Yana Kunitskaya (L) (Dave Mandel/Combat Press)

Women’s MMA Weekend Preview: UFC 264, Combate Global

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Jillian DeCoursey Guest Writer

A new week brings new fights to talk about.

We will start with UFC 264, where two guys named Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor are headlining. That card includes two good fights in the bantamweight clash between Irene Aldana and Yana Kunitskaya as well as the flyweight scrap between Jennifer Maia and Jessica Eye.

In addition to those UFC bouts, we’ll also take a look at a Combate fight for the first time. It features Caroline Gallardo and Isis Verbeek.


Irene Aldana vs. Yana Kunitskaya (UFC 264)

This fight is really interesting. It’s an important contest in terms of the title picture, and it could play out in a variety of ways, some expected and others not so much.

Aldana enters at 12-6 following a decision loss to Holly Holm in October. Kunitskaya stands at 14-5 after a decision win over Ketlen Vieira in February.

Aldana is a very good striker, and I am sure everyone expects her to look to make this a kickboxing match. I don’t agree, but let’s assume she does. Aldana has a lot of power and very good movement. She is great at creating angles, where she can strike from different spots and create some confusion.

When her opponent is moving, Aldana will sometimes chase rather than cutting off her opponent. While she has a good high guard to protect herself from power punches, she can be hit up the middle. So, if I am wrong and Aldana is all about the striking in this fight, she is going to want to cut off the cage and keep Kunitskaya from moving away. In doing so, she wants to keep it at a range where she can land and not be clinched. She isn’t going to shy from the clinch, but the clinch isn’t the best option if she does want the fight on the feet.

Aldana has good, hard body kicks. As time goes on, though, people will be more and more aware of these, which makes them harder and harder to land. Aldana needs to disguise them. To do that, she should throw them at different times and use those angles I mentioned. She can lead with those kicks sometimes and make them the initial strike, but she should also mix it up by ending a combo with this kick. Maybe she can move laterally and then throw one, or perhaps throw a feint, get Kunitskaya to move, and then throw the kick. There are options here.

All that being said, I have a feeling Aldana might be interested in the ground game in this fight. While she’s known as a powerful striker, Aldana is good on the mat as well. In addition, although Kunitskaya was awarded the decision in her last fight with Vieira, it was mainly won off her back, where she threw strikes against the less active Vieira. Vieira did keep her down, though. Aldana might feel that she can do the same, and you never need worry about activity from the Mexican fighter.

Now, I don’t expect this so much from Aldana in round one. I anticipate it will come in the second frame, when Kunitskaya is less likely to expect it. Aldana will do what she does on the feet in round one and not change from what we normally see. However, early in round two, she’ll look for the takedown unless she is having great success early on the feet.

Kunitskaya is in an interesting spot here. On the feet, she is not an equal striker to Aldana. Her striking continues to evolve and become better, but she won’t find success if she simply stands and trades with Aldana. She needs to utilize movement and not be afraid to back up and circle. Aldana will chase. If Kunitskaya can have good movement, then she can pepper Aldana with punches, even if it’s one at a time, and make an impression with the judges. Kunitskaya’s best weapon will be the basic jab. Aldana moves forward and keeps that high guard up for the power shots, so Kunitskaya can keep landing that jab.

If Aldana looks to get takedowns, Kunitskaya should welcome and embrace them. Kunitskaya can be taken down, and Vieira had success holding her down. However, that fight aside, Kunitskaya has been good at working her way up, even against superior grapplers.

Kunitskaya is very good in the clinch, too. She throws great knees. Those knees, placed properly, can serve her well as this fight goes on. She is also good at the little things, such as getting her underhooks, reversing when her back is to the cage, and controlling the clinch from there.

Kunitskaya is the shorter fighter, which works in the clinch. I’ve mentioned before how I like to be the shorter fighter sometimes, because if I want to work the clinch on the outside, it lets me dig my head up under my opponent’s chin and control their posture to prevent them from doing things. Kunitskaya can do the same to Aldana, which makes any takedown attempt from the Mexican star harder to achieve. The longer this fight is in the clinch, the better Kunitskaya’s chances of victory.

That’s what makes this fight so interesting. I suspect Aldana will want to do things differently than normal, but, in order to do so, she will have to venture into the place where Kunitskaya has her best chance at victory.

Jennifer Maia vs. Jessica Eye (UFC 264)

This is one of those fights that’s easy to break down. On the feet, Eye should be able to box her way to victory. On the ground, Maia should be able to grapple her way to a decision or possibly even a finish.

Maia comes in at 18-7-1 after falling short in her bid to add a UFC title to the trophy case next to her Invicta FC belt. She couldn’t get past Valentina Shevchenko in November. Part of her problem in the Shevchenko fight is that she expected something totally different out of her opponent. When she didn’t get that, it was hard for her to adjust. She won’t have that same problem here.

Eye enters at 9-5. She’s trying to stop a two-fight skid in which the most recent setback was a decision loss to Joanne Calderwood in January. Maia also fought Calderwood and submitted her in the first round.

Maia wants and needs this fight on the ground. Eye has too much of a speed advantage on the feet. Eye will be in and out, and she has the faster hands. While Eye doesn’t necessarily have knockout power, she should have no problem coasting to a decision over Maia if the fight was to stay on the feet.

It’s going to require work for Maia to get the fight down. The Brazilian is going to have trouble catching her opponent. She will want to cut off the cage. Eye is going to be moving and moving a lot. This will be a case where not following is even more crucial than usual. If Maia chases, then she will be playing right into what Eye wants.

