Kayla Harrison (T) (PFL)

Women’s MMA Weekend Preview: PFL 2021 3

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Jillian DeCoursey Guest Writer

This week’s Professional Fighters League card, PFL 2021 3, gives us five fights as the company kicks off its women’s lightweight tournament. There are several fights I am looking forward to watching, so I decided to use this week’s preview to take a look at those contests.

We’ll look at 2019 PFl champ Kayla Harrison’s match-up with Mariana Morais, the veteran clash between Cindy Dandois and Kaitlin Young, and Helena Kolesnyk’s fight with Taylor Guardado. In addition to these three bouts, the PFL will also host 2019 runner-up Larissa Pacheco’s fight with Julija Pajić and Genah Fabian’s clash with Laura Sanchez.

So, let’s jump right in.


Kayla Harrison vs. Mariana Morais

This might be the easiest preview I have ever had to write. I am not going to sugarcoat it when I say this is stylistically a perfect match-up for Harrison. However, nothing is ever guaranteed.

Harrison comes in with an 8-0 mark. Her most recent win was a second-round finish of Courtney King in the Invicta cage in November. Morais sits at 16-10 and is riding a three-fight winning streak. She most recently notched a first-round stoppage of Bianca Daimoni over a year ago.

With Harrison, you know what you are going to get. Her game plan is always the same. Until someone can stop her, why would she want to change things? If you are driving to a destination that always takes 15 minutes, why would you bother driving a different route that takes twice as long? However, I think we might see Harrison decide to really test her stand-up here. Why? Well, because this is the perfect time to do so.

Harrison is continually improving her striking, her movement, and her overall game. In Morais, she is fighting someone who likes to get into a bit of a brawl at times. Harrison will have the big power edge, though. She throws really powerful kicks, and we might see her work more on setting up those kicks with punches or following them up with punches, or both. Part of why she can get away with this so well here is because Morais will often back up to avoid getting hit as opposed to blocking those shots. Harrison can engage here, and if for some reason she’s not feeling it or not having success, then she is going to be able to get Morais to back up to avoid a strike and can then rush in to get takedowns. When you are backing up, it is much harder to stop the takedown, especially against someone like Harrison.

Eventually, though, you know what Harrison is going to do. She is going to get it to the mat. Morais might be a little harder to clinch up than some of Harrison’s previous opponents, but if she cuts her off, then she should be able to eventually corner her and get the clinch. Harrison is going to have such a huge strength advantage that the takedown from the clinch should be there. Morais is a very tough girl and will make her work, so Harrison might want to be a bit more patient in her execution. However, if she gets it down and gets on top, then she’s in her world and a finish should be there.

Meanwhile, Morais needs to make this fight as ugly as possible. After it’s over, she needs to hear people say that it was sloppy. In this case, sloppy would be good for her.

On the feet, Morais really likes to switch stances. I want to see a lot of that from her against Harrison. She is the more experienced striker, and she needs to rely upon that experience. If she switches stances often, then maybe she can confuse Harrison a little and make her have trouble with her timing. If the Brazilian can frustrate Harrison, then she can maybe get her to make a mistake. It might make Harrison come in more reckless.

Morais shouldn’t stay inside for long periods, because that is risky against someone who has the power of Harrison. She needs to come inside in spurts, brawl to an extent, and back out. She can’t move straight back, though, because that allows Harrison an easier time on the takedown. Morais should keep circling and changing stance. If Harrison is committed to coming in on someone standing southpaw and Morais switches to orthodox, then the Brazilian can potentially create openings.

Morais should not throw a lot of kicks either. If and when she does throw them, she has to keep them low. Otherwise, Harrison will catch those legs and blast into a takedown.

Morais has just one task if she gets taken down: get back up ASAP! There’s no point in trying to be tricky or creative. Instead, she just has to look for openings to stand. If they aren’t there, then lock down Harrison’s arms and stall it out. Even if it requires two on one and holding one arm with both of hers, that’s fine. Harrison can’t do nearly the damage and won’t have nearly the mobility that she would have with two free arms.

