Sunday, 24 July 2016

Holm vs Shevchenko Breakdown: Playing the Matador

Holly Holm became an overnight sensation in the MMA world when she dismantled the original Bantamweight queen, Ronda Rousey, via lateral movement, sharp pivots, and intercepting check hooks.  The tables had turned on Saturday when Valentina Shevchenko used a tighter, more technically sound variant of that game to pick Holm apart over five rounds.

Many questioned the matchmaking behind this fight, citing stylistic tendencies between the fighters that pointed to a slow-paced leg kick fest.  Indeed it did seem a potentially dull affair - not because it's the matchup of two counter strikers that many thought, but because Shevchenko does the vast majority of her work on the counter and Holm likes to spend the vast majority of her time far outside her opponent's striking range.  Holm was always going to expose herself to Shevchenko's counters with her shifting punch combinations, but it was a question of how often she'd feel the need to engage.  Unfortunately for Holm, Shevchenko's skill on the counter all but negated her volume and forced her to lead more often than she wanted, which only served to further expose her to the counters.

It was apparent from the beginning of the fight that Holm was having great difficulty finding her range.  Holm has had much success with her liner kicks, but she's always been more of a willing kicker than a technically sound one.  She has a habit of telegraphing her teeps, side kicks, and oblique kicks, but she's never fought someone that possess a masterful control of distance and the ability to make her pay for them like Shevchenko

Shevchenko camped out just outside Holm's kicking range and baited the linear kicks.  When Holm leaped in, signalling the side kick, or swung her arms, giving away the teep, Shevchenko would slide back just far enough to make it miss and counter with a kick of her own.  Quickly Holm's distance-maintaining kicks became distance-closing kicks when she found herself unable to trouble Shevchenko on the outside, which lead her right into the check hooks.

Holm's rather square stance presents a problem for her sidekick.  In order to throw it properly, the heel of the planting leg must be turned toward the opponent.  For someone like Steven Thompson who fights out of a bladed stance, that's easy to achieve with a barely-noticeable pivot, but Holm's stance requires a larger adjustment.  She sets her side kick up by hopping the rear leg up and turning it as she lifts her lead leg to kick.  This is usually fine, as she typically hides it behind her punches and uses it to emphasize the distance she's already created with her hands.  Against Valentina, however, Holm was unable to push her back with the combinations and had to rely on the sidekick to close distance, where her setup is noticeably slow and labored.

Shevchenko deflects the first side kick while sliding out of range.  Holm sets the next one up with a cross-step and Shevchenko has already lifted her leg to check before Holm's kicking leg lifts off the mat.  Shevchenko finishes the exchange with a leg kick from a dominant angle.

Holm steps forward to setup an oblique kick and Shevchenko times her forward step, stepping in at an angle toward the kick to jam it and open a clear path to Holm's head.

This is a gorgeous counter, and exactly what you want to see from a fighter going up against an opponent known for their linear kicks.  Holm tries to time Shevchenko's forward step with an oblique kick, but the kick travels in a straight line and Shevchenko's diagonal step bypasses that line.  Shevchenko gives it a nudge with her hand to further deflect the leg and pivots to a dominant angle with a leg kick.  Future opponents of Jon Jones would be wise to take note of this example that shows lateral movement can be used just as effectively on the front foot as on the back foot.

This sequence sums up the dynamic of the kicking battle.  Holm enters with a relatively slow switch kick that Shevchenko easily reads and avoids.  They both step back into range, Holm continuing to step at a consistent rhythm, while Shevchenko steps forward and changes up her rhythm, hopping into a kick on a half-beat.  Holm is a solid kicker, but she has a lot of holes in that part of her game and Shevchenko's proficiency in setting up, landing, and dealing with kicks is on another level.

Holm's best moment of the fight came two minutes into the first round as she landed a shifting uppercut while Shevchenko threw a kick.  Shevchenko tried to counter Holm's rush with an inside leg kick, but it wasn't powerful enough to break her stance and Holm stepped right through it.  After this, Shevchenko stopped trying to throw the inside leg kick as a counter to Holm's rushes and instead went with attacks that would take her off line of the linear rushes.

