We have a weekend of title fights ahead. On Saturday, UFC 261 features two women’s championship affairs. Zhang Weili is set to defend her strawweight crown against Rose Namajunas, while flyweight titleholder Valentina Shevchenko clashes with Jéssica Andrade. In addition, as an appetizer, Friday night’s Legacy Fighting Alliance 105 lineup includes a battle for the vacant strawweight strap between Pierangela Rodriguez and Svetlana Gotsyk. Let’s take a look at all three of these title tilts.
Zhang Weili vs. Rose Namajunas (UFC 261)
So I am going to give some thoughts here on how to beat each of these ladies. Stick around, though, because afterwards I’ll give advice on how to beat LeBron James and Kevin Durant in basketball. I really don’t need to explain what this fight is about or what is at stake, so let’s just get into it.
Zhang comes into this title defense at 21-1. Her most recent win came via decision in an amazing fight against Joanna Jędrzejczyk. Namajunas sits at 9-4 after a July victory over the aforementioned Andrade.
I love that Zhang’s temperament never changes. She’s always calm and relaxed. This is important here, because she is fighting someone who has good defense and a lot of movement. Early struggles or early trouble getting much done is not going to faze Zhang.
I think we will see Zhang make an early attempt to bring Namajunas to her. She throws really quick follow-ups on her combos. She can throw a jab out there at a typical normal speed and then suddenly, punches two, three and four come lightning fast. Zhang is fighting a good counter puncher, so she might throw that jab out a few times and try to get Namajunas to counter. Namajunas might not bite right away, but eventually the former champ will come in with counters to that jab. This is when Zhang can pounce. She has the speed to throw them fast and catch Namajunas off guard. Zhang can also throw and land them well even after Namajunas perhaps lands one of those counters.
Another key for Zhang will be leg kicks. She doesn’t necessarily want to trade kicks with Namajunas, who will enjoy the leg length/reach advantage. However, she’s good at ending combos with kicks, and this could pay off for her as the fight progresses. The more Zhang can land and damage the legs of Namajunas, the more she improves her chances of getting Namajunas to stand in front of her.
There are things that Zhang will want to avoid on the feet as well, and I am mainly talking about stand-up in this preview because I expect the fight to mostly all play out there. Zhang can at times lower her hands, but she won’t want to do that here. She has the shorter reach, while Namajunas has sneaky power. If Zhang lowers her hands too much, then she opens the door for those counters from Namajunas. In addition, it could give Namajunas opportunities to land head kicks.
While Zhang will need to close some distance to get in and land, she will be best served to get in and out. She shouldn’t just stay in there. While Zhang will always have a chance of landing the big shot in close, Namajunas has a very good clinch game and lands great strikes there. It’s not a place where she wants to play much with Namajunas.
Namajunas will use a lot of movement — circling, moving in and out — and not get into any brawls. She has outstanding movement, which will serve her well against a power puncher. Namajunas is really good with her defense and always keeps her hands up. These are things that can help in more than just plain defense. If Zhang throws a lot of hard power punches that don’t land, then the champ’s arms will tire as those add up. This starts lowering the output and takes some of the zing off of those punches. Early on, Namajunas won’t look to engage more than necessary. Instead, she’ll take more of a “defensively offensive” approach.
Kicks are the main weapon early for Namajunas. Her length advantage will allow her to kick from a safer range and land while Zhang seeks ways to get closer and therefore move forward into those kicks. Namajunas will throw most of those kicks low. This will get Zhang thinking low, which then leaves those openings for head kicks.
If Namajunas can force a clinch and push Zhang to the cage, then she can wrap her arms around the head and really work the body. She could also land big knees. This is another huge weapon for Namajunas. With the reach advantage, she can even bring Zhang’s head lower and try to deliver knees to the champ’s head.
Defensively, the main thing for Namajunas is to not brawl. You’re not going to win an exchange of power punches, so keep up that movement. Namajunas can make Zhang chase and maybe even overextend on punches.
Valentina Shevchenko vs. Jéssica Andrade (UFC 261)
This one is easy to preview. Each fighter’s path to a win is pretty simple.
Shevchenko enters at 20-3 while on a six-fight winning streak. Most recently, she made a successful title defense against Jennifer Maia in November. Andrade holds a 21-8 mark after her November win over Katlyn Chookagian.
Everyone has a game plan against Shevchenko, but no one is able to execute it. In fact, she will at times, such as with Maia, go to their world and beat them there.
Shevchenko will be best served to make this a pure kickboxing match. She has a three and a half inch reach advantage, so she should be able to fight from a range that is comfortable for her. She throws great lead kicks and a variety of different kinds. By landing those early, she can further keep Andrade back and at a range that is comfortable to Shevchenko. The kicks, combined with her jab, should be enough to let Shevchenko control the action as long as it is on the feet.
Even better for Shevchenko on the feet is that she is fighting someone who is a very good striker. Andrade is very counterable, though, especially when she throws kicks. So, the bigger the lead Shevchenko can get out to, the more she can make Andrade get desperate and wild. This will open up more counter opportunities for Shevchenko, at which point I expect Shevchenko will really let go with the high kicks.
The champ might also look to work the clinch game. She is going to be the bigger and stronger fighter and can really do damage there. If Shevchenko can put Andrade’s back to the cage, then she can tire and further frustrate the Brazilian. In the clinch, I would really look for Shevchenko to go for underhooks and keep Andrade’s arms up high while working the body with knees.
Shevchenko has shown an increasing interest in taking fights to the ground lately. However, this is not in her best interest here. This is the one area where Andrade would have her best chance, and there is no need to give it to her. Shevchenko does have some good takedowns, but her activity level once there isn’t very high. Shevchenko also leaves her arms vulnerable, and Andrade can pounce on that.
