Fans? What’s it like to have fans?
UFC 261 goes down Saturday night in Jacksonville to remind us of the good ol’ days when those who love the sport of MMA would spend their hard-earned money to sit in the same proximity as combatants engaged in a cage fight. With a stacked main card including three title fights, we’re going to change things up and not focus on the main event, instead putting the spotlight on the two championship matchups that aren’t basically an immediate rematch.
In the co-main event, strawweight champ Weili Zhang heads into her second title defense against a dangerous former champion in “Thug” Rose Namajunas. Namajunas is a seasoned veteran of the sport these days, but it’s also been three years since she’s fought anyone not named Andrade.
For the #3 hole, we finally get to do a Valentina Shevchenko statistical preview where her challenger at least has a plausible path to victory. That challenger, Jessica Andrade, will have her work cut out for her, but she’s found a way to win before. Namajunas’ head can attest.
For a statistical analysis of the Usman-Masvidal main event that should just as relevant today, see the alternative stats for UFC 251.
Remember, what you’re about to read are not official UFC statistics. They’re alternative stats generated from official statistics designed to (1) give more weight to the recent present than the distant past and (2) not let one huge or horrible performance dominate the data. See the notes at the bottom for definitions of certain statistics.
Weili Zhang vs. Rose Namajunas
After plowing through the field with over 90% dominance in each of her first four promotional appearances, Zhang finally met her match in the pre-pandemic showcase that was UFC 248. Cageside judges were divided on four of the five rounds that night versus Joanna Jedrzejczyk, but Zhang walked away with a split decision victory and RoboJudge agreed, giving her a 52.6% chance of keeping her strawweight strap once all the damage was done.
And now Namajunas could be just as dangerous.
At distance, both fighters throw a good volume of head jabs (26-27 attempts per five minutes in the position, P5M) and power strikes, although with 69 attempts P5M to Namajunas’ 39, Zhang tends to make power a larger part of her game. And Zhang’s power tends to be less predictable. Not one to throw many body shots, she mixes up her power shots to the head and legs well with a 60/30 ratio.
Meanwhile, Namajunas is much more of a head hunter. 87% of her distance power attempts are targeted to the head and 79% of the power shots she lands. But when she cracks skull, she can drop opponents in a way we haven’t seen from Zhang. All three of Namajunas’ knockdown metrics come in at 4.5 – 5.5x the strawweight average. Zhang’s knockdown metrics are all better than average, yet not in the vicinity of Namajunas.
Defense matters too, of course, and neither fighter has ever been knocked down, partly because they both protect their heads well from opponents’ power. Namajunas only gets touched by 22% of such strikes, Zhang 24%, while the average strawweight eats 32%. Those same numbers get more lopsided in Zhang’s favor when looking at power strikes to the legs.
Essentially, when we combine offense and defense and look at distance differentials, this is a much more competitive fight to the head than it is to the legs.
While both Zhang and Namajunas are perfectly comfortable keeping the fight at distance (3:47 and 3:39 of every five minutes, respectively) and rarely shoot for takedowns, it’s an entirely different script when they clinch up. They each spend 26 seconds or less P5M in the position, but while there, they go to work.
They both tend to be the cage presser in the clinch and throw 54 (Zhang) and 40 (Namajunas) power strikes P5M, both mixed up well to the body and head. When they’re not punishing or grinding opponents with strikes, they become takedown machines, especially Zhang. The champ attempts almost 20 takedowns P5M in the clinch (6.2 for Namajunas, 3.7 average). She finishes a subpar 28% of them (versus Namajunas’ superb 63%) yet still ends up completing 294% more than the average strawweight thanks to her stellar volume.
Namajunas’ takedowns are no joke either, but Zhang has yet to be off-balanced to the groun. Meanwhile, Namajunas has been extremely vulnerable in the clinch. She absorbs 20+ more power strikes P5M than she dishes out and succumbs to 67% of opponent takedown attempts (38% average).
If the fight hits the ground, Zhang has top control 80% of the time, and during the time on top she’s had half-guard or better for a whopping 87%. And she’s not one to rest down there, she lands almost double the rate of power strikes as a typical strawweight and is 1-of-2 on her submission attempts.
Yet we know Namajunas’ sub game is strong (3-of-7) and, while she used to spend much more time on her back either accepting the position or working for a submission (lifetime stats standup rate of 2.7), she’s adapted and these days will work to get to her feet much quicker (alternative stats standup rate of 3.7).
This should be a fun one and the odds makers have it relatively competitive at -190/+165 as of this writing.
