Once a division controlled by Ronda Rousey, the women’s bantamweight ranks have been in a state of flux for the last 20 months. Three different competitors have held the title, but as of yet, no one has managed to truly establish themselves as the next dominant force atop the division.
That has a chance to change this weekend in Las Vegas, as the reigning champion steps into the Octagon with a familiar foe in search of her second consecutive successful title defense and a victory that convinces her remaining doubters and critics that she’s not going anywhere any time soon.
Of course, the challenger could go out and turn herself into the champion just as easily, continuing the game of musical chairs that has been being played since Rousey was dethroned at UFC 193 and creating the need for a rubber match between the two rivals.
The UFC 213 main event might not bring stability to the women’s 135-pound weight class, but it will dictate where the division is headed in the second half of the year and right now, that’s good enough.
This is Title View for the women’s bantamweight division.
Record: 14-4 overall, 7-1 UFC
Won Title: def. Miesha Taste by Submission at 3:16 of Round 1 at UFC 200 (July 2016)
Title Defenses: 1
Nunes has been champion for just under a year and despite winning the title with a dominant effort against Tate and retaining the belt with an even more impressive drubbing of Rousey five months later, people are still hesitant to cast their full support behind the Brazilian titleholder.
Part of it is that things at the top of the division have been turbulent since Rousey’s reign ended, with Holly Holm, Tate and Nunes each getting a turn to wear the title, but it’s also a function of the current champion’s previous appearances inside the Octagon.
As much she sports a stellar record in the UFC, Nunes has exhibited a tendency to fade down the stretch. While her powerful style has primarily produced early victories, rendering concerns over her conditioning moot, the champion’s lone UFC loss came in the third round after a quick start against Cat Zingano and her first encounter with Valentina Shