While most would agree Glover Teixeira and Valentina Shevchenko generate some of the lowest levels of buzz amongst the reigning champions, I don’t think anyone is going to argue putting them on the same card creates a strong enough one-two punch to justify them at the top of a PPV. However, upon closer inspection from my end, I ended up growing more excited about UFC 275. In terms of straight physical gifts, Taila Santos appears to be the most difficult challenge for Shevchenko during her reign and how often are we going to continue to doubt Glover Teixeira? I understand why Jiri Prochazka is the favorite, but wasn’t Teixeira the underdog in his previous three contests as well? Hell, the three fights previous that were basically pick ‘em odds. Teixeira got his hand raised each of the last six times. I’m not proclaiming the event will be on the level of an MSG PPV, but it sure as hell pulls its weight.
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Glover Teixeira vs. Jiri Prochazka, Light Heavyweight
I already stated that I understand why Prochazka is the favorite. Being the younger competitor doesn’t always give a fighter an advantage, but Teixeira is 42. Prochazka hasn’t even cracked 30 yet. Prochazka is also longer, faster, and even appears to have the edge in power. I get that many will say Teixeira hits plenty hard himself, but the champion only has one official knock down in the last six years. Prochazka has already doubled that in his two UFC contests. I think it’s safe to say with the loss of speed that tends to come with the aging process, Teixeira has also lost some of his power that used to be the most prodigious element of his attack.
Teixeira was never the fastest guy to begin with, so his lack of speed has never been more apparent. And yet, here he is, the oldest first-time champion in UFC history. Why is the champion continually being disrespected the way he has been on the way to the title?
A lot of it has to do with favorable matchups for the Brazilian. That isn’t intended to be a knock on Teixeira; everyone who has ever grabbed the belt has had lucky bounces go their way as you don’t win the title without that. But prior to beginning his current winning streak, Teixeira was losing on a consistent basis to fighters who have been able to outwrestle him. Even during this streak, he struggled against fighters with a wrestling background in Ion Cutelaba and Nikita Krylov. Teixeira struggled to get both of them down, needing a stoppage when it looked like he was on his way to lose to Cutelaba and eeking out a split over Krylov. Everyone else in that run has been considered an average defensive wrestler at best. Prochazka’s takedown defense isn’t porous, but it sure is a question mark at this level.
However, an argument could also be made that Teixeira has struggled against lanky, athletic strikers as well. Alexander Gustafsson had his way with Teixeira and that was five years ago. Surely, a slower version of Teixeira than we saw on that day is going to be easier pickings for someone like Prochazka? After all, Prochazka is a fantastic athlete with a deep striking arsenal that can land his offense out of nowhere. And while I point out that Teixeira has only one knockdown in the last six years, he’s been knocked down himself five times in that same span. At first glance, it feels like it’s elementary that Prochazka lands some sort of flying or spinning attack and dethrones the aged champion.
However, Prochazka’s creativity doesn’t lend itself to sustained success. Remember Johnny Walker’s first few UFC contests? He was blowing the doors off his opponents. Then a calm and collected Corey Anderson reversed the tables on him and Walker has been a shell of himself since. Volkan Oezdemir didn’t give Prochazka the respect he deserved coming into the UFC. Dominick Reyes opted to give Prochazka the type of fight he likes, meaning one of the two was going to go out at some point. Teixeira isn’t going to give Prochazka the fight he wants. Plus, while Teixeira has been knocked down plenty over the last few years, only two of those fights saw him get finished. Teixeira is still a tough guy to put away. And while Prochazka has faced some decent wrestlers in his time, none of them have possessed the grappling skills of Teixeira. If Teixeira gets some decent top control, I’m not so sure Prochazka can stop Teixeira from pounding him out or submitting him. Even if Teixeira doesn’t finish the fight with the first takedown, he has a tendency to suck out the life from his opponents so they’re ripe to be finished later on. Or should I say, bust up their teeth….