Valentina Shevchenko vs. Jessica Andrade
For the first time in five fights, Shevchenko is finally less than a -800 favorite. At -450 as of this writing, she’s at least in the realm of potentially losing.
Shevchenko is undefeated in the UFC – when not sharing the cage with the women’s GOAT Amanda Nunes. She’s taken down and submitted grapplers, out-struck strikers, and more than held her own in a split decision loss to The Lioness. Against Andrade, she faces an opponent with immense power willing to eat shots to operate in the phone booth or transition to the clinch.
Shevchenko, even though a world-class striker, actually sends less time operating in the open space of distance than Andrade. Naturally, many opponents clinch up with her where she spends 45 seconds of every full round. Then Shevchenko’s trips and clinch takedowns lead to her having top position 83% of the 2:03 she spends on the ground in a typical round.
But all rounds start at distance where Shevchenko doesn’t overwhelm with volume, but is precise and efficient. She rarely jabs to the head, instead waiting for opponents to provide openings for her power counters. At 36 power strike attempts P5M, she puts out less than average volume, but she lands at 52% overall and 45% of her power strikes to the head (30% for Andrade, 32% average). She doesn’t attack the legs much but mixes in strikes to the body well. She also doesn’t have much knockdown power.
What Shevchenko has in spades is the ability to hit you without getting hit herself. She absorbs only 15% of opponent power strikes to the head (41% Andrade, 32% average) and 14% of their head jabs, both incredibly low numbers. In fact, she absorbs lower percentages in every key distance striking area (head jabs and all forms of power) and opponents also attack her less in each of those areas. The net effect is she eats very few damaging blows. Then when we throw in her offense, Shevchenko runs a power differential of +11.4 P5M to Andrade’s -0.6.
Just like Shevchenko, Andrade also doesn’t care too much for those pesky jabs to the head. But she puts out crazy power volume at distance to the tune of 75 strikes P5M. She mixes things up to the legs more, while not ignoring the body, but her real talent is power and transitions to the clinch. Andrade’s key striking differentials are all negative because when she throws down, her opponents do too. And they tend to tag her a bit more, especially with head jabs (-9.5 P5M).
But when Andrade is able to touch opponents, they have a tendency to fall. Her three knockdown metrics are all 205-362% better than the typical women’s flyweight. She can also get opponents to the ground with takedowns, but she’s been a bit worse than average when shooting from distance. When she closes the distance and clinches up, she has options.
Andrade has control on the cage 63% of the time and throws almost triple the volume of an average women’s flyweight and 4.5 times as much as Shevchenko. She also works for 10.1 takedown attempts P5M and completes an impressive 67% (3.8 and 51% average). Shevchenko doesn’t go down easy and could always pull off an impressive trip reversal herself, but she’s not immune to being taken down with only 67% successful defense.
If they end up on the ground, it’s really a question of who was able to get the fight down there. They both tend to have top control 83-84% of the time. Andrade throws much more power volume from the ground and they each complete their submissions at a 40% or better clip. With half the standup rate of a typical women’s flyweight, Shevchenko’s not known to pop right back to her feet, but Andrade also allows opponents to get back to their feet 4x more than average.
Hey, I’m just happy to finally have some suspense back in a Shevchenko fight. This should be a fun one.
Be safe, Jacksonville, and bring on the glorious fights!
Statistical Notes: A bout closeness measure towards zero means a fighter tends to be in blowouts (win or lose) and towards 100 means they tend to be in very close fights. Strike attempts are per an entire five minute round in each position (P5M) and are categorized as jab or power. A jab is just a non-power strike. Strikes are documented based on where they land or are targeted (head, body, legs), not the type that is thrown (punch, elbow, kick, knee). Visible damage rate is per five minutes the fighter is not on his back. It’s hard to bust up someone’s face while lying on your back. Damage percentage is per power head strike and distance head jab landed. Knockdown rate is per five minutes at distance or in the clinch off the cage. Knockdown percentage is per power head strike landed while standing. It’s really hard to knock someone down if they’re already on the ground. Knockdown/Damage round percentage is the percentage of rounds with at least one knockdown or busted up face, respectively. Clinch control is having the opponent pressed against the cage. Ground control is having top position or the opponent’s back. Submission attempts are per five minutes of ground control minus time spent in the opponent’s guard plus time spent with the opponent in guard.
Paul writes about MMA analytics and officiating at Bloody Elbow and MMA business at Forbes. He’s also an ABC-certified referee and judge. Follow him @MMAanalytics. Fight data provided by FightMetric.
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