Eye, with her boxing style, can feast on someone who follows her, because she can come in with that short burst while being helped out by her opponent. It also gives her an escape to circle out. In cutting off an opponent, you’re moving side to side with them rather than coming forward. This narrows their escape room and eventually boxes them in. If Maia can do this, then she will eventually corner Eye and leave no escape. The Brazilian can then either force the clinch and get takedowns from there or wait for desperation strikes from Eye, time them, and shoot in.

The other option for Maia is what in a sense would be like setting a trap. She knows Eye likes to throw in some leg kicks, so Maia might bait her. If she leaves that lead leg out there a bit, she might entice Eye to throw some low kicks. Eye won’t initially be throwing a lot of these for fear of the takedown, but a nice target might tempt her. Obviously, Maia doesn’t want to get kicked — no one does, trust me, as it hurts — but if she can entice Eye to throw more, then she can get the timing down on them and look to catch one or shoot in for the takedown.

If Maia gets it to the ground, she should really be able to control the action, hold Eye down, and either get the submission or at least do enough to take the round.

Meanwhile, Eye needs to stand and move. That’s really it. I could end it here. I am in no way saying Eye doesn’t have a ground game — in fact, she’s got a good one — but it just isn’t on par with Maia’s ground game. There is no shame in this, as very few people can claim to be on par with Maia in this realm.

In breaking down Maia’s strategy, I really gave you some insight on how Eye can keep it on the feet. She is good at getting in, landing, and getting out. She will need to do that here. If she stays close for too long, then it gives Maia a better chance of grabbing hold and taking her down. Her movement can not be predictable, either. She can’t keep circling left or circling right. If she does that, then Maia is going to know to flurry, circle in whichever direction, and be prepared. Maia can then step in front of that circling out and grab her that way.

Even in the middle of circling, Eye can stop and go the other way. The more she moves, the better it is for her. While Maia isn’t the boxer that Eye is, she does hit hard. So, even if Eye is having success, she still has to get the hands up when she exits and avoid getting tagged with a hard counter punch. She also has to be wary and not think Maia will be afraid to take punches just to drop down. Maia might be willing to eat some punches just to wrap her arms around Eye.

Eye also has to try to sense frustration on Maia’s part. If Maia is forced to just chase after her for any extended length of time, then the Brazilian might get frustrated. This can lead to desperation. Maia could start getting wild and winging punches in an effort to just try to do something. If this happens, then Eye should work to frustrate her more by popping some jabs. Punches up the middle might become more readily available for Eye to land. Also, any frustration from Maia might lead to long desperation shots. If those start coming, then Eye should have her kicks and knees ready.

Caroline Gallardo vs. Isis Verbeek (Combate Global)

In addition to this weekend’s UFC action, Combate Global serves up women’s action with Gallardo and Verbeek set to fight. Gallardo comes in at 4-3 after an almost two-year layoff. Her most recent bout was a late 2019 decision win over Carina Herrera. Verbeek sits at 2-1. She also had a lengthy time away from MMA before returning in 2021 for two fights under the iKON banner that she won. Verbeek most recently added a second-round submission finish of Dana Garcia.

On the feet, Gallardo has power. She also mixes in great movement and some very good kicks. However, she will give up three inches in both height and reach to Verbeek. She’s going to have to work her way in. She can try to use her kicks and then follow up with punches if she can get Verbeek to lower her hands when the kicks come in. The better option, though, is to jab her way in.

An exchange of power shots with Verbeek is not the best of ideas for Gallardo. If she doubles and triples that jab, it might allow her to come in closer and then follow with a hard power shot.

Defensively, Gallardo has one thing that can really hurt her. She lowers her hands when she throws kicks. Against a striker like Verbeek, this can be really bad. It is important to keep her hands up.

Gallardo ultimately wants this fight on the ground. It provides her best chance to win. She is a very strong strawweight who can use that strength if she can get in close. Remember how I mentioned that she can jab her way in? Well, instead of following up with power punches, she can look to tie up Verbeek or quickly drop down and get the takedown that way. She could also get a slam.

The other option involves tying up Verbeek on the cage. Gallardo is very strong and good in the clinch. She throws good strikes in there. More importantly, she is just very smart. Gallardo tends to make good decisions in the clinch, and she makes them quickly. She can swiftly move from one thing to the next, which will lower Verbeek’s reaction time.

Once on the ground, Gallardo can hold most people down. She’ll just want to be more active than she has been at times. This will almost be a case of wanting to do on the ground what she does in the clinch: make good reads, make smart decisions, and transition when transitions are available. Even if Gallardo doesn’t get a finish, she’ll be able to take rounds by holding Verbeek down and showing some activity.

In some ways, Verbeek is the opposite of Gallardo. Gallardo can strike and is good on her feet, but she’s facing a better striker here. Meanwhile, Verbeek is good on the ground and can get finishes there, but she is facing a better grappler here.

Verbeek is a really good kickboxer. She has hard, quick kicks. She mixes in her hands well, too. Her objective is simple: keep it standing, mix up the strikes, and use her reach. That three-inch reach advantage will be huge for her as the superior striker. She can land first in exchanges or stay back and connect from a distance. Gallardo moves well, but she is not going to bring something in those regards that Verbeek hasn’t seen before.

Gallardo wants to clinch or get a takedown, but Verbeek’s use of her reach advantage will make it harder for Gallardo to get in there. Verbeek’s kicks are so hard and fast that it’s going to be difficult for Gallardo to catch or time them to shoot in. Hence, Verbeek doesn’t need to fear throwing them.

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