On Friday night, a very important fight takes place in the Bellator women’s flyweight division. No, it’s not the title fight between Bellator champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane and challenger Alejandra Lara. Instead, it’s the fight that will determine the next challenger for the Bellator women’s 125-pound crown. This fight features former UFC strawweight title challenger Valérie “Trouble” Létourneau. On the other side of the cage stands the focus of this article, MMA neophyte and divisional dark horse Kristina Williams.
Létourneau is a striker by trade. She prefers to fight at range using a jab and the front kick. The jab allows Létourneau to disrupt her opponent’s offensive rhythm and sets the table for the rest of her offense. The jab provides fairly clean entries into the pocket, too. The front kick, meanwhile, allows Létourneau to take advantage of fighting at range by allowing her to maintain distance and keep opponents from getting into the pocket to exploit her defense. This kicking technique also allows her to touch her opponent from ranges where they generally can’t touch her, and it provides versatility, as she can attack the head and the body.
Létourneau is effective in the pocket offensively, especially with the right hand on the lead. She throws the right with bad intentions and will often double up on it. Her secondary weapon is her counter left hook. She doesn’t throw it nearly as much, but she is very effective with it when she does.
In the pocket, Létourneau has some limitations, especially defensively. She largely relies on her pace, volume and durability as her first line of defense. The Canadian fighter has a secondary set of tools she uses when in the pocket. The first is her takedown. Létourneau is no Claudia Gadelha or Tatiana Suarez, but she has shown the ability to transition from striking to takedowns competently, leaning mostly on doubles and the occasional single leg. The other instrument she uses is the clinch, where she is solid but not spectacular. The clinch allows her to take advantage of her activity and physicality while wearing opposition down in extended exchanges that she often punctuates with trip takedowns.
On the ground, Létourneau is aggressive and active. She will strike, look for submissions and attempt to improve position. She’s dangerous on all fronts, but the one drawback to her work on the ground is her less-than-stellar base, which limits any ability to control opponents or keep them down for large stretches of time.
So, now that we’ve reviewed Létourneau’s skill set, we can get to the big question in this important fight: What six things does Williams need to do to defeat Létourneau and position herself to challenge for the Bellator championship?
A fighter should never foolishly engage in areas where they aren’t as tenured or technically developed, but you can’t concede ranges in an MMA fight. When a fighter concedes or seeks to completely avoid a range, they essentially have given their game plan to their opponent and provided them a safe zone where they know they won’t face reprisals or resistance.
Unless the fighter in question is a dynamic athlete, which Williams is not, they can’t rely on any one skill or range to determine a fight. This has been proven already in Williams’ short career when she was taken down and controlled by Emily Ducote on numerous occasions.
This concession of ranges is where Létourneau lives. The Canadian fighter is willing to engage. Her willingness to attack, defend and counter in all ranges and at all levels increases the impact of her physicality, activity and aggression. Létourneau’s opponents often have a range or place they seek to avoid, and if they find themselves in said spot, then they will seek to escape or defend. This allows Létourneau to rest or to up her intensity, all while knowing her opponent’s goal is just to survive.
Létourneau’s opponents don’t have this same luxury. Létourneau is always looking to fight back or take control of a fight. Williams must return the favor. She is the stronger, fresher and more durable. Williams has to be willing to take some risks and engage in some dangerous situations to keep Létourneau from limiting her ability to execute her game plan or from taking over the fight on aggression and activity alone. When Létourneau has lost, it has been because fighters have made her work in every phase of MMA. When opponents have lacked the skills or the will to engage her, she has won.
Williams needs to be especially aware of takedowns. She can’t just defend them. She must punish Létourneau for each and every attempt. Meanwhile, she must try to avoid them — resorting only to defending them will allow Létourneau to control when and how Williams fights.
Williams is not without an understanding of footwork, range and how it impacts the nature and direction of a fight. She seems determined to lean on her durability, length and kicking game to get in position to initiate and counter strikes. This strategy is effective when facing less savvy and less balanced or developed opponents. Against an opponent of Létourneau’s caliber and experience level, those positive attributes will more likely result in Williams being countered early and often, drowned in volume or taken down repeatedly.
