Valentina Shevchenko and the double-edged sword of dominance
Dominance is a double-sided coin. One face is undeniably appealing: who would balk at the chance to see the best in the world do their thing? The other is dull and tarnished: if this person is so much better than their competition why should I care to see them compete? True dominance draws legions of fans, but many only watch on the off chance that they will be one of the lucky few who gets to see perfection made imperfect. Because perfection often is—let’s face it—a little boring. But we watch, and wait, and bravely endure. We suffer, but hold onto hope.
There are no champions more dominant in MMA than Valentina Shevchenko. Others have started earlier, reigned longer, and adapted themselves to a more varied array of challengers, yet no champion stands so very high above their competition as the dancing demoness from Kyrgyzstan.
There’s no denying it: Shevchenko is excellent at what she does. Technically, she is one of the finest strikers in all of MMA, and she executes those techniques with clinical precision and cold intelligence.
Women’s flyweight, however, the division over which Shevchenko has reigned for almost two years now, is not quite up to her standard. There are 36 female flyweights other than Shevchenko on the UFC roster, making it one of the smallest classes in the organization. Being a relatively new division, its ranks are still comprised mostly of those fighters who couldn’t hack it in the more established weight classes on either side. There is no natural hierarchy here to sort worthy contenders; challengers just sort of float toward the top of the division only for Shevchenko to stoically knock them down.
The average age of top 10 contenders is 33—not exactly young, for “the most exciting sport in the world.” The only top 10er younger than 30 is Jessica Andrade, who came up from strawweight and shot into the number one slot after only one flyweight win. Two of the other contenders are 37.
This is not a healthy division, and Shevchenko is no doctor. But neither is she the executioner you might expect. Certainly, she’s finished plenty of opponents. But she’s just so ruthlessly smart about it, deliberate and cautious to a degree bordering on mania. It has to be a sort of sickness. She stands head and shoulders above her division, and yet rather than lopping their heads cleanly off, Shevchenko chooses instead to stoically dissect her challengers like a succession of pinioned insects.
How does a celebrated amateur Muay Thai champion face Priscila Cachoeira, a mere slugger with zero meaningful experience, stun her seconds into the fight, receiving only a single punch in exchange, and then proceed to take her down? With purest hatred in her heart, that’s how. Why, instead of mercifully knocking out her woefully outmatched opposition, does Shevchenko choose again and again to make fun itself the only target of her ire? Cruelty is the only plausible explanation. And that’s saying nothing of her personality, the wild-eyed fascination with guns and death—and the dancing, the absolutely diabolical dancing.
But let us set aside the defects in the V-1000’s moral programming (as best we can), and focus instead on what it is that makes her such a… uniquely dominant champion. Say what you will about the pace of her fights (or just read on; I’ll probably say it for you), but no one does nothing better than Valentina Shevchenko.
This is actually sort of a relief. Normally, when writing these pieces, I’m struggling to make dull concepts like “distance management” seem visceral and exciting. Now, there’s no need. Valentina Shevchenko’s distance management is among the cleanest and most consistent in MMA. And it’s only slightly less interesting to watch than, say, retail management.
Her footwork is so efficient that sometimes it hardly looks like footwork at all. Despite a predilection for unholy Eastern European dances, Shevchenko’s fighting movement is rarely rhythmic. She takes small, deliberate steps, inching around like a beetle, keeping herself tightly coiled for the counter that will, at some point, come. Eventually. Click image to enlarge. Watch the GIF
1. Liz Carmouche meets Shevchenko in the center of the cage.
2. Carmouche steps forward with a feint, nearly entering striking distance.
3. Shevchenko scuttles backwards.
4. Carmouche moves forward once again.
5. And Shevchenko scuttles backwards. Carmouche figures she might as well throw a low kick…
6. …and Shevchenko withdraws her leg, judging the distance perfectly, of course. So the kick misses. Have I mentioned this is the fifth round of a championship fight?
Note how positively ineffectual both fighters are rendered by this chosen distance. And Shevchenko maintains it with an iron grasp. Hers is a style founded on frustration. She will not make the first move, not unless the opportunity is staring her in the face, dropping its guard, and asking nicely.
With small steps in either direction, Shevchenko hardly ever initiates, but never lets her opponent forget that she’s only one step away from doing so. The opponent feints, and she steps back. This happens a few more times, and the opponent gets frustrated; she steps in with something more serious, and Shevchenko steps back again. Annoying. She tries something a little more clever, and you can guess what happens next. Shevchenko never breaks. At a certain point, the opponent runs out of serious and clever ideas and is left with the choice to either do nothing, or do something stupid.
It’s the humiliation that Shevchenko relishes the most, I think. Like an IRS agent with twenty years on the job, she has mastered a role no one asked her to perform. Better than any other fighter on earth, Shevchenko apprehends the art of taking the fight out of fighting. Often it leads to a knockout; sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, the fight that isn’t a fight just keeps going until the officials start looking at each other wondering whether somebody hadn’t better do something and one of them puts a stop to it. Shevchenko never seems to mind. It’s not clear whether she minds anything at all, or likes anything, for that matter. Other than our pain.
What makes Valentina Shevchenko’s distance management so effective is its absolute, mind-numbing consistency. Shevchenko herself rarely abandons the range at which she is perfectly safe—that’s the opponent’s job. Fortunately for us, most of them are brave enough to go for it, after a little convincing. Shevchenko waits them out with boundless patience, drawing away and edging forward as needed to stay just near enough for nothing to actually happen. When at last, if for no other reason than to keep herself awake, the opponent does make a desperate lunge across that gap, then and only then does Shevchenko strike. Usually.
