Liz Carmouche (L) Bellator MMA

Women’s MMA Weekend Preview: UFC Vegas 30, Bellator 261, PFL 2021 6

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Jillian DeCoursey Guest Writer

Well, I’m back. Sorry for the hiatus, but, as you know, I was competing in the Invicta FC atomweight tournament. I like to take time off as the fight gets closer. In regards to my fight, this is not the place to speak on decisions, so I’ll not comment on any of it and just thank you all. The amount of support I received was amazing, to the point one Twitter user tweeted “I am an Invicta casual, why is Jillian DeCoursey so beloved?” I felt that fight week. I felt all your support, and I felt it on fight day and read all your tweets of support. Know that I appreciate you so much.

Now, let’s talk about fights. There is an awful lot to choose from this week. The UFC, Bellator MMA, and the Professional Fighters League all give us female bouts, and there are others as well. In the end, I decided to go with the UFC’s bantamweight clash between Julia Avila and Julija Stoliarenko, Bellator’s flyweight battle that pits Kana Watanabe against Liz Carmouche in a bout I can’t wait to watch, and the PFL headliner of Kayla Harrison against Cindy Dandois. Let’s get started.

Julia Avila vs. Julija Stoliarenko (UFC Vegas 30)

This fight doesn’t require a ton of explanation or detail. These are two fighters who will have very different ideas of what they want this fight to become.


Avila comes in at 8-2 following a loss in her last fight via decision to Sijara Eubanks. In a way, this was her first real loss, because her other pro defeat was actually due to a hand injury against Marciea Allen in 2018. Meanwhile, Stoliarenko is 9-4-1 after an August setback in her UFC debut against Yana Kunitskaya. That fight was admittedly less than exciting, and those who are strictly UFC fans probably got a bad first impression of Stoliarenko and don’t realize how exciting she can be.

Avila will look to keep this fight on the feet and try to make it as much of a kickboxing bout as she can. To do that, her jab and lead low kick will be primary weapons. Avila has a great jab. It has power behind it, and she uses it in two different ways that are both effective. At times, she’ll throw it as a singular punch — pop it and move. She’ll change her angles and things like that. In addition, she will use that hard jab to set up a surging flurry where she can let her power punches really do damage. She’ll use it both ways in this contest.

Avila can throw the jab if she feels Stoliarenko is looking to get in and clinch or go for takedowns. That quick, popping jab will back up Stoliarenko or at least halt her in her tracks. Once Stoliarenko sees it as a single shot, she might try to make an adjustment to avoid or counter it. This is when Avila can start adding to it, using it as a punch that sets up her power shots. She might get Stoliarenko running right into those.

Avila’s low leg kicks serve a similar purpose, but they can also work to slow down Stoliarenko. Stoliarenko doesn’t move a ton anyway, but she’d become a sitting duck for Avila if she has even less movement. We might also see Avila utilize that brand new invention called the calf kick at times.

Stoliarenko, on the other hand, will look for clinches and takedowns. Avila, after landing those aforementioned punches, won’t want to stay in close for too long unless she has Stoliarenko hurt. If Stoliarenko does get her to the ground, Avila need not panic. Eubanks put Avila on her back, and Avila survived. In fact, Avila was able to be very creative with her escape attempts. Stoliarenko likes to be patient, so Avila just has to stay active on her back, move, try escapes, and throw elbows — anything to break up Stoliarenko’s measured approach.

This fight could provide Stoliarenko with the stylistic match-up to show how exciting she can be. Her game plan here will be quite simple. If you saw her fight in Invicta against Lisa Verzosa — and if you haven’t, please go out of your way to do so — you might think Stoliarenko would want to engage in a slugfest. She is capable of holding her own in such a fight, but Avila brings more power. What Stoliarenko withstood against Verzosa, she might not withstand against Avila.

So, how does she get it to the ground? Well, one option might be to throw in some feints and try to get Avila to throw the jab. If Avila reaches with it or overextends, then Stoliarenko can come in under it. She can look for different takedowns off of that, be it a double leg or a trip.

