UFC on Fox: Shevchenko vs. Pena, A New Breed
It’s hard to believe that it was only fourteen months ago that the Women’s Bantamweight division was still being dominated by the then seemingly unstoppable ‘Rowdy’ Ronda Rousey. Fast forward three champions later and suddenly the division seems to be a new place altogether. The change of course all began when Holly Holm famously vanquished Rousey, becoming the new champion in violent and unforgettable fashion. After years of the famed grappler dominating, most expected the revered striking of Holm to maintain control of the title for quite some time. However, the former boxing champion’s reign would end in under four months as she was spectacularly submitted by Miesha Tate in the fifth and final round.
After years of vying for the top spot, Tate had finally become UFC champion. Once again though, it wouldn’t last. Just like Holm, ‘Cupcake’ would lose the belt in her first defence, being submitted by then underdog Amanda Nunes. The Brazilian puncher wouldn’t be like her two predecessors though, recently battered a returning Rousey and likely sending her out of the sport for good. Incredibly, all three former champions are no longer active Bantamweight fighters. One fight following her title loss, Tate would retire from the sport after a defeat to Raquel Pennington at UFC 205. On the other hand, Holly Holm is still very much an active fighter but will next be competing in the inaugural Featherweight title fight.
Suddenly, the 135lb division is without its three most recognisable fighters but with that comes opportunity. At UFC 207 Amanda Nunes proved that she is very much a legitimate champion but now she needs some new contenders. Enter Julianna Pena and Valentina Shevchenko. Undeniably the top two contenders, Pena and Shevchenko represent a new crop of talent in the Women’s Bantamweight division. 27 and 28 respectively, both look to secure a title shot when they meet in the headliner this Saturday night on FOX. An intriguing clash of styles, Pena and Shevchenko are very different fighters and they’ve made their way to this spot with rather opposing routes too.
A traditionally built UFC star, Julianna Pena has risen through the ranks since winning The Ultimate Fighter. Coached by the now retired Miesha Tate, Pena was the comfortable show winner even though she entered the season off the back of two straight losses and with a record of 4-2. Since then though Pena has gone undefeated, winning her three fights following the reality show victory. However, Pena’s ascension of the division wasn’t an easy one, in fact a knee injury kept the ‘Venezuelan Vixen’ out of action for almost eighteen months. Undeterred though, Pena returned in April 2015, defeating Milana Dudieva in her comeback fight. Six months later and Pena scored another win, outpointing Jessica Eye and solidifying her spot as a strong contender.
However, it was Pena’s most recent win that really proved her legitimacy as one of the world’s best 135lb fighters. At UFC 200, Pena took on former title challenger Cat Zingano in a fight many felt she was the underdog in. On fight night Pena was no underdog though and dominated the grappling exchanges to score a clear decision victory. Whilst at the time it seemed that Pena would be next in line for a title shot, the recent return of Rousey pushed her back from the front of the line. With that roadblock now out of the way, Pena looks to secure her shot at gold with a win this Saturday. Her opponent Valentina Shevchenko is a more than worthy opposing contender though, even if her journey thus far has been quite different.
It was December 2015 when Shevchenko first stepped foot into the famed octagon, with a record of 11-1 and a highly impressive Kickboxing background behind her. However, it would be Shevchenko’s grappling that scored her a late notice win over Sarah Kaufman that night as she surprised the veteran on route to a decision victory. Immediately a credible part of the division, Shevchenko would return less than three months later to take on Amanda Nunes on the same card as the famous Holm-Tate title clash. The more active Nunes would take the first two rounds before tiring and whilst the third would be all Shevchenko it wouldn’t be enough to take the decision and Nunes came out the victor.
That win secured Nunes the title shot and set up her eventual dominant championship victory and following defence. Though momentum would position Nunes as an unbeatable destroyer, it’s easy to forget that it was only last March when Shevchenko pushed her to the limit and likely would’ve come out the winner in a five round affair. Nonetheless, Shevchenko’s performance would earn her another big fight as she took on Holly Holm in July’s FOX headliner. On that night Shevchenko would shock many analysts, outboxing the former champion with slick counter punching to earn a superb decision win. Stock and profile raised, Shevchenko now gets another FOX headline slot as she looks to earn a rematch with the now champion Nunes.
Saturday’s fight represents much more than just a vital number one contender fight in my view, it represents the start of what looks and feels like a whole new division. Though Amanda Nunes has been around for quite some time, this most recent version seems even more aggressive and ferocious than before and it’s now time for a new crop of contenders to rise up and challenge her. At the absolute forefront of that movement are both of Saturday’s headliners. A division suddenly in need of stars awaits to see which one of these two young rising contenders will use the big stage to put their names in Sunday morning’s headlines.
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