Here you can see Shevchenko’s favorite counter, the southpaw right hook, in action against Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who, unlike Shevchenko, has been in three or four of the most exciting women’s fights of all time. This was not one of them. Click image to enlarge. Watch the GIF
1. Jedrzejczyk, already frustrated by the distance in the second round, opts for an elaborate, shifting attack.
2. As Joanna flies in with a left hand, Shevchenko does not even take a backward step. Her processing unit has already calculated the distance, and she knows that she is not in danger.
3. As Jedrzejczyk falls in after her punch, Shevchenko’s hook smashes into her chin.
4. Shevchenko has a way of hunching down as she throws the hook, allowing her to dip under Joanna’s wild swings.
5. Shevchenko goes in for a rare second bite, but Joanna stumbles off to an angle.
6. Jedrzejczyk appears stunned, off-balance and flailing; now is the perfect time to follow up the attack and—
7. —no, on second thought, better play it safe and scuttle backwards.
Shevchenko’s right hook is perfectly suited to her style. She throws it into a peculiar hunch, which serves as basic, built-in head movement. It also allows her to to counter and create an angle at the same time, by pivoting as she throws. You might even argue that, as a southpaw, the right hook is Shevchenko’s most effective weapon possible against orthodox opponents (as I have in this article, this video, and probably elsewhere. Shevchenko and I both repeat ourselves a lot—isn’t that cute?).
To put it briefly, the southpaw hook is simply more difficult for right-handers to see coming. Coming off the lead hand, the punch starts nearer to the opponent’s chin than the more commonly thrown rear hand. Once thrown, its arc is often obscured by the orthodox fighter’s own leading flank. It’s a very sneaky shot, and one that Shevchenko is maddeningly unwilling to follow up. Follow-up punches might imply that she does not, in fact, despise her throngs of creepy, fedora-tipping, shuriken-owning fanboys, and wishes to entertain them.
There are no follow-up punches. Only follow-up distance.
Takedowns. The goddamn takedowns
All of this has been sinister enough, the reader will agree, but no facet of Shevchenko’s game is responsible for more pain and suffering than this: her wrestling. Shevchenko is, unfortunately, a masterful clinch wrestler. She utilizes both Muay Thai and freestyle wrestling techniques, combining them with brute strength and flawless timing to bring her opponents crashing down to the ground, usually just before things get too competitive or, god forbid, enjoyable.
In addition to clinching, Valentina Shevchenko also excels at catching kicks and converting them into takedowns. In Muay Thai this is a highly prized maneuver; in MMA it is, technically, legal. It looks like this. Click image to enlarge. Watch the GIF
1. Holly Holm edges forward, wary of the many—well, several counter right hooks she has already eaten.
2. She reaches out to intercept Shevchenko’s left hand.
3. But instead of following up with the usual left cross, she anticipates Shevchenko’s check hook and launches a kick to the body.
4. It connects, but Shevchenko instantly wraps the leg up.
5. Shevchenko drives forward, head-down, and takes a savage kick at Holm’s remaining leg.
6. They tumble to the ground. Good thing, too—for a minute there we seemed perilously close to a striking exchange.
This transitional move forms a key part of Shevchenko’s one unwavering strategy. Once opponents reach for her a few times and get stung, they become increasingly wary about stepping into range. And heaven knows Shevchenko won’t do it for them. The smartest adversaries might try, instead, to throw light, noncommittal punches in order to bait Shevchenko’s eager backstep and, now safely out of counterpunching range, send a kick after her. Indeed, this is an effective tactic against most counterpunchers. Watch Edson Barboza vs Ross Pearson or Bobby Green for good examples—in fact, watch those instead of this weekend’s co-main event. But even when this tactic does work against Shevchenko, it doesn’t work for long.
Like all of her counters, this one rests on a hair trigger. Not only is Shevchenko quick to catch a kick, even moving with it to absorb the impact, but she wastes no time in barreling her off-balanced opponent to the ground after. All of this precision amounts to just one more way to wrench arrows out of the opponent’s quiver. If they can’t out-pepper her at range, and they can’t step in with hard punches, and they can’t pursue her with kicks, what can they do?
For most of the women Shevchenko fights, “nothing” is usually the safest and most available answer. And Shevchenko is happy to oblige them, drowning them and the audience in a vast sea of nothing, and usually winning—unless the opponent is Amanda Nunes.
But she isn’t fighting Amanda Nunes this weekend. Not that any of us would have a much better time if she were. Instead, Jennifer Maia is next on the chopping block, a bang-average 33 year-old contender whose mechanical one-twos should provide ample opportunities for Shevchenko’s trademark counters. If you’re optimistic, that might sound like a fun, if predictable match-up.
But me, I’m a realist, and I say the Queen of Flies has darker plans in store for those of us unwise enough to watch. She will carry out her tainted will, and have her twisted way. Who’s going to stop her? You? Me? Jennifer Maia? No, Shevchenko will do as she pleases, and afterwards, staring dead-eyed and unblinking into the camera, in the midst of an empty, silent arena, she will dance the Lezginka.
God help us.
For further and only slightly more serious analysis of UFC 255’s title fights, don’t miss the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the original podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.
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