I admit, the easy pick is to go with Prochazka. From the moment this fight was rumored, that was my pick. But the more I look into it, the more I lean towards Teixeira. He’s constantly been disrespected all the way to the title and he’s fought like he has something to prove all the way. It kind of reminds me of Jan Blachowicz’s road to the title. And while Blachowicz only got one successful title defense in there, he was also the underdog in that lone successful title defense… just like Teixeira is. Despite being the champion, Teixeira is the one who has to prove something. Perhaps Prochazka exposes the simplicity of Teixeira’s striking – he throws the same combination over and over – and turns his lights out in a hurry. But it also took Prochazka until the second round to put away Oezdemir and Reyes. Teixeira is a different beast on the ground than anyone Prochazka has faced and the native of the Czech Republic feels ripe to be exposed. The confidence in my pick is low – as any pick in a competitive contest should be – but I’m going with the old man to keep his improbable run going for at least one more fight. Teixeira via submission of RD2
Valentina Shevchenko vs. Taila Santos, Women’s Flyweight
It’s easy to forget Shevchenko is the longest reigning UFC champion. She doesn’t get the same adoration of some of the UFC’s longer reigning champions have received such as Anderson Silva and GSP. Hell, she didn’t get the same level of attention Amanda Nunes got… and Nunes didn’t get the attention she deserved when she reigned at bantamweight! Shevchenko is more akin to Demetrious Johnson. Much like Johnson, what has been holding Shevchenko back is the lack of a true rival.
If Santos is to fulfill that role, she’s got to have a lot go right for her. To be fair to Santos, she has the talent to do that. In fact, there’s a very strong argument to be made that Santos is the most physically gifted opponent Shevchenko has faced amidst her reign as champion. Possessing more than her share of power, Santos hasn’t been securing the highlight reel that would be expected from her thanks to her preference for ensuring her strikes land as opposed to them being thrown with full force. Despite that, her power has been showing itself more and more, securing knockdowns in her last couple of fights, those against the most proven competition in her career.
However, despite possessing that level of power, it has been the grappling that Santos has utilized most prominently on her road to a shot at the title. The Brazilian controlled several ground-based competitors on her way, including the ever-so-savvy Roxanne Modafferi. Of course, her Santos’ detractors would also point out that Santos was able to do that without having the cleanest of wrestling, having a strong reliance on being the better athlete against all of her opponents. Would she be able to do that against Shevchenko?
Not a chance. Shevchenko has been bullied in the past, but that’s also been against much larger opponents from when Shevchenko was doing the damn thing at 135. In fact, Shevchenko took Jessica Andrade down at will in their contest. Andrade may be on the small side for flyweight, but she is one of the pound-for-pound strongest women on the roster. The only other woman who has taken Shevchenko down at 125 is Jennifer Maia… and Shevchenko took her down far more than Maia did her. Shevchenko’s trips are perhaps her most overlooked feature.
While Shevchenko’s trips are overlooked, it doesn’t mean they are her best feature. That would be her distance management. There may not be anyone who better understands spacing better than Shevchenko. Despite being significantly shorter of reach than Holly Holm, she was able to outbox the former boxing champion. That may have been six years ago, but Shevchenko only seems to have improved since that time. Plus, it’s not like she’s limited to her punches. Though primarily known as a counter striker, Shevchenko can lead the dance if she really wants to. Just ask Lauren Murphy… though I admit that finishing flurry did start with a counter.
What Santos may be able to do is blitz the champ early. After all, Shevchenko tends to start slow as she sits back and looks for reads in the first round or so. There’s a reason none of her UFC finishes have come in the first round. Maybe Santos catches her off-guard before she has made her reads. After all, Juliana Pena caught Amanda Nunes off-guard and we got a new champion, right? While I’ll be the first to admit I was wrong on that fight, there are some signs I should have seen that I only caught with hindsight. Nunes had been talking about retirement for quite a while heading into that fight. She also had started her family not that long ago. For Shevchenko, there’s no talk of retirement and fighting still remains her primary focus. I’ve been impressed with Santos’ progress since she dropped her UFC debut, but I fear she’s getting this shot a little too soon. Perhaps she drops this fight, learns from it, and claws her way back to a rematch in which she claims the title from Shevchenko, but I don’t see her doing it here. Not only does Shevchenko remain the champion, she remains the most fundamentally sound fighter on the roster. Shevchenko via decision
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