The newly minted UFC women’s flyweight division has suddenly become the place to be for fighters who were having a hellacious time squeezing down to strawweight or fighters who were unable or unwilling to cut down to that division and were instead forced to engage with giants at bantamweight.
On Jan. 27, another bantamweight contender moves back to the division. Katlyn Chookagian, who went 2-1 in the UFC while competing at 135 pounds, steps into the Octagon as a 125er and faces Mara Romero Borella.
Chookagian’s modus operandi has always been a blend of quickness, mobility and activity. At bantamweight, the value of these intangible attributes was unquestionable. She lacked the size, durability and physical strength to engage in prolonged exchanges on the feet or on the ground. Instead, she would manage to effectively maximize her advantages in hand and foot speed by using every square inch of the cage via circling and angles.
As good as Chookagian was, the disadvantage she had in the areas of size and strength were almost impossible to completely avoid, even against lesser athletes like Lauren Murphy, who through a combination of pressure, physicality and aggression was able to manufacture takedowns and dominate position using her noticeable size and strength advantages.
At flyweight, Chookagian’s disadvantages should be cut in half. A large portion of the division’s fighters will be coming up from a lower division, meaning an opponent’s ability to take her down and control her on the ground or against the cage should lessen. This means Chookagian will be able to exert more control over where the fight takes place, how long it stays there, and what happens during her time in certain areas. This especially applies to ground fighting.
A skilled opponent is hard enough to manage. A skilled opponent with a clear advantage in regards to physicality, strength and size is almost impossible to manage. Chookagian will still have problems against the bigger women on the ground. The aforementioned Murphy is one example, as are comparable athletes with a punishing and physical style, such as Sijara Eubanks, Nicco Montaño and Liz Carmouche, to name a few. She should fare better against the likes of Barb Honchak, Paige VanZant and Roxanne Modafferi, who may be skilled but will lack the horsepower to completely dominate position or force the fight to that range.
On the feet, not much will change for Chookagian. Her style is rooted in disciplined, as well as technical and situationally aware footwork. Chookagian is not a Holly Holm, who leans heavily on ability to mask technical deficiencies, or a Jessica Eye, who shockingly will eschew all method behind the movement. Chookagian uses her ability and IQ to enhance her technical skills. Nonetheless there are going to be a number of fighters who will move up and be as good or better an all-round athlete as Chookagian. They will definitely be better athletes than the women Chookagian faced at bantamweight. This means she still has to make adjustments, as opponent’s won’t be as flummoxed by her movement, activity and quickness as previous opponents have been.
Chookagian can and will be forced into more exchanges. She will most likely be hit more and be forced to move and fight at a higher pace as a result. The biggest advantage for her is twofold, though. Her power should have more of an impact at flyweight, while her ability to take shots should improve. The “Blondefighter” will still lack real knockout power and will have to rely on her volume, but, armed with the knowledge she can be more effective in exchanges due to the size disparity no longer existing, she should be able to build on her volume and variety of strikes.
Chookagian is an out fighter at heart. She quickly establishes a busy jab and even busier (but technical) footwork as a means to out-position her opposition. This allows her to enter and exit without receiving much damage. She also uses it as a weapon, forcing her opponents to have to work at a quicker and more consistently active pace to chase, trap, or be in position to strike her or get takedowns.
Much like fellow Mark Henry fighter Frankie Edgar, Chookagian’s constant movement, feints and flurries of offense slowly chop away at her opponent’s mental and physical resolve, allowing her to pull away late. This was exhibited in the win against Murphy or when she turned up the heat late in the loss to Carmouche. However, Chookagian’s game is a game of control and consistency. Her lack of power and physical strength allows for opponents to have big moments against her, control her with big spots of grappling-based offense, or do consistent damage with strikes. This was shown in her fights with Carmouche and Murphy, both of whom were able to control and bully Chookagian for noticeably long segments of the fight on the ground (mostly) and on the feet (to a degree). As soon as they got their hands on her, Chookagian’s efficiency and offensive aggression subsided in light of the inability to match the strength and physicality of the other two.
Chookagian was never in danger of being finished in those two fights, but she was clearly unable to gain control or threaten her opponent through submission or superior position. In her fight with Irene Aldana, Chookagian’s inability to really get the respect of her opponent and back Aldana up created numerous opportunities for the Mexican fighter to counter her and back her up via her own jab-jab-right-hand combination. It also allowed Aldana to win exchanges as a result of comparable hand speed and superior punching power.
One thing that bodes well for Chookagian is her identity as a fighter and the smarts not to stray far from it. She has a camp known for its wrestling and grappling, but she has not allowed that to make her seek to force grappling exchanges when the strength of her skills are in the striking realm. While she is willing and able to use the full array of tools In MMA, she uses them in a manner that allows her to keep the fight where she wants it and to escape situations where, due to a technical, strategic mistake or physical ability of her opponent, she is in danger of being overwhelmed. The best example of this would be her fight with Aldana, where Chookagian used repeated takedown attempts to back off her opponent and disrupt any momentum Aldana may have gained in key points of the fight. Once allowed back into free space, Chookagian went back to outslicking and outworking Aldana on the way to a decision win.
Chookagian did much the same against Murphy, who pressured with strikes to get to clinches and get takedowns instead of pressuring to win with strikes. Chookagian was able to manage defensively on the feet and the ground to limit any attempt by Murphy to completely assert herself in the fight through control or damage.
Chookagian hasn’t shown very much in regards to her ability to wrestle or grapple offensively. While her striking style and attention to detail will allow her success, the increase in regards to high-level striking and athleticism will create more opportunities for opponents to force grappling exchanges in the clinch or on the ground after takedowns. Though successful at bantamweight, Chookagian didn’t face particularly high-caliber athletes or fighters. In a new division where everyone is scrambling to establish themselves, her ability to work her way into contention without facing a certain type of fighter is slim to none if her all-round grappling and wrestling hasn’t come somewhat close to her striking. Chookagian will be exposed sooner rather than later. Numerous fighters, such as Eye, Montaño, Valentina Shevchenko and Jessica-Rose “Jessy Jess” Clark, have enough skill on the feet to get into position to force Chookagian to engage on the ground.
As good as Chookagian has been on the feet, she hasn’t been untouchable. She was hit quite a bit as a result of Aldana’s boxing, pressure and volume. Aldana stands out as the best striker Chookagian has faced, and Chookagian essentially took as much as she gave and won the fight more on variety and strikes thrown, than on any clear technical advantage or quality of strikes landed. Even in fights with a clearly outmatched Murphy and Carmouche, Chookagian was pressured and countered fairly effectively in spots.
Chookagian’s desire to outwork her opponents on the feet, not just outslick them, guarantees that she will be hit a fair amount against limited strikers. Of more concern is her tendency to get hit a whole lot by better strikers. The division is still thin, but her willingness to engage, much like stablemate Edgar’s, can and most likely will get her hit by below-average strikers, hurt by the good ones and in a world of trouble against the best. This is not because her footwork and setups are poor, but because the tradeoff for a high-volume style is inconsistent defense. A high-volume attack almost guarantees a fighter will take as good as they give.
On Saturday night, Chookagian returns to the Octagon after a nine-month hiatus and a 2-1 record at bantamweight. She hopes to continue her winning ways and become a top-10 fighter, legitimate contender and possible champion.