On Jan. 14, 2018, former Invicta title challenger and blue-chip prospect Irene Aldana, coming off a nine-month sabbatical, returns to the UFC for her third bout with the promotion. Aldana is still looking for her first UFC win. Aldana’s return to action comes at UFC Fight Night 124, where she meets Talita Bernardo in a bantamweight clash.
Today, we discuss Aldana’s attributes, fight game and resume.
Unlike the majority of the fighters in the bantamweight division, Aldana was blessed with a unique combination of size, length and overall athleticism. She is firmly in the mold of fighters like Julianna Peña, Elizabeth Phillips, Marion Reneau and Cat Zingano, all of whom have enough ability to enhance the effectiveness of both their refined and unrefined technical skills. In the case of Aldana, it would generally apply to her overall striking, the specific focus of which is her boxing. When mixed with her prodigious stamina and stellar rate of activity, her striking makes Aldana one of the better prospects in women’s MMA.
Aldana is a very good athlete, but she’s not a great one. While her physical tools can enhance both the things she is good at and not so good at, they aren’t so stellar that they can mask her limitations or act as an eraser. Unlike fighters like Ronda Rousey, Amanda Nunes, Holly Holm and Sara Mcmann, Aldana is unable to dominate based on pure athleticism, nor is she able to quickly end or turn a fight with it either. She has to use pace and volume to make up for her inability to control or finish.
Less noticeable is the fact that this lack of athleticism allows opponents to test Aldana in two areas that she has found to be lacking in: physicality and durability. Lacking the style or skills to completely avoid certain phases or situations that exploit her technical limitations, the Mexican fighter is vulnerable to opponents who are routinely allowed the freedom to test her ability to absorb punishment and handle a fight when it gets to a fevered pitch.
Aldana is an aggressive boxer. She places a high emphasis on volume, technique and power punching. Unlike the majority of the bantamweights, she has a smooth and deliberate execution of technique — her jab, counter left hook and hard leg kick — as well as legitimately good punching power and the footwork and conditioning to get into a position to use volume to drown her opponent.
Aldana isn’t much of a kicker outside of the timely low kicks she flashes. However, she showed some variation in her kicking game against her most recent opponent, Katlyn Chookagian. The majority of her work is done with her hands. Aldana moves very well around the cage, circling effectively to limit opposing fighters from building momentum offensively. She is also very good at using angles and deliberate footwork to apply intelligent pressure on opponents. This allows her to initiate offense and determine the time and place of exchanges. This educated footwork also helps support her counter striking, as she can set traps by circling out or backing up and walking people into counter hooks. She can also can press them, coming in behind her jab, which will create enough of a threat to make an opponent fire off and open up a clear lane to counter with her straight/lead/overhand right.
This doesn’t just supplement her striking defense. It bolsters her takedown defense. It doesn’t allow opponents the opportunity to set up their takedowns for fear of being countered, and her footwork limits their ability to get in the necessary spots to attempt or effectively finish takedowns upon entry.
The concern for Aldana is that the weapon she chooses to use is also the weapon she is most susceptible to, as highlighted in the Leslie Smith fight, where a technically and athletically inferior opponent overwhelmed her purely with a high volume and variety of strikes. As good as Aldana is when she leads and imposes her will on an opponent, that is equal to how bad she is when an opponent doesn’t allow her to run them over with aggression and then can throw with enough power, precision or volume to force her back. It’s then that her defensive limitations, lack of head movement and erratic defensive footwork are exposed.
This is especially concerning when you look further into her career and see that the two other times an opponent imposed their wills — as was the case when Aldana met Tonya Evinger and Larissa Pacheco — Aldana suffered a technical knockout. While Aldana made it to the final bell in a (competitive) loss to Smith, she was dropped and clearly beaten up by a fighter who hadn’t stopped an opponent of note in her entire career.
Aldana has made some improvements in her defensive footwork and head movement, which showed in her second outing in the UFC against Chookagian. But once again, when put under duress through volume or variety of strikes, she became very hittable, even when trying to be defensively responsible. This is also problematic because it means she doesn’t have any safe zone in her ability to not get hit. Aldana is either coming forward and throwing volume, which is a recipe for taking abuse, or getting pushed back and taking more abuse.
Another limitation that was exposed was any sort of consistency in Aldana’s kicking game. She was throwing more variety and was more willing to use the kicks, but she still wasn’t showing enough to maximize her length and athleticism. More importantly, her unwillingness to routinely engage at that range makes her very susceptible to attacks and counters from that range. Regardless of the number of kicks landed, this allows her opponent to keep Aldana outside of her preferred boxing range and allows her opponent to establish her own boxing through the effective use and threat of kicks. This was highlighted in her fights against Smith and Chookagian.
Aldana has not faced a murderer’s row of opposition. For the most part, her opponents have been good, but not great. The aforementioned Pacheco, Peggy Morgan, Faith Van Duin, Jessamyn Duke and Colleen Schneider are the bulk of the notable names littered across her fight record. None of these fighters are elite talents.
The best opposition she has faced is the aforementioned former Invicta bantamweight champion Evinger. Unfortunately, Aldana was thoroughly undressed by Evinger. She was walked down, taken down and beaten up in a fairly one-sided fight that ended by fourth-round stoppage. That was the closest to an elite opponent Aldana has faced, and it resulted in her most decisive loss.
Upon her entry into the UFC, Aldana was given two favorable match-ups in a row.
First, she was given Smith, an experienced, tough, active and savvy fighter. Smith is also painfully limited in regards to her technical skills and even more so in her overall athleticism. Smith, who was 2-4 inside the Octagon, was supposed to be a showcase fight for Aldana. Smith had a clear narrative of losing to the best fighters she would face, but she dropped, outworked, beat up and bullied Aldana to a three-round decision.
Chookagian, a smaller, physically weaker fighter with below-average power, was another favorable match-up for Aldana. Chookagian had only one loss and has a high-activity, footwork-based, technical and defensively sound style, but she is still a striker. That’s an area where Aldana has excelled in the majority of her career. Once again, though, Aldana faltered. The Mexican fighter lost a hotly contested three-round decision and fell to 0-2 in the promotion.
Aldana is now winless against the best fighters she’s met — the group consisting of Pacheco, Evinger, Smith and Chookagian. This is particularly concerning, as it makes her entry into the UFC to be to some degree about the demographic the company would gain if it could get her in position as a legitimate top-10 bantamweight.
On Jan. 14, 2018, Aldana faces a must-win situation. Once again, she is facing a lower-tier fighter who is coming off a loss of her own. She has a favorable match-up against a fighter she should outclass in level of athleticism, striking, experience and size. If she can’t get it done here, then there is a good chance she won’t taste success in the UFC.
If she can’t win, then Aldana, who has already had her reputation as a fighter reevaluated, is going to have to reset once more and refresh her career outside of the UFC. The promotion has given her every chance to succeed, but she has failed to reward the company with a positive return on its investment.
Saturday night is the biggest fight in Aldana’s very brief career. Either she gets on track and we see the beginning of a turnaround in her fortunes in the Octagon, or else we will see the beginning of the end for Aldana as a UFC fighter.