On Jan. 14, Jessica Eye finally returns to the Octagon after more than a year of inactivity. She’s coming off a four-fight skid and seeks to reinvigorate her career by taking advantage of the UFC’s newly minted women’s flyweight division.
Eye returns to her original weight class in the hopes of getting back on the winning track and making good on the promise that brought her to the UFC in the first place. Eye’s return takes place in St. Louis at UFC Fight Night 124, where she meets Kalindra Faria.
Today, we discuss how Eye got to this point, how she can get out and the obstacles she will face as she attempts to move forward.
At bantamweight, Eye was at a severe disadvantage due to her lack of size, strength and power. She had the mobility, quickness, hand/foot speed, agility and reaction time to offset her disadvantages well enough to compete. The lack of power, physical strength and physicality ultimately determined her weight, though. Lesser athletes like Alexis Davis, Bethe Correia and Miesha Tate were able to bully, beat up and take down Eye.
As a flyweight, Eye’s power still isn’t at a world-class level, but it packs quite a bit more than it did at bantamweight. More importantly, her strength, physicality and durability, while not necessarily strengths at flyweight, aren’t liabilities. With the ability to engage in grappling exchanges on the feet or the ground and the ability to absorb damage and distribute it, Eye has more freedom in what she can do or attempt. The margin for error is bigger as a result of the all-around physical tools being more evened out. This should allow for a return of the more aggressive, physical and offensively effective Eye we saw earlier in her career. She won’t have the fear of being controlled, bullied or bowled over like she did while fighting up a division.
As fast, mobile and agile as Eye is and as good as her reactions can be, there is a better class of athlete at the flyweight level now. Eye won’t be below average or average, but she won’t be elite either. Eye has a lot of wear and tear on her body, having fought a lot of rounds in her time in the UFC and having loss five of her last six fights. She’s been on the business end of a lot of losses. At flyweight there will be more women capable of matching her movement, quickness, agility and activity. This will bring the focus back onto her power and strength, which were never a hallmark of her game or her physical skills.
Eye hasn’t made the flyweight in years. As a fighter gets older, making weight gets harder. Eye could be compromised in regards to lessened athleticism, durability, physical strength and cardio.
Much like a Holly Holm, Eye works the outside through a combination of active and technical footwork. She uses side steps, circling, slides and pivots to create and maintain the distance. These same things allow her to get clean exits when an opponent pressures her, ties her up in grappling exchanges or attempts to overwhelm her with their offense.
Much like an Irene Aldana, Eye’s calling card is volume. She has a boxing-heavy game in which she utilizes a busy jab and a long right hand. Eye, like Aldana, has solid striking awareness and acumen in the clinch, where she uses slick knees and uppercuts off the collar tie.
Eye is competent on the ground defensively, in grappling exchanges on the feet, and in regards to her takedown defense. This is in large part due to her footwork, movement and volume striking. At this weight, Eye’s power should be more noticeable, if not elite. It will garner much more respect than it did at bantamweight, which in turn will allow her to back opponents up with her volume much more effectively and create space for clean exits if and when an opponent tries to press or overwhelm her.
At a smaller weight, Eye’s takedown defense and ability to get back up or win in standing grappling exchanges should be much improved as a result of facing girls her size or smaller. She was able to have success in clinches and on the ground with some of the more physical and athletic fighters in the bantamweight division — the aforementioned Correia and Tate, as well as Julianna Peña and Sarah Kaufman — so fighting much smaller and less-accomplished fighters should be easier.
Eye has a fairly balanced game. She can strike, wrestle and grapple.
Offensively, though, she has been somewhat limited in her striking. Much like the aforementioned Aldana, she hasn’t developed a consistent or varied kicking game to help improve the effectiveness of her hands. Eye hasn’t shown the ability to consistently mix her kicking and punching game offensively or defensively, which has made her somewhat vulnerable to lesser strikers like Sara McMann, Tate, Peña and Correia. On the same note, her constant movement and foot speed have allowed her a line of defense on the feet. This compensates for defensive lapses, such as her chin being high, her tendency to stand tall in the pocket, and her habit of moving in straight lines when under real duress or standing her ground and getting bullied late in fights.