Even if the fight doesn’t end via strikes or submission, Létourneau will have checked off enough boxed on judges’ scorecards to win on points via workrate, control and efficiency. Williams therefore needs to alternate between pressuring Létourneau, using angles to cut the cage down on her and backing her up. She also needs to pick times to exit on angles, pivot and circle so that she isn’t available for return fire as she has been in fights with Heather Hardy and the aforementioned Ducote. Those two ladies lacked the size, pace and skills to take advantage of how Williams repeatedly served herself up by walking into shot or standing in front of them to receive return fire.
Létourneau won’t be limited to big individual strikes, nor will she be hesitant to clinch or shoot for takedowns. Williams has to take away Létourneau’s willingness to counter her aggression by making herself unavailable to the Canadian’s offense by using defensive footwork. Williams also needs to expose Létourneau’s inconsistent defense by pushing her back and taking away the distance and space at which she operates best. Williams must force Létourneau to throw unnecessary strikes in response to the threat posed by deliberate pressure footwork instead of aimless forward motion.
Williams has to be willing to initiate clinches. Létourneau is good in the clinch, but she’s not great. Half of her success has come due most fighters letting her dictate when and where a clinch will occur.
Some of Létourneau’s past opponents have allowed her to be the aggressor. Létourneau often is so active, so physical and so aggressive in other ranges that she forces her opponent to initiate clinches as a reactionary measure. Her opponents are hoping to avoid her pace, volume and extended exchanges at range and in the pocket. These desperation clinch attempts occur after a certain amount of damage has been done and after the fighters have begun to slow due to energy expended on unnecessary movement and strikes used to unsuccessful dissuade Létourneau. So even once they have gotten the clinch, Létourneau is still able to punish them with short punches and knees in the clinch, as she did against Viviane Pereira and Elizabeth Phillips, or she is able to easily escape and get back to her preferred range, as she did in her fight with Jessica Rakoczy.
Though “Trouble” is a willing clinch fighter, she isn’t a particularly dynamic or technical one. The Canadian will often use it in a similar manner to her opponents as she looks for a safety zone that keeps her from absorbing large amounts of strikes when an opponent is able to outclass or just plain out-fight her. This was the case in Létourneau’s fights with Joanna Jędrzejczyk and Joanne Calderwood. In those fights, Létourneau sought to slow the pace or limit the tools used to attack her by tying her opponent up and taking her down. In both cases, her lack of offensive creativity and defensive awareness was exposed and her clinch was rendered ineffective.
Williams has the size and length necessary to gain the leverage, positioning and head pressure to engage in and win extended exchanges through a combination of her own physicality and, more importantly, her technical acumen entering, occupying and exiting the clinch.
The jab is a line of defense, a form of offense and a setup for more impactful offense. Given Williams’ lack of foot speed and explosiveness, it is beyond amazing that she hasn’t developed or used an active and varied jab as a bridge from kicking range to boxing range, a way to set up combinations, a way to draw out strikes to counter and to provide safe passageway when exiting from boxing range to kicking range. Williams does paw, but an active, versatile jab would be of great assistance to her in any fight, and especially this one.
Létourneau has a very good jab, but she has been prone to abandon it when she has been stung hard enough. The best way for Williams to get Létourneau to abandon the jab is to neutralize it with her own and goad “Trouble” into initiating a firefight that will expose her defensive deficiencies and tendency to lean on physicality and durability instead of craft on the feet. This is illustrated in Létourneau’s fights with Calderwood and Jędrzejczyk.
The jab is especially important for Williams due to Létourneau’s frame, experience and range of skills. Williams won’t be able to lean on length to score offensively or as a defensive measure. Instead, she is going to have to offer something to maximize her tools and minimize her defensive openings.
In her fights with Hardy and Ducote, Williams fell into a pattern of taking turns striking. She would throw a jab, a push, a kick, a high kick or a right hand, but then she would stop and let her opponent fire back. Once her opponent stopped striking, Williams would fire back again. Williams often got the better of these exchanges, but she also took unnecessary punishment because she let her opponent find their rhythm and get off with a series of strikes uninterrupted by her own.
