Mixed martial arts gods, why do you curse Alberta so?
It has been over five years since the Ultimate Fighting Championship first came to Canada’s oil country with the woeful UFC 149 bill in Calgary, headlined by Renan Barao’s first blowout of Urijah Faber after an unfathomable slate of injuries crippled the card and rankled western Canadian fight fans.
UFC President Dana White vowed he would “make it up” to the city. A half decade later, a Calgary return still is not in the immediate future for the Octagon, but hey, Edmonton is only 175 miles away and has the brand new Rogers Place, because every major Canadian city’s major sports venue, by law, must be named after one of two telecom companies. In seriousness, the building’s management company, Oilers Entertainment Group, was bullish about wanting to bring a UFC card to the city in late 2017 or early 2018, but the outfit was adamant that it feature a title fight and that it be either a numbered pay-per-view event or a network card on Fox. OEG’s insistence paid off as a championship doubleheader was announced for UFC 215. Valentina Shevchenko would finally rematch Amanda Nunes for the UFC women’s bantamweight title after the champion’s sinusitis postponed their UFC 213 encounter on weigh-in day; meanwhile, Demetrious Johnson would attempt to make history against Ray Borg, seeking an unprecedented 11th consecutive UFC title defense that would break Anderson Silva's record of 10 in a row.
Then, late Thursday, news broke that this sport had cosmically conspired against another Albertan UFC event: Borg had fallen ill and would not be cleared to weigh in and compete by the UFC’s medical staff, postponing Johnson’s historic title defense in a highly similar fashion to Nunes-Shevchenko 2 in July. Now, after White said nine weeks ago that Nunes would never again headline a UFC pay-per-view, here we are. “Mighty Mouse” will get his chance to make history some untold weeks from now. In the cruel meantime, Johnson gets to be associated with another infamous and disappointing PPV card through absolutely no fault of his own. It is hardly the sort of history with which we thought he would be associated just hours ago.
Let us take a close look at each UFC 215 “Nunes vs. Shevchenko 2” matchup, with analysis and picks:
Women's BantamweightsAmanda Nunes (14-4) vs. Valentina Shevchenko (14-2)
THE MATCHUP: Two months ago, a last-minute attack of sinusitis knocked Nunes out of her second UFC title defense -- a rematch with top challenger Shevchenko, a woman she previously bested by unanimous decision in March 2016. Everybody was disappointed, but perhaps no one was more choked up than UFC President Dana White, who in a moment of frustrated transference took the opportunity to bury his champion, essentially calling Nunes a liar and a wimp, similar to when Jose Aldo pulled out of the UFC 189 main event against Conor McGregor.
Beyond a major UFC card losing its main event, part of the cause for deeper disappointment about the delay of Nunes-Shevchenko 2 is how their first bout concluded. Since her third-round TKO loss to Cat Zingano three years ago, Nunes dedicated herself to being a full-time fighter and has truly blossomed, becoming a more composed and predatory “Lioness.” She is the most powerful and dynamic finisher in the division, equally capable of devastating opponents with low kicks and cross-hook combos or doing quick and massive damage from top position or getting the back and sinking the rear-naked choke. In her five fights since the Zingano loss, Nunes has positively crushed Shayna Baszler, Sara McMann, Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey. No one has held a candle to her -- except Shevchenko.
In just her second UFC bout, Shevchenko withstood all three of the aforementioned phases of Nunes’ offense, including a lopsided 10-8 second stanza in which the Brazilian advanced to the back and nearly choked her out. However, in the third and final round, Shevchenko found her rhythm, seguing into the clinch, where she rapidly alternated between phone-booth striking, foot sweeping Nunes, cinching a headlock and pounding her on the floor. The Brazilian offered nothing in return. While Nunes has become much smarter about conserving her energy, controlling the pace of a bout and fighting in bursts, Shevchenko is the only fighter who has exposed any hint of Nunes’ historic Achilles’ heel of tiring and crumbling late.
“Bullet” helped solidify the notion that a five-round fight might be a wholly different affair in her next appearance, as she upset Holly Holm in a masterful 25-minute performance. She slowly took over all three ranges of striking, flowing effortlessly into the clinch, where she scored with combinations, kicked out Holm’s plant leg and dumped her on the floor. Nunes may be the bigger, stronger woman and the more devastating hitter -- Shevchenko could be UFC women’s flyweight champion one day, after all -- but the Kyrgyz fighter’s style is built for 25 minutes. Shevchenko may be a counterfighter by nature, but once she takes a fight’s early minutes to figure out her opponent’s game, she accelerates her attacks, wearing down and eventually wearing out her foes.
THE ODDS: Shevchenko (-125), Nunes (-105)
THE PICK: It is not some sort of misguided groupthink that has led Shevchenko to being the betting favorite against Nunes, who has simply scorched her opposition for the last three years. Nunes has sharpened the already lethal parts of her game and learned how to employ them more efficiently. However, this is a cloaking mechanism and not an indication that she is now suddenly going to be able fight with a Joanna Jedrzejczyk-esque pace and output. Shevchenko is more comfortable and aware in the cage now, and it has made her more aggressive and dynamic, even within the constraints of being a counter-first athlete. No one will be surprised if Nunes runs roughshod over Shevchenko, but we have clear evidence that a less evolved and equipped version of the challenger has already encountered the ferocity of Nunes’ attack and soldiered on. This time, with 10 extra minutes at her disposal, Shevchenko will finish the job she started in Round 3 of their UFC 196 bout, outlasting Nunes’ over 25 minutes or stopping “The Lioness” late to win the UFC crown and set up an inevitable rubber match between the rivals.
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