Shevchenko was controlling the distance so well that Holm quickly became tentative and hesitant to throw the linear kicks.  In the third sequence they both flirt with entering off a kick, but Shevchenko is able to bail on hers and create enough distance to nullify Holm's attempt while keeping herself in position to counter.  Holm is used to fighting opponents that either come forward and engage her or back away from her hands so far that they disarm the threat of their counters and set themselves up for her kicks.  True mastery of distance isn't found in keeping so much distance that your opponent can never touch you, but in making them think they can, sliding just out of range, and keeping yourself in position to counter.

While Holm has shown good lateral movement on the backfoot against opponents that charge her head first, the brunt of her offense comes from linear, shifting rushes.  She enters with a right hand that usually misses, steps through into an orthodox or square stance while throwing her left hand, and back into southpaw with a right.  This allows her to cover distance explosively and quickly, perfectly setting up a kick if her opponents back straight up, but also comes with a few disadvantages.  Holm's shifting takes her out of her stance and squares her up, leaving her out of position to react to and take her opponent's punches.  Her rushes are linear and rote: once she starts, she commits to finishing it, leaving her unable to draw out her opponents' counters and exploit them, or follow a target that moves off the straight line of her path.

Shevchenko dealt with Holm's rushes excellently, making neither the mistake of charging her nor of backing into her kicks.  When Holm entered with her straight left from out of range, Shevchenko would wait on her to throw the shifting right hand, ready to parry it on a hair-trigger and pivot away with a check hook as Holm squared herself up.  When Holm started her rush from closer and Holm's lead straight posed more of a threat, Shevchenko would execute a cross parry (left hand to left hand) and slip the shifting right while throwing her check hook.  Shevchenko's pivot took her out of the path of Holm's rush, forcing Holm to abandon the attack and turn to face her.

Future opponents might do well to take advantage of Shevchenko's habit of cross-parrying the straight and feint it into hooks or uppercuts (especially as she tends to slip to her left while doing it), but it would take an elite pocket boxer to make that happen, the likes of which probably don't exist in the current 135 division, and they also have to be wary of Shevchenko's backstepping straight counter.

When Holm found herself without the ability to land her kicks or her punching combinations, she started trying to jab her way into range.  This was a sensible decision, but Holm didn't have the tools to make it happen against a striker of Shevchenko's caliber.  As Joe Rogan would hammer home repeatedly, Holm doesn't possess an "educated jab".  Her jab is one-note and usually relegated to a throwaway punch.  She didn't have the ability to mix up her timing and rhythm, and Shevchenko was able to read her jab feints.  When she stepped into range behind her jab, Shevchenko would parry it and pop her with the check hook.  Shevchenko also demonstrated a sharp, quick, lancing jab from range that I'd like to see more of.

Holm had success on occasion using her jab to draw out Shevchenko's check hook, but was unable to take advantage of it.  Holm does great work moving into the pocket, but once there her offense is largely impotent.  She stands up straight with her head up, doesn't throw hooks or uppercuts well, and isn't able to organically find openings in close.  Holm would disengage after drawing out the check hook rather than using it as an entry to the pocket, where Shevchenko had the advantage.

Later on in the fight as she was getting desperate, Holm started looking to set up big punches.  Shevchenko was again able to read these easily, and Holm's very front-foot-heavy punching style hung her head out on a platter for Shevchenko's counters.

Holm also tried using kicks to counter Shevchenko's pivots with little success.  In the first sequence, her shifting punches bring her too close to effectively kick the leg.  The second sequence shows the danger of throwing body kicks at a Muay Thai ace.

Holm came in and did what she always does, but Shevchenko had answers to everything.  Shevchenko's timing, distance control, and counters looked nothing short of world-class.  Holm is still a top fighter in her division and there's no shame in getting picked apart by one of (if not the) best female strikers on the planet.  Holm is no pushover in the clinch and Shevchenko did a great job finding takedowns, but Holm was able to outmuscle her against the cage and her size may be an issue against some of the larger grapplers at 135.

Shevchenko's dominant win continues the incredible trend of upsets at women's bantamweight and throws the title picture into a loop.  Holm putting on a show would have set her up perfectly for a title shot against Amanda Nunes, but now Shevchenko and Pena both look like viable contenders.  Shevchenko has the more impressive win, but Pena has the longer streak, and a fight between Nunes and either would make sense next.  Nunes would prefer to sit out a while and let them fight amongst themselves, but I'd love to see a 5 round rematch between her and Shevchenko.