Amanda Nunes recently talked about her willingness to retire soon. But before the queen of the UFC Bantamweight Division can ride off into the sunset, she will have to defend her title against either Valentina Shevchenko or Julianna Pena. Both women will face each other on UFC on Fox at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado, this Saturday and their fight embodies the old duel between a high-level striker in Shevchenko and a nasty ground fighter in Pena.
The former is a multi-time Muay Thai world champion, holding three wins over current UFC Strawweight Champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk in that discipline. She even dominated an MMA bout with striking specialist Holly Holm, winning a unanimous decision against the former champion on UFC on Fox 20 last July.
The Kirghizia-native’s only loss in the UFC came by the hands of Nunes in March of 2016. Despite dropping a unanimous decision, Shevchenko dominated the later stages of the three-round fight. No one knows how a second encounter between the two in a five-round championship bout could go, but Shevchenko will not be a clear underdog if she has the chance to challenge Nunes.
Before that can happen, she has to go through Pena who in her own right can claim that she has a shot at dethroning Nunes. Pena won The Ultimate Fighter Season 18 (Team Rousey vs Team Tate) and went on a tear afterward, with notable wins over Cat Zingano and Jessica Eye. “The Venezuelan Vixen” is feared for her devastating ground-and-pound style. If she is able to take her opponent down, the 27-year-old is able to strike viciously, advance position and, on top of that, pose a threat with submission attempts. Pena has three submissions wins on her record, plus she beat both Shayna Baszler and Sarah Moras with chokes during said The Ultimate Fighter season.
Logically, Shevchenko will try to keep the fight standing and might avoid the clinch, since despite being the more technical standup fighter given her Muay Thai background she could be outmuscled by Pena there. Shevchenko showed glimpses of a decent ground game, when she carved out a split decision win over Sarah Kaufman in late-2015 but is nowhere near Pena’s level when the fight goes to the canvas. As both are specialized in certain portions of the MMA game, the match plans are clear right from the beginning and the audience knows what to expect.
It is somewhat fitting that this matchup headlines a card which is promoted with the tagline “The Octagon returns to where it all began” pointing at the fact that the UFC held its first two events in Denver in 1993 and 1994 respectively. The well-known story of UFC 1 was that fighters from various backgrounds squared off showing a lack of knowledge outside their area of expertise. The tournament finale between MMA pioneer Royce Gracie and Gerard Gordeau saw a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu expert beating the Dutch karateka via rear-naked choke.
Granted, even fighters rather specialized in one area today are far more versatile than the pioneers during the early days of the UFC. But it still adds a nice touch to the upcoming card that Shevchenko and Pena with their distinctive styles are featured in the main event.
Apart from the technical and strategic aspects of this matchup, the bout will have important ramifications for the bantamweight division. As Ronda Rousey fades into the background due to her failed attempt to re-claim the title, with Miesha Tate announcing retirement and Holly Holm fighting for the championship in the recently introduced 145-pound division, there is not a long line of contenders just desperately waiting for their shot at the moment.
In fact, Shevchenko and Pena might be the only credible contenders. Raquel Pennington is on her way up the ranks, especially after her win over Tate on UFC 205. But other than that, the 135-pound division appears slightly shallow. Thus, a definitive number one contender could help the UFC buying time to build up the next challengers for the title.