Stoliarenko will coax Avila to come to her. While you might not want your back to the cage as a fighter, Stoliarenko will stay on the outside, closer to the cage, and leave Avila with only the option to come to her. If she can successfully do this, then she can initiate a clinch. Avila is not terrible in that position, but she can be reversed. Once Stoliarenko puts Avila’s back to the cage, she can really begin to look for takedowns. She might not get them every time, but she can at least frustrate and wear on Avila. She can slow down Avila and make future clinches or takedown attempts easier while potentially slowing the striking output from Avila as well.

On the ground, Avila doesn’t just lay there and accept bad positions. She’ll make Stoliarenko work. Stoliarenko has to make her patience work for her and not against her. She has to get a good solid position and look for side control or half-guard. Once she gets that and maybe slows down the movement of Avila, she can begin to work ground-and-pound and eventually look for a submission. If you include some special-rules bouts, Stoliarenko has 10 armbar wins, including one via flying armbar, and she will surely look for the arm first. If Avila does get active and scrambles, it increases the chance of an arm being available.

Kana Watanabe vs. Liz Carmouche (Bellator 261)

I am very excited for this one. It should be interesting, because, in many ways, both fighters excel in the same areas. They are each usually the stronger fighter in their respective bouts. They tend to be better in the clinch than their opponents, and they can control their foes on the ground. This will either be a chess match in those areas or a fight where both ladies give each other respect for those skills and engage in a striking battle instead.

Watanabe enters with a 10-0-1 mark. She answered a lot of questions in her last fight, a decision nod over Alejandra Lara. Carmouche sits at 15-7, but she is much better than those numbers suggest. Carmouche has suffered losses to the likes of Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate and Valentina Shevchenko. Most recently, the UFC veteran earned a decision win over Vanessa Porto.

Watanabe is in as good of shape as anyone you’ll see in the sport. If this becomes the grinding affair that it could be, she will be conditioned for it. On the feet, she has a tendency to let her opponent land first. Whether this is because she is looking to counter or simply just not able to get good reads, I’m not sure. In this fight, she’s going to want to make a point of using more movement and not leaving herself out there to be hit. She’ll also need to improve on her habit of not protecting her legs on kicks.

Both fighters will want to be on the outside of any clinch that happens. Watanabe does not want to leave her head exposed to where she’s taking punches and being forced backward, which would allow Carmouche to get the clinch and be outside. Watanabe’s movement will be key if she is to avoid becoming a stationary target.

On offense, Watanabe should throw a lot of flurries and keep Carmouche guessing. Carmouche has extensive experience, so you’re not going to surprise her or show her something she hasn’t seen. The best thing to do is to just throw often and give Carmouche doubts about what is coming or where it is coming from. This can work to slow down Carmouche from the implementation of her game plan. Watanabe can use the jab to set up those flurries. She tends to go to power punches when she senses danger. If she doesn’t set those up with the jab, then Carmouche will use her own jab and land first.

You can expect this fight to go to the ground. Watanabe has the more explosive type of takedowns, calling upon her judo background. She might have a little more trouble with those against Carmouche, who has better control in the clinch and will be harder to throw. Watanabe needs to have the same patience and willingness to break down her opponent that she has on the ground.

Once Watanabe gets it to the ground, she can’t take risks against Carmouche. The UFC vet is great on the ground and will jump on any small mistake or opening. Watanabe has to take things step by step and seek dominant positions from which she can have success of her own.

In most instances, what applies to Watanabe also applies to Carmouche. The leg kicks will be a big weapon for the former UFC fighter. Watanabe doesn’t really protect her legs, so they are there to be kicked. Leg kicks hurt. It hurts a lot when it’s done over and over. So, if Carmouche lands with these kicks, there’s the obvious damage that will be done. If she does enough damage, then Watanabe will slow down. If Watanabe is slowed, then she has to stand in front of Carmouche more. Watanabe, to begin, tends to be second to the punch. A slowed and hurt Watanabe is a prime target for Carmouche, who can then let her hands go. Carmouche might be able to have real success there and not rely on the clinch or ground game as much as she has in her recent fights.