Andrade, on the other hand, needs to get this fight to the ground. It won’t be easy, because she will have some distance to cover to get close enough to get it there.
Andrade has to be careful on the feet. She will often engage in a brawl, but she can’t do that against Shevchenko. She’s been rocked by fighters with less power and technique, and that was at strawweight. Again, Andrade leaves herself open to counters. Shevchenko is not someone you want landing counter punches against you.
Andrade will not be totally helpless on the feet. She has really good head movement and a lot of power. If the fight is contested on the feet for a length of time, then her best bet is to keep it technical and maybe catch Shevchenko reaching with a jab. In her win over Chookagian, Andrade hurt her bad to the body in close. Trust me when I tell you that we, as fighters, sometimes do something that feels amazing and then fall in love with it. We then try to replicate it. Hopefully Andrade doesn’t fall into that trap.
Andrade will want to try one of two things to get the fight to the canvas. The clinch is not an option here. She really doesn’t want to be in a clinch with Shevchenko. So, she can either look to shoot in or perhaps see if she can’t catch a kick. If she opts to shoot, then it will be about timing. Sometimes we try to set up a takedown, but other times we sort of let our opponent set it up for us. Once she can get the timing of Shevchenko down, she can look to see what Shevchenko’s combos are looking like, time them, and eventually come in under for the takedown. She can do this with punches or kicks. Meanwhile, catching the kick is pretty self-explanatory. She can catch it and then rush forward while pushing Shevchenko back till she loses balance or Andrade finds the trip.
Andrade has good ground-and-pound. She’s also the better grappler, and she really should be able to advance positions and get to where she can land her ground-and-pound or look to set up submissions.
If for some reason Shevchenko forces the takedown, Andrade can accept it. Andrade can be fine off her back. She should have opportunities to set up submissions or sweeps from there against Shevchenko, who isn’t highly active from top position.
Pierangela Rodriguez vs. Svetlana Gotsyk (LFA 105)
Rodriguez comes in at 5-0. Her most recent win was a decision over Kayla Hracho in early 2020. Gotsyk is 13-4 and hasn’t fought since a September 2019 win.
Rodriguez should keep it on the feet. She is fighting someone who is outstanding on the ground, which is not a strength she shares. Rodriguez is patiently aggressive on the feet. She will keep a safe distance, move a little bit, and wait till what she thinks is the right time. Then, she comes forward with a barrage of punches before getting back out. This will work well for her here, because the space will help keep Gotsyk away from shooting or clinching. In addition, the forward bursts might prevent Gotsyk from backing up.
While Rodriguez throws some nice kicks, they won’t be a big weapon here. There is no need to give Gotsyk any openings to catch one, shoot in, or force a clinch off of them. Rodriguez also throws some really nice counters, which she could use here. If she can feint and get Gotsyk to actually throw first, then she has openings to land her counters. This could make Gotsyk a little apprehensive about coming forward and keep her on her heels instead.
Rodriguez will avoid clinches here. If she does find herself caught in one, then it is important to stay on the outside of them. She throws really nice strikes off of clinches and has power. If she can break off from them from the outside, then it could present her with her best chance to land something big. However, she really doesn’t want to be in the clinch. While she will fight them and make you work for them, eventually you can take her down without even getting creative. Simple takedowns will work.
Once it goes to the ground, Rodriguez can be advanced on and put in bad positions. She can work through it and recover against lesser grapplers, but it could pose real trouble against someone as skilled as Gotsyk. If Rodriguez finds herself on the ground, then she needs to just be safe. She should get guard, hold on, and wait it out. Tricky escapes or anything offensive of her own will only serve to give Gotsyk opportunities.
This fight is a five-rounder, which might serve Rodriguez well if it gets to the later rounds. Gotsyk has a lot of quick wins on her resume. She’s not as accustomed to going into deeper waters and might tire quicker. Rodriguez can potentially take over from there.
Gotsyk is a great example of a fighter who will fight anyone put in front of them. In just her second pro bout, she faced a 9-3 opponent. Gotsyk is no mystery, though. She will seek to get this fight to the ground. Seven of her last nine wins have been submissions, mostly via armbar.
Gotsyk is a fast striker and throws good counters. Given that both ladies have good counters, this could be a waiting game to see who throws the first big shot. I would like to see that person be Gotsyk. If she can get off on her feet first, then she could really put Rodriguez in a self-doubting position. However, Gotsyk will primarily need to avoid Rodriguez’s counters. Gotsyk is really good at avoiding strikes, too. She doesn’t really block them so much as simply get out of the way. This could also help to frustrate Rodriguez.
All this frustration stuff is what could prompt Rodriguez to get overly aggressive and make a mistake. This could then allow Gotsyk to more easily find the takedown. She will likely be willing to engage on the feet for a bit for the fun of it, but Gotsyk’s ultimate goal is to drag Rodriguez to the canvas.
Gotsyk won’t be picky in how she accomplishes this task. She could look for the clinch and take it down from there. She could come in under punches and shoot in, which is more likely. She can trip Rodriguez, too.
Once Gotsyk gets it to the ground, she can do a variety of things. She is great at advancing against someone who allows advancement. She can look to move to mount or side control, where she can land ground-and-pound strikes or look for an arm. She might let Rodriguez roll to her stomach and then look for the choke. Regardless, finishing opportunities will be there, especially early in a round. Gotsyk will wait for an opening or a mistake from Rodriguez and pounce.
That’s it for this week. Enjoy the fights!
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