Williams made this work against Hardy and Ducote, because they lacked the all-around skills (Hardy) or the seasoning on the feet (Ducote). Williams could rely on her length and durability, because neither fighter could ever land more than one or two clean shots in succession, which wasn’t enough to put Williams on the defensive or to hurt her. This same approach will not work against Létourneau, who has the full set of skills to engage at all three ranges on the feet and all three ranges in MMA.
Williams can’t lean on her length or long-range weapons as a line of defense. More importantly, Létourneau has the physicality, durability and activity to get inside, stay inside and overwhelm Williams with volume. The best way to limit Létourneau’s ability to dictate terms of engagement on the feet is to strike with her. Don’t let Létourneau find her offensive rhythm, don’t allow her to make reads, don’t allow her to apply forward pressure in entering the pocket/clinch, and don’t allow her to stay at range and set traps that allow her to pick off an over-aggressive opponent.
Williams needs to punch and kick with her Canadian counterpart. She has to halt Létourneau’s forward pressure, push Létourneau back and punish each and every attempt Létourneau makes to assert herself offensively.
Williams has been a punishing fighter and a fairly busy one. She hasn’t been particularly cohesive or creative in her striking, though. As a taekwondo stylist and a fighter with a limited boxing background, Williams has been surprisingly meat-and-potatoes in her striking. There hasn’t been a big price to pay for it in her previous outings, because her opponents have lacked some combination of size, length, skill and seasoning necessary to exact a high price for the rote striking used by Williams.
Williams’ opponents have been able to be successful to a degree. Each was able to get inside her rangy, predictable punches and land clean, hard shots. Ducote scored numerous takedowns as a result of Williams’ overpursuit and repetitive, naked kicks.
Létourneau is excellent at making reads and immediately returning fire. She has done so against bigger and better athletes, as well as against more experienced and technical fighters. Létourneau has countered numerous kicks and punches with strikes of her own, and she has been able to hit reactive takedowns on overextended punches. She has caught kicks and swiftly turned them into takedowns. The best way for Williams to avoid these things is to use creative combinations of strikes or a broader selection of shots.
If Létourneau has to worry about a variety of shots aimed at a variety of targets, then it limits her ability to defend effectively or counter with any sort of efficiency. This was a very successful approach for Jędrzejczyk and Calderwood, neither of whom possess top-shelf athleticism. It will more than make up for the less-than-stellar athleticism Williams possesses, as well as allowing Williams to navigate her lack of defensive responsibility.
Létourneau has been historically vulnerable to front kicks and push kicks. She was hurt badly in two of her biggest fights as a result of these strikes. Jędrzejczyk rocked Létourneau with front kicks to the face. Calderwood set up a stoppage with push kicks to the body. Williams has shown an excellent, if not active, front/push kick. Given her taekwondo background, Williams is more than well equipped to attack Létourneau with a variety of lead-leg attacks that can create openings for front/push kicks.
Williams doesn’t have the seasoning, durability and familiarity with top-end competition to be in position to win this fight. This has been the case in the majority of her fights under the Bellator banner. However, she has youth, versatility, physicality and confidence, which has been more than enough for her to win her first two fights against opponents who, on paper, should have been too much for her.
This isn’t as simple as countering kicks or landing clean shots. It’s about limiting Létourneau’s ability to do the things she wants and needs to do to win the fight. Williams isn’t going to show Létourneau something she hasn’t seen in some form or fashion at the highest levels of MMA. What Williams needs to show is something Létourneau hasn’t seen from her, such as disciplined and diverse footwork, a willingness to engage at all levels or creative striking combinations.
Williams needs to show growth from her last fight to this one. She has to make Létourneau uncomfortable and exploit the physical limitations that come from an extended career in MMA. To win this fight, Williams has to be a much better, more responsible version of the fighter we have seen. If she does this, then we will definitely have a new star and the next title challenger for the Bellator women’s flyweight championship on our hands.