Another weekend means more exciting female bouts on tap. Before we get into them, I want to point out that I will not break down or go over the fight between Katlyn Chookagian and Jéssica Andrade scheduled for UFC on ESPN+ 38. I aim to be impartial and give honest breakdowns and reviews here, but I cannot remain impartial for this bout, because I train with Katlyn and will be rooting for her. As a result, I don’t think it would be right to give any analysis on that fight.
Luckily, we also have Bellator 249 on Thursday. The card is headlined by Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, who defends her featherweight title against Arlene Blencowe. Let’s start with that one.
Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino vs. Arlene Blencowe (Bellator 249)
After departing from the UFC, Cyborg got her Bellator career off to a good start by taking the featherweight title from Julia Budd in January. By now, we know what we are going to get with Cyborg. She’s super aggressive, will throw a flurry of punches, and usually will drop her opponent. However, this is obviously not all there is to her. In her two most recent bouts, against Cat Zingano and Felicia Spencer respectively, she was forced to do more work on the cage, as both Zingano and Spencer were all too happy to have the fight there. Cyborg showed she is just as dangerous there, though. Spencer went the distance and did far better than what was expected, but Cyborg still controlled the fight the whole way. With Zingano, Cyborg was great in that area as well and again dominated before eventually getting the finish.
This might be of extra importance in this fight, because Blencowe is a very good boxer who will be happy if she can make this fight into a boxing match. That’s not to say Cyborg will shy away from trading punches with her, but we can expect the Brazilian to make the clinch a focus, even if it’s not on the cage and instead in the center. If Cyborg can get in close and get the clinch, then she can really work the body of Blencowe with her great knees. Right away, Cyborg will want to establish her kicks and try to hurt the legs of Blencowe. The reason for this is twofold. First, if you want to get into a clinch with someone, then it helps if they aren’t as mobile and easily able to get away. Second, if you hurt the legs, then it is harder for your opponent to really sit down on their punches, which in this case would take away Blencowe’s biggest strength.
In round one, I expect Cyborg to really focus on those kicks. In round two, if she has Blencowe thinking about them, or even hurting from them, then it opens up the door for her hands. If she is comfortable and having success, then Cyborg will try to stick with this approach. If she’s not having a lot of success, then we’ll see her getting the clinch and trying to control the fight from there while throwing knees to the body and also elbows. In addition, we’ve seen from her last two fights that cardio isn’t an issue for Cyborg, so she is fine as long as the fight goes, even if it’s spent with a lot of time in the clinch where it can sometimes get grueling.
Blencowe comes in on a roll following three straight wins, including a decision over Leslie Smith in her most recent outing in November. In discussing Cyborg, I also essentially explained what Blencowe needs to do. For starters, she has to check the kicks. Sometimes you’ll see boxers — not to imply Blencowe is just a boxer; she’s far from that — not put a big focus on checking the kicks. Instead, they are more worried about landing their punches. Blencowe has to know the kicks are coming and check them. She should use movement and avoid standing stationary. A moving target is harder to kick, and she doesn’t want to get into a brawl with Cyborg if Cyborg comes rushing in super aggressively.
Blencowe has power and can hurt anyone, but so can Cyborg. When Blencowe is throwing, she can’t throw just one at a time. She has to throw combos and keep Cyborg off of her to help avoid getting tied up. If Cyborg does go for the clinch, then Blencowe has to get her underhooks in quickly. These will help her perhaps switch and get her back off the cage, or even possibly break free. If in that clinch Cyborg decides to take down Blencowe, then Blencowe should make sure to tie her up right away. She cannot let Cyborg posture up and land punches.
I don’t know that Blencowe can win more rounds than Cyborg. If she can’t, then she needs a finish, which she can possibly get. However, to do so, she needs to keep the fight where she wants it and the way she wants it. Things like clinches and being on her back are not part of that.
Gillian Robertson vs. Poliana Botelho (UFC on ESPN+ 38)
Robertson is elite on the ground. Six of her eight pro wins are submissions, and another is from strikes on the ground. There is no secret to anyone who is going to fight her where she wants to get the fight.
In saying this, it makes it hard to give any sort of long breakdown of her strategy. However, the problems she will begin to face more and more will have to do with how to get the fight to the ground. Her opponents are going to continue to try to be better and better at stopping the takedowns and forcing her to stay on her feet. The simple basics of shooting in aren’t going to be enough. More and more, she will need to set up her takedown attempts. How does she do that? By continuing to get better on her feet, which she has done, and by setting up or disguising the takedowns. Maybe jab her way in close and get a clinch into a trip takedown, or maybe stand for a bit and try to get her opponent — Botelho, in this case — to overextend and then shoot in while Botelho’s balance is off.
Just two fights ago, Botelho was submitted by Cynthia Calvillo, who is good on the ground but still below the level of Robertson. In this case, I foresee Robertson wanting to get in close against the cage and drag her down, trip her down, or do whatever is available from there. So, what’s her best way to do that? By jabbing her way in, as I mentioned earlier. She needs to throw those jabs and then try to get Botelho backing up. When she sees Botelho taking steps backward, she can then rush in and get the clinch. From there, the takedowns will come.
While Robertson is also good off her back, she doesn’t want to be in that spot here. It’s not that she won’t be capable of pulling off a submission, so I don’t say this as if to say she’s screwed if she’s on her back, but she just would probably not want it there if she can avoid it. So, in going for those takedowns off the clinch, Robertson will want to be careful and make sure she is in control. She’ll have to prevent a scramble from where Botelho could land on top.
Botelho in many ways will want to implore much of the strategy I laid out for Blencowe. She’ll need to utilize movement, keep her back away from the cage, and fight at a distance where she can land while she isn’t too close. Robertson will jump at the opportunity to catch a kick and get the takedown that way, so Botelho should end combinations with kicks. Naked kicks will get caught. If she does see Robertson shooting in from any distance, she must be prepared to sprawl and back away. Don’t look for the highlight knee or kick, because odds are it won’t land. If it doesn’t land, then odds are that Botelho is going to the ground. If, on the sprawl, she sees a way to get Robertson’s back, then she should take it. However, if it isn’t there quickly, then she should just back away.
Botelho can frustrate Robertson. If she can stop the takedowns and find success in landing strikes, then she can make Robertson desperate for the takedown. When this happens, the shots will become sloppy and telegraphed. This is when Botelho can really start to easily escape and do damage. What if Botelho does get taken down? Don’t get fancy. Don’t try to compete with Robertson there. She needs to protect her limbs and not leave an arm just hanging there for Robertson to grab. Then, she should try to stall it out. Botelho must tie up Robertson, and if Botelho is away from the cage, then she has to try to scoot her back to it and see if she can use the cage to get up.
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