information onto you, you respect it that bit more because of far he got in his career. He’s definitely given me the right guidance, I trust his guidance”.

When it comes to the upcoming title fight, confidence poured out from where praise and respect had once been. “I just think it’s my time, to be honest. I really do believe it’s my time for all of this. The work I put in, certain things become inevitable”, he said. “I actually called this after I won my third fight, I called for belts and big shows. I spoke it to existence”. He continued, “It’s my time to finally to get a strap of some sort. All the straps is what we’re going for, all of them. We’re going for every one”.

“Rise of Champions is my show… That’s how I feel when I’m performing on ROC, it’s just my show, it’s my time to shine. Everyone knows who there here to see, there not really there to see the other guys. It’s my time, it’s my show and I’m going to put on a show on February 17th and I’m going to win that belt”.

The infectious nature of his positive attitude was palpable. Although we only spoke through small rectangular devices, I could feel his energy in the room. His attitude shined brightest when talking about what it would mean to be the first ever ROC Bantamweight champion. Ekundayo claimed, “It just means a lot to have my first belt in anything to be honest… Within myself, I call myself a champion, every day. But now, other people would have to call me a champion because I’ve got a belt… And one thing I really want to do is, which sounds a bit weird, I just want to take the belt home to my area, to Brixton.”

“I just want to take it to my area, and just show the people of that area what hard work can achieve… I want to just take it to my people and show them that not for nothing, we are from Brixton, it’s not the best start to have in your life. It’s not the best upbringing but you can rise above it and you can achieve your goals and that’s what the belt will mean”.

When the conversation shifted to the topic of his opponent, Ekundayo had less encouraging words rolling off his tongue. Jonas Magard, the second half of the ROC 5 main event, holds a record of 7-4. Currently he owns a seven fight win streak after starting his career 1-3. Ekundayo thought, “He did fight quite decent guys in his three loses… but in the seven fight win streak, none of his opponents have been of caliber”.

He elaborated further, “What’s in my thoughts is more me, then it is of him. So, he could come with anything, I don’t care. I’m just focused on how I’m going to be picture perfect. How I’m going to paint a masterpiece, how I’m going to make it a beautifully perfect performance. That’s what my primary focus is on, so what he does to me is irrelevant, I’m just going to focus on how I’m going to be perfect on the night of February 17th”.

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Announcement

UFC 222 Re-Worked with Cris Cyborg vs. Yana Kunitskaya, and Frankie Edgar vs. Brian Ortega

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UFC 222 has been saved, and it didn’t take a superhero to lift the burning boulder which was Max Holloway’s injury and withdrawal. All it took was a female named Cyborg and a man with a demeanor so smooth, he could be mistaken for an alter-ego. Cris Cyborg now serves as the UFC 222 main event when she defends her featherweight belt against Yana Kunitskaya. Frankie Edgar bumped down to the co-main event to face Brian Ortega in what is likely a title eliminator. The news of the UFC 222 revival originally stemmed from a report by MMAFighting.com and confirmed later in the evening by the UFC.

Over the course of the week, reports surrounded the Las Vegas card and whether it would survive. Multiple options were reportedly being mulled over; cancelling the card outright, changing the pay-per-view (PPV) to a ‘Fight Night’ with an Edgar vs. Ortega main event, Dillashaw vs. Garbrandt 2 main event, among others. Ultimately, the promotion landed on Cyborg vs. Kunitskaya as the new main event, while also booking Brian Ortega.

This adjustment of the card places their women’s Featherweight champion in the second PPV main event in three months. Cris Cyborg recently put her undisputed Featherweight title on the line against Holly Holm at the year ending card, UFC 219. She successfully defended her belt by unanimous decision, in what was an amazing technical display from the Brazilian. In her octagon career, Cyborg is undefeated in her four appearances with three KO/TKO stoppages.

The second half of the new main event, Yana Kunitskaya, makes her UFC debut against the scariest women on the roster. If the 145 lb. champion was not enough of a challenge, Kunitskaya also makes her first appearance in the division since defeating Cindy Dandois in December of 2010. Of Russia descent, her most recent performances came inside the Invicta FC cage. At the female-only promotion, she posted a record of 1-1, with 1 No Contest. Her loss and no contest, both came at the hands of former UFC Featherweight title challenger, Tonya Evinger.

Turning to the co-main event, both fighters have been relatively inactive but, for good reason. Brian Ortega amazingly forced perennial men’s Featherweight contender, Cub Swanson, to tap in the second round of their ‘Fight Night: Fresno’ contest. Ortega fought twice in 2017, but more-so stayed inactive following his stoppage victory over Swanson. The Californian contender announced his desire to wait in line for the next title shot following the recent victory.

For Frankie Edgar, his last fight took place at UFC 211 when he absolutely demolished young and rising star, Yair Rodriguez. A card which took place last May. While Ortega holds an undefeated record, Edgar is undefeated in his previous 9 fights, excluding people named Jose Aldo.

UFC 222 takes place at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on March 3rd.

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