Carmouche excels in the clinch, but Wtaanabe is also really good there. For the first time, Carmouche is up against someone who can possibly match her in terms of strength. Carmouche will really want to make sure to get underhooks and control the clinch so that she can avoid having her back put on the cage. If Watanabe is on the outside, then she can become the aggressor or break off and land shots.

This fight consists of two different stories. On the feet, it can be won by the more aggressive and smart fighter. On the ground, it can be won by the more patient one.

Kayla Harrison vs. Cindy Dandois (PFL 2021 6)

This fight, honestly, is as easy as it gets to break down. You know what Harrison is going to do, or at least try to do, and it’s about whether Dandois can prevent it.

Harrison is now 9-0 after a first-round stoppage of Mariana Morais a month and a half ago. Dandois holds a 16-6 mark after dropping a decision to Kaitlin Young on the same night that Harrison picked up that victory.

People like to say Harrison gets hand-picked fights. Maybe there is “care” given to her match-ups, but that doesn’t change the fact that she has been dominating people and displaying great skill in doing so. When it gets mentioned that someone is getting “safe” fights, I ask that you look a bit further and don’t judge only on who the opponent is.

We know the Harrison plan. She’s looking to use her elite judo to get the fight to the ground, where she’ll either beat the hell out of her opponent or get a submission. I actually expect her to show Dandois respect, though. She has to be careful not to run into one of those awkward, yet powerful punches from Dandois. In addition, while Dandois doesn’t have Harrison’s level of judo skill, she is a better judoka than anyone Harrison has faced in a cage. So, Harrison won’t be so aggressive. She’s not going to rush in and take a risk. She might stay on the outside a bit and just try to get the timing of Dandois down.

Once Harrison feels comfortable, she’ll make her move. As good as Dandois might be with her own judo, Harrison will have the strength advantage, just as she does against everyone. While she’ll respect Dandois, she will still be happy to get into the clinch. She might look for a throw just to prove a point, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see her drop down and use her strength to get a traditional takedown, maybe even elevating Dandois and dropping her.

On the mat, Dandois will be feisty. She won’t just lay there. She’ll squirm and throw up submission attempts. She’ll kick and punch. She’ll do anything she can to escape or even get on top if she can. Therefore, Harrison will probably look more at ground-and-pound instead of seeking the arm right away. Any slight mistake could be costly for Harrison. The former Olympian will eventually go for the arm, but she will probably look to soften up Dandois first.

Dandois faces a problem in this PFL season. While she has fought some great opponents in the past, her four foes before the Young fight were a combined 1-4. It’s so hard to get ready for fighters like Young and Harrison when you’re fighting that level of competition. That being said, Dandois is skilled and poses a threat to Harrison. In fact, I’d go so far as to say she matches up better with Harrison than she did with Young. In Harrison, Dandois is at least taking on someone who is more likely to fight the kind of fight she likes.

As much as people are critical of Dandois for her striking, she does have power and an awkward style that could actually be a positive here. Her “just throw hard from anywhere” style might make Harrison pause. Dandois should come forward right away, throwing hard and often to see if she can get Harrison on her heels. She wants to do damage and frustrate Harrison. A frustrated fighter is a fighter more likely to make a mistake. Dandois should make it about the hands, as kicks would give Harrison a takedown opening.

When the clinch comes — and it will come — head position is of great importance. Whether on the inside or outside of the clinch, Dandois needs to get her head up under the chin of Harrison and use that to control Harrison’s posture. Dandois must make it really hard for Harrison to look for a throw or takedown.

On the ground, the main task for Dandois is to just survive. In the moment, she will have to get a feel and decide which is the better route to survival: either the “hold on tight” method or scratching and clawing to escape.

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