It’s been a busy few weeks in mixed martial arts, especially in the world of women’s MMA. Among the many bouts that have taken place these last few weeks, we’ve seen Holly Holm return to title contention, Claudia Gadelha eke past Carla Esparza and an entire Deep Jewels event that included Reina Miura in featherweight action. The month kicked off with a very important UFC fight between two of the company’s flyweights, Sijara Eubanks and Lauren Murphy.
These two ladies were jockeying for position in the divisional rankings, and the fight had the ability to springboard the winner — Eubanks — to a title shot against Fit-NHB product Nicco Montaño.
Eubanks was hoping to regain some of the luster she lost in not making weight and missing out on the inaugural title fight against Montaño following The Ultimate Fighter 26. Murphy had a disappointing run in the TUF house, but she scored an upset over top-five flyweight Barb Honchak. If Murphy had won, it could have vaulted her ahead of Valentina Shevchenko in the rankings to become the next challenger to the flyweight queen.
The biggest question in the fight was whether Murphy’s physicality, pace, activity and experience would be enough to neutralize the athleticism, power, strength and world-class grappling of Eubanks. Eubanks, though not a seasoned striker, showed a willingness to engage on the feet. Backed by her aggression and durability, this allowed her to get spectacular results with her ever-sharpening skills and high-end athletic ability.
Eubanks had also shown a bit of an issue with conditioning. She often fought in spots, exploding with devastating effect in the moments she opened up offensively. But when forced to work, she did tend to slow. Her offensive bursts came fewer and farther between, and there was a drop off in her defensive responsibility and accuracy.
So, against a big, durable, busy, gritty, experienced fighter, would Eubanks be able to control the pace and place of the fight and make her athleticism the determining factor?
Murphy is many things, but dynamic is not one of them. Her striking isn’t defensively sound or offensively efficient, and she leans on volume, pressure and durability to make up for her lack of craft and the complete absence of athleticism.
So, would Murphy be able to navigate Eubanks’ superior striking and athleticism long enough to extend, exhaust and defeat her?
It turned out that Murphy was unable to get her pressure going on Eubanks. She was essentially on the back foot as Eubanks pursued her. Murphy looked to counter as she made Eubanks work to walk her down and cut her off. To Murphy’s credit, she showed some improved footwork, spacing and poise. While she did take some heavy fire, she did not make herself nearly as available for leads and counters. More importantly, Murphy, in fighting off the back foot, was able to land some lead and counters of her own and gain Eubanks’ respect by disrupting her rhythm and forward pressure intermittently. Murphy was also able to make Eubanks work, which lessened the amount, accuracy and explosiveness of the shots that were fired in her direction. As much as these things assisted in keeping her in the fight, they ultimately led to Murphy’s downfall.
Murphy was on the defensive throughout the fight, unable to back up Eubanks with strikes or the threat of takedowns. This meant that Eubanks was able to dictate the pace and place of the engagements. Eubanks initiated striking and grappling exchanges with repeated successful takedown attempts. While Murphy wasn’t exactly picked apart or run over, she was clearly the loser in the fight. She was out-struck, out-hustled and out-grappled for the duration of all three rounds.
It’s a good win for Eubanks, and actually one of the best wins in the newly formed division. Murphy was highly ranked as a result of her showing in the TUF house and her win over Honchak. Eubanks flashed improved striking in regards to her footwork, timing, poise and the efficiency of her pressure.
Eubanks is a high-end grappler too, but Murphy is one of the bigger, stronger and savvier ladies in the division. Eubanks’ ability to repeatedly get takedowns and effectively keep the fight in that phase with her in superior position is quite impressive. It’s even more impressive that she was able to neutralize Murphy’s takedowns. If Eubanks can continue to improve her athleticism, power and world-class grappling, then she could very well rise to the title. Her ranking as a result of the TUF competition and the win over Murphy already create a legitimate argument for Eubanks to receive a title shot.
Murphy showed improvements in her footwork, in her ability and willingness to counter, and in her poise when she wasn’t able to pressure Eubanks. She is usually the one who has to pressure and throw, and even then it’s a toss-up as far as the results, largely due to her lack of power, explosive athleticism and all-around striking skill. This fight was the worst-case scenario for Murphy, who was forced onto her back foot against a better striker, a better grappler and a more athletic fighter. Even though she lost, she looked much better than when she has been put into those spots in the past.
Murphy is still a contender in the division. One or two strong wins would put her right back into contention. However, she needs to be careful. The same limitations that existed for her at bantamweight exist here at flyweight. Her lack of athleticism and her age could limit her ceiling. Furthermore, the constant influx of talent leaves her with little room for missteps.
Unlike Mackenzie Dern or Cortney Casey, Murphy doesn’t have the athleticism necessary to navigate her technical limitations in wrestling and striking. Dern and Casey are similarly underdeveloped, but they possess the size and athleticism to be a threat even though neither has Murphy’s workrate, aggression or experience. In the highest level of professional sports, athleticism matters.
Murphy opted to use a strategy to mask the holes in her technique. This is fine, but at some point she can only scheme opponents so much. If the actual skills lack marked improvement from fight to fight, then any fighter becomes predictable and ultimately beatable. This has been the case since Murphy came into the UFC. She has improved, but the improvements aren’t coming at a rate fast enough to keep up with the younger and more athletically gifted fighters in the UFC.
There is a certain level of athleticism with which Murphy has always had problems. Unfortunately, she resides in a division full of women with enough of it — as well as youth and skill — to expose her limitations and derail any championship aspirations she has now or for the future.
We need look no further than Murphy’s performances against Montaño and Eubanks. Murphy outclasses these two fighters in experience, accomplishment and resume in MMA, but both women soundly beat the former Invicta champion. Meanwhile, Murphy topped Honchak and was much more effective overall in that fight. What’s the difference? Two of her last three opponents were young, skilled and athletic. The other was less athletic, more one-dimensional and older. Murphy needs to tread carefully, because another loss or two could put her right back in the role of journeywoman.