Julianna Pena tried to threaten her way to a shot at the Ultimate Fighting Championship women’s bantamweight title. Now, she can earn it inside the cage.
Pena will meet Valentina Shevchenko in the UFC on Fox 23 main event on Saturday at the Pepsi Center in Denver, with a showdown against reigning women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes likely awaiting the winner. Meanwhile, Donald Cerrone takes on American Top Team mainstay Jorge Masvidal in the welterweight co-headliner. The rest of the four-fight main card features a heavyweight clash pitting Andrei Arlovski against Francis Ngannou and a featherweight tilt matching Alex Caceres with Jason Knight.
Let us take a closer look at each UFC on Fox 23 matchup, with analysis and picks:
Women’s BantamweightsValentina Shevchenko (13-2) vs. Julianna Pena (8-2)
THE MATCHUP: Thanks to Nunes, the first champion since Ronda Rousey to actually defend the belt (against Rousey, no less), women’s bantamweight may finally have something of a pecking order again; and with old favorites Miesha Tate and Holly Holm out of the title picture, now is a perfect time for two new contenders to step up to the plate for what is almost certainly a fight for a shot at the title.
Shevchenko vivisected former champion Holm in her last bout to earn her place at the table. First she made Holm lead and then she hurt her with counters. The more counters Shevchenko landed, the more urgent was Holm’s need to lead. It was sort of the perfect fight, even if it was not marked down on any “Fight of the Year” ballots. However patience, the very quality that allowed Shevchenko to defeat Holm, may be the reason she loses to a fighter like Pena.
No matter how completely Shevchenko beat Holm, the fact remains that she managed to do so with no more than about four strikes in her arsenal, three of which appeared only once for every 10 right hooks; and Shevchenko is extremely precious in how she utilizes these techniques, throwing almost exclusively on the counter.
The worst thing about Shevchenko’s win over Holm is that it was not very fun, as any matchmaker should have predicted. A patient counterstriker picking apart a reluctant out-fighter ... What could be more exciting? Fortunately, that should not be a problem in this matchup. If Shevchenko wants to hang back and counter, Pena will happily oblige her. Pena is a swarmer through and through, the impatient madness to Shevchenko’s cool calm. She will run straight into Shevchenko’s counters and thank her for the opportunity to march forward.
Pena can be aggressive to a fault. In fact, her swarming style is often more than trouble than it is worth -- until it starts to work. The ace up her rashguard sleeve is her excellent conditioning. Though it remains to be seen how well Pena will do in the fourth and fifth rounds of her first main event, she has more than proven her ability to outlast opponents in three-round fights. With that being said, Pena’s winning streak is not the kind on which you bet the house, at least not your own house. Pena has walked a razor’s edge in more than one of her recent fights, and as noted above, she will be a fairly easy target for the more practiced striking of Shevchenko.
Of course, Pena would be remiss if she allowed Shevchenko an uncontested kickboxing match. Her game plan, so far as such things exist at the Sikjitsu gym, will likely hinge on her ability to outwrestle Shevchenko. However, Pena may find that a difficult task. Shevchenko is a fairly stout defensive wrestler and quite strong in the clinch, where she picks up the majority of her specialized, Thai-style takedowns. Pena may shoot more, but she is also surprisingly easy to take down herself -- yet another drawback of her reckless approach to fighting.
THE ODDS: Shevchenko (-120), Pena (+100)
THE PICK: In this fight, Shevchenko’s test is to remain patient without becoming inactive. Fortunately for her, Pena is the perfect blend of aggressive and sloppy. She is willing enough that Shevchenko will not have to go looking for opportunities but obvious enough that Shevchenko should be able to keep her in check. That means Shevchenko will control the pace and intensity of this fight. The pick is Shevchenko by fourth-round TKO.
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