Cindy Dandois vs. Kaitlyn Young

This is an interesting fight. We have one of the best pure strikers around in Young against someone who, well, hasn’t received much praise for her striking. This is the classic case of the fighter who will do all she can to get it to the ground against the fighter who will do all she can to keep it on the feet.

Dandois comes in at 16-5, but her last four fights should not have been sanctioned, as her opponents had a combined record of 1-4 going into those fights. Young brings a deceptive 11-10-1 record into this fight. It’s deceptive because the losses she has suffered have come against a who’s who of women’s MMA: Gina Carano, Julie Kedzie, Liz Carmouche and more. Young is coming off a decision win in July against Latoya Walker.

Dandois will want this fight on the ground, and the sooner the better. Her striking is her obvious weakness. Defensively, she is going to need to be improved in this one. Dandois doesn’t necessarily block punches so much as she moves to get out of the way while swatting at the hands coming toward her head. Against someone like Young, this is not going to be enough.

When Dandois does throw, it’s usually the basic one-two. She makes it obvious that it’s coming by stepping forward as she unleashes the jab. This is fine, but she does it in the way that we do it when we start training, with the overly dramatic step forward. Young is going to pick up on that quickly and know when to throw her hard counters.

If Dandois can’t get it to the ground, she should circle, which she does well. She can stay away, circle, and throw leg kicks. The leg kick is really the one offensive weapon she has that can be effective here. She’s never going to win a kicking battle with Young, but she might be able to take some of the snap away from Young’s punches if she can damage the lead leg and make it so that Young can’t plant her foot as well.

I know what you’re thinking. Circle? Stay away? No, Dandois needs to close the distance and get inside to get the fight to the ground. That’s correct to a degree. Her takedowns are not likely to happen in the center. They will come from the clinch against the cage. So, yes, she wants to be inside, but she does not want to be the one to close the distance. Dandois needs to get Young to do that job for her.

Let me give you an example of this from one of my fights. When I fought Rebekkah Levine, my thoughts revolved around how I could get her on the cage and get her down. Well, she helped me, and I allowed it. She came into the clinch to try to take me down. I allowed it, because I knew that even if she got the takedowns, I could sweep her on the ground. I allowed her to do half of my job. This is what Dandois needs to do.

When Dandois tries to come forward and reach for a clinch, she does “the mummy.” She just puts her hands out and comes to her opponent in the hope of tying them up. All the while, she leaves her head open. If she does that with Young, then Young is going to just piece her up.

Instead, Dandois has to use some of the good movement she has and let Young chase her down. While this is something I never would have expected to say that anyone should do in a fight, she should get her back to the cage. With her back on the cage, Young will come in trying to land and looking to flurry. This is when Dandois can try to tie her up. Dandois has a couple of inches in reach over Young, so Young is going to have to get closer to unload. This is where the tie-up happens. Young strikes very well in the clinch, so Dandois will have to tolerate some damage in there, but that is where her takedowns can come.

Meanwhile, Young really just has to keep the fight on the feet. Her striking is miles better than that of Dandois. Young always keeps her hands up, and she is very hard to land anything really solid against. That’s going to make it even harder for Dandois. Young throws some of the best kicks in the sport, and she can throw them with either leg, from any angle, and to any part of the body. While normally it might be risky to throw a lot of kicks against someone whose goal is the takedown, Young is safe here, because Dandois is more likely to be in don’t-get-hit mode as opposed to perhaps trying to catch those kicks.

One of Young’s best weapons is the jab-and-leg-kick combo, where the punch and kick almost seem to land at the same time. It’s just rapid fire: the jab and then the kick. Watch for it here. Whenever Dandois is in front of Young, I think you will see Young throw it.

Young will also really load up on multi-punch combos. The defense isn’t there for Dandois, so Young will be confident that she can throw the so-called “punches in bunches” and not worry about anything coming back at her. She can be confident that they will land, too. In addition, Young will give lots of different angles. With the way Dandois comes forward looking for that clinch, Young can give multiple angles and move around to make for even more complications for Dandois.