Eye’s wrestling and grappling have improved, but she is still very vulnerable when her strikes and footwork can’t relieve pressure and limit takedown opportunities. There have been multiple fights in which Eye has lost as a result of a) not being able to defend the takedown or getting put on the fence; or b) not being able to get back up, create scrambles or get off the fence.
In all of her fights at bantamweight, Eye had athletic and cardio-based advantages that allowed her to mask or navigate certain technical holes. However, even with a clear mobility, timing, speed and quickness advantage, she was touched and backed up by physically inferior and technically limited strikers. She won’t have that physical advantage to minimize the technical gaffes, and while she is still one of the better strikers, she isn’t untouchable, even against lesser strikers.
On the ground, there are a number of flyweight ladies capable of working a takedown-heavy, control-heavy or submission-heavy game. Roxanne Modafferi, Barb Honchak, Lauren Murphy, Sijara Eubanks and Nicco Montaño are in the division already, and fighters like Jessica Andrade, Claudia Gadelha and Tatiana Suarez could move up very soon. Each of these fighters has enough athleticism, striking acumen and grappling/wrestling skill to expose the long-standing holes in Eye’s overall game. Physically, Eye should be better able to engage in wrestling/grappling exchanges once size and strength is more even, but technically her development in those areas might not be enough.
Eye at bantamweight or flyweight has been a good enough athlete, tough enough, conditioned enough and a balanced enough fighter to compete with the best fighters in the world. Not once has she just been beaten up, dominated or outclassed completely. This is a testament to Eye and her team. However, a recurring problem is Eye’s inability to make adjustments on the fly. She tends to either make the wrong adjustment or refuses to consistently play to her strengths. Eye has no less than three losses as a result of these things.
First, Eye fought Tate. Eye was outclassing Tate and making it look easy. Yet, when Tate drops levels and starts moving her head, Eye continues with the same attacks, rhythm and targets, even though they have been neutralized. She ends up getting rocked and then dropped by Tate, who is a legend but not someone known to rock or drop opponents.
In Eye’s fight with Peña, she had a clear advantage on the feet. Peña is a willing but awful striker. However, Eye chose to engage in a clinch-heavy, grinding fight that destroyed her gas tank. Eye was taken down repeatedly and controlled for long periods of time.
Then, in a must-win fight against Correia, Eye outstruck her opponent by using movement, counters, a jab and feints. For some reason, though, she lowered her work rate, got into exchanges and clinches in the second round, and then went completely on the defensive in the third frame, giving up a round on aggression in a razor-close fight.
There are other losses for Eye, but these are the most egregious examples of what we in the fight-analyst business call bad cage IQ. Katlyn Chookagian is a similar fighter in build, style and approach, but she has had a much more successful run at bantamweight because she has played to her strengths and made adjustments based on what fit the situation. This lack of nuance on Eye’s part has had catastrophic results, turning much-needed wins into very close losses.
Saturday is an important night for Eye. She is a very accomplished fighter, as her record and time spent in two of the biggest organizations in North America would suggest. She is a very athletic, experienced fighter who has fought some of the very best fighters in a division above her real weight class, but more times than not she has lost. Another loss could very well spell the end of her term in the UFC.
Eye is still young. She’s getting a new lease on life by competing on a more even playing field. Her current losing streak has displaced her as one of the best fighters in women’s MMA. If she loses on Saturday, she may lose her spot as a UFC fighter. Weight doesn’t fix all problems. A large majority of women who have moved to the flyweight division are having the same results, just at a new weight. If that is the case for Eye, then a career that started off with such promise will not end that way.