UFC Denver: Shevchenko and Peña Battle for Spotlight

The UFC bantamweight division is under new leadership, and both Valentina Shevchenko and Julianna Peña are vying for their shot at the crown.

Ronda Rousey has left the building, and quite possibly MMA altogether.  Miesha Tate has retired and Holly Holm is now a member of the featherweight division.  In one short year, the marquee stars of the bantamweight division have all but disappeared.  At UFC Denver, two members of the new guard in Valentina Shevchenko and Julianna Peña will look to become household names.

Both women emerged as elite talent in 2016.  Peña came back from a two-year layoff in 2015 and has looked impressive in each subsequent outing.  In her most recent victory over Cat Zingano, Peña came back from a dominant first round by “Alpha” to control the durable grappler on the mat for the rest of the fight.  The run is made even more impressive considering she had dropped two-straight before winning The Ultimate Fighter and did not compete again for two years following the show.

Shevchenko goes into the bout as the more battle tested fighter, accumulating an 11-1 record before reaching the UFC.  “The Bullet” has already encountered champion Amanda Nunes while the latter was en route to a title shot.  The bout was intriguing as Nunes took the first two rounds before tiring.  The third round was won handily by Shevchenko but Nunes was awarded the decision.

It wasn’t until the fight with Holly Holm that Shevchenko displayed the full extent of her skills, handily out-striking the former champion on the second most watched network televised card in UFC history.  Going into the bout, Holm had only recently lost the title to Tate and many believed she would go on to defeat the lesser known Shevchenko before anticipated rematches with Tate and Rousey.  Instead, Shevchenko elevated herself to the top of the division.

While they are now the top fighters at 135, their names are nowhere near those of their predecessors only two short years ago.  How has this happened?

For one, the bottleneck caused by Rousey’s domination has been shattered.  As time has gone on, the rest of the division has evolved and more talent has been discovered since women debuted in the UFC in 2013.  Rousey ruled the division at a time when the other women weren’t prepared for her opening onslaught and lethal submissions.  In 2017, the division is led by women who have physical gifts that complement their elite skills.  Nunes is a perfect example, a grappler who has improved her striking and become arguably the hardest hitter in the division.

UFC Bantamweight Valentina Shevchenko

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Shevchenko and Peña will compete for what is being regarded as an eliminator for the next shot at “Leoa.”  The attention on Nunes has never been higher since her victory over Ronda Rousey, and her next fight looks to bring in more attention when she competes.  While beating Nunes won’t resonate immediately like beating Rousey would, both fighters know the road to the championship and bigger fights begins with dethroning the dangerous Brazilian.

On paper, the bout looks to be a classic striker vs grappler match-up.  For the five round bout, Shevchenko’s cardio is the more tested.  The question will be, how will her conditioning handle Peña’s tenacious takedown attempts over 25 minutes?

Assuming Shevchenko ends up on the mat, will she be able to fight her way back to her feet and do enough damage to win rounds?  Peña has looked fantastic against Eye and Zingano and it’s expected that she will be even sharper with so much at stake.  If Peña can dominate with her wrestling, it could turn the affair into a grueling night for her opponent.

In just a short span of time, the former stars of the inaugural women’s division have all gone.  On January 28, the new stars will battle to see who gets their shot to begin writing a new chapter in the history books.