All Young really needs to do is to avoid the aforementioned cage clinch. If Young keeps it on the feet, then she’s in really great shape. She can win the fight with just kicks. Watch out for this scenario. Look for Young to throw a lot of low kicks early, maybe for all of the first round, and then when Dandois is thinking low in round two, Young will start moving those kicks up to the body. A really hard body kick might be able to do serious damage and even drop Dandois.

Helena Kolesnyk vs. Taylor Guardado

This bout is a continuation of what is somewhat of a trend on this card. One fighter wants it on the ground, while the other will do all she can to avoid that scenario.

Kolesnyk, who wants nothing to do with the ground game, is 5-2, but those two losses have come in her two most recent bouts against Pam Sorenson and Felicia Spencer. Those setbacks were both via submission, and in both cases she gave up passes relatively easily and left body parts (her neck, her arm, et cetera) exposed and there for the taking.

Kolesnyk does have power, and she will throw combinations. However, her combinations are not really defined. Her punches are very winged — a cross doesn’t look like a cross; a hook doesn’t look like a hook. She won’t want to wing them so wildly here, because Guardado will easily come in under them and take her down.

Kolesnyk throws a lot of feints as well. She gets a bit stagnant, where she just stands at a distance and extends the arms while not throwing them as punches. She is fine with a lull in action, but that’s another thing she doesn’t want to do here.

Instead, Kolesnyk has to pressure her opponent. She will want to come forward and apply pressure to put Guardado on her heels and make it harder for Guardado to set up any shots. In addition, this can take some of the sting off of Guardado’s punches, each of which is thrown with power.

Kolesnyk has to avoid being predictable with her punches, too. She can fall in love with going to the head, but she will be well served to go to the body often as well. She should also throw low kicks. The less predictable she is, the harder it will be for Guardado to time anything and choose when to enter into a possible shot.

Guardado will reach and extend on punches, so it won’t hurt for Kolesnyk to take the occasional step back and see if she can get Guardado to overextend. Kolesnyk can then land counters from there.

Guardado is just 0-1 in her pro career, but let’s take a deeper dive. For those not familiar with her — and many may not be familiar with Guardado because she took over eight years off before making her pro debut — she is one of the best amateur fighters we have ever had in this sport. She went 9-1 while beating people like Raquel Pennington, Amanda Bell and Ashlee Evans-Smith. Guardado’s only loss was to some fighter named Ronda Rousey. Maybe you’ve heard of her?

When Guardado did turn pro with Invicta, it was in the Phoenix Series tournament. She actually won two fights, beating Claire Guthrie and Serena DeJesus before dropping a decision to Taneisha Tennant in the finals. Since the final was the only three-round fight, it is the only official fight on her record. The fact that with an 0-1 record she is the betting favorite in this fight should tell you the respect she’s earned.

Guardado’s path to victory doesn’t require much explanation. She just has to get it to the ground. If she succeeds in this one goal, then she wins this fight.

While pressuring Guardado is a good idea for Kolesnyk, the reverse is also true. Kolesnyk likes a slow, measured pace at times on the feet. If Guardado chooses to come forward and keep Kolesnyk on the defensive, then it is going to make Kolesnyk have to move around and look for space. That is when Guardado can shoot in.

Kolesnyk throws those wide, looping punches, which provides Guardado with an additional route to the takedown. Guardado should have little trouble coming in under those punches and getting takedowns.

Guardado can also bring the takedown to Kolesnyk, which is what I expect to see. She is able to use her strikes to draw her foe in closer. Someone like Kolesnyk, who will come inside in spurts, is a prime candidate for this trap. Guardado will bring Kolesnyk in, letting her come forward with those wide punches, and then get it down. Once it’s on the canvas, she’ll likely look for the dominant position right away and not give Kolesnyk any time to feel comfortable or safe. Submission opportunities will be there for Guardado.

That’s all for this week. Enjoy the fights!