UFC 254 provides us with two female bouts, each interesting in their own ways. We have Lauren Murphy up against late replacement Liliya Shakirova, as well as Miranda Maverick against Liana Jojua. Murphy’s fight is set to be part of the main card, while Maverick and Jojua are on the early prelims. So, let’s get into these fights.
Admittedly, I did not know a whole lot about Shakirova, so I had to watch some extra video on her to be able to give a proper assessment. Some of what I found will become evident here in talking about Murphy.
Murphy gets credit for taking this fight against a late replacement. She has a lot on the line, and she might have extra motivation after watching last week’s Jéssica Andrade victory over Katlyn Chookagian. Murphy comes in on a roll as a winner of three straight, most recently Roxanne Modafferi, and has to be considered as a potential title challenger with a win here. However, after Andrade made such an impressive debut in the flyweight division, many are saying she could be next. Murphy will likely be looking to not only win, but to make a statement that she deserves the shot.
Murphy is a very well-rounded fighter, which can benefit her here. I can see paths to victory for her on the feet or on the ground. Murphy can be technical on the feet, but she doesn’t shy away from a brawl either. In Shakirova, she is fighting someone who will come forward, which we know Murphy likes. She’s much better when she doesn’t have to chase, and she’s fighting someone who seems to throw almost lunging, looping power shots. If that is the case here, Murphy can throw right up the middle in response. If her jab is working early, she will stay with it and can really do damage to win rounds just with that.
Shakirova also seems to prefer to step back and completely avoid leg kicks rather than checking them. Another tool for Murphy then is to feint throwing leg kicks and get Shakirova backing up just a bit. Once Shakirova is off balance, Murphy can throw some power punches. She can still land leg kicks even with Shakirova backing away, too. If those shots up the middle are working as I expect, she can progress to throwing combos that begin with the jab and end with the leg kicks.
Murphy won’t be afraid of a clinch here either. Even with her back to the cage, she’ll be fine. It looks like underhooks are not terribly hard to get against Shakirova, so that, combined with what I think is a strength advantage, should allow Murphy to reverse position and put Shakirova against the cage. This leads to the other path to victory for Murphy. Shakirova can be taken down and put in bad positions. The key is, Shakirova can get out of those bad positions rather impressively. So, if Murphy scores the takedown, she’ll have to be patient and make ground-and-pound the priority over risky submission attempts.
Shakirova has one big thing going for her: all the pressure is on Murphy. Murphy is the one close to a title shot. Murphy is the UFC veteran and the favorite in this contest. Therefore, Shakirova can fight a little looser. She needs to rein in her tendency to lunge and wing her power shots. She doesn’t always really set them up, which makes avoiding them easier. So, she has to set them up. She is good at coming forward, so she should do so while throwing jabs, feinting, and doing things that will hide the power punches.
I am very impressed with the timing on Shakirova’s takedowns. If she can mix in one or two of them, then she might make Murphy a little more hesitant. If she does that, then it also can open the door for her to do more things on the feet. Her top game can get a little messy, though. Just like Murphy, she will need to be patient once she scores a takedown and not give Murphy a chance at an easy escape.
The clinch is not Shakirova’s best option here. However, if she goes that route, then the underhooks are very important. If she doesn’t get them, then she’s going to end up in a bad situation. I’d really like to see her mix up her striking, too. I noticed a willingness in Shakirova to go to the body, which is good. She should do that here — hit the body, and start combos by targeting the body and then coming over top. If she can get to the body early, then she can slow Murphy down possibly. Then, those looping power punches are more likely to land. This is the same reason I want to see leg kicks. If she damages Murphy’s legs, then she could get the same possible results as she could by working the body.
As weird as this sounds, a main-card spot on a huge pay-per-view, even with no fans present, in her UFC debut is huge for Shakirova. She should get cage time early in the day so she can get in there, walk around, feel it out, and then mentally be strong. She has to block all that stuff out and try to treat this outing like any other fight.
This one is somewhat complicated. Jojua, who is coming off her first UFC win — an armbar finish of Diana Belbiţă — has a nice resume of submission victories. At first glance, it looks very impressive. On closer inspection, two things stand out. First, look at her pre-UFC opponents. Outside of Marina Mokhnatkina, it’s not a list of known or accomplished fighters. Against Mokhnatkina, Jojua had to settle for a majority decision. Second, look at her UFC debut against Sarah Moras. Moras, who is admittedly very good on the ground, was able to dominate that fight, doing very well on top and preventing Jojua from doing anything on top.
In Maverick, Jojua is fighting someone again who has a very good ground game. Maverick is also outstanding when she gets top position. So, as I look at this fight, I am very hard-pressed to predict a plan of attack for Jojua. Not that there isn’t a plan of attack — and if I am being honest, I feel like she’s being overlooked here — but I can’t put my finger on what Jojua and her team might look to do.
In round one, Jojua is going to need movement. She cannot stand still. She has to pick her shots, get in and get out. She’s fighting an incredibly confident fighter, so if she can do that in round one and win the round, even just by being safe, then she can maybe zap some of that confidence away. This might be her best way to get started. If Jojua wants it on the ground, that is fine, but she has to be smart about it. She can’t just sit in the guard, and she has to make sure she is not leaving her arms out there where Maverick can take them. She should throw punches, even if just short shots, and see if she can frustrate Maverick. If they get tied up and she wants it down, then make sure she’s in a good position. She must avoid getting caught up in any 50-50 situations, because Maverick will out-technique and out-muscle her to end up on top. I feel like round one is going to tell us how this fight goes, so Jojua has to make it her round.
Maverick comes into this fight as a winner of five in a row if you count all her Invicta FC Phoenix Series bouts as real bouts, rather than exhibition contests. Most recently, she dominated Pearl Gonzalez en route to a decision victory. This fight can be won by Maverick based on aggression. She can come forward, attack, attack, attack and just overwhelm Jojua. Maverick can do this in a variety of ways, too. On the feet, she can keep Jojua moving backwards and cause her to have trouble getting off. Maverick is capable of putting Jojua against the cage and doing damage as well. What should be most expected, though, is that Maverick puts Jojua on her back, looks to land ground-and-pound, and hunts for submissions.
If Jojua does as I suggested above and Maverick has trouble being too offensive early, then Maverick needs to make sure not to get frustrated. This is when Jojua could possibly pounce. Again, the first round could tell us how this fight goes. If Maverick jumps on Jojua right away and does any kind of damage, then we will see a desperate Jojua or a Jojua who will not engage much. I expect to see Maverick try to force the action right away. If Jojua gets desperate, then Maverick just has to fight smart and wait for her to make a mistake. If Jojua begins to back off and not engage, then Maverick should keep applying the pressure and try to make Jojua completely check out mentally. If this happens, then the finish will be there for Maverick.
Maverick is a huge favorite in this fight, and we often see fighters new to the UFC who are huge favorites stumble. Maverick has to just go in there to win the fight. Don’t go in there in an attempt to live up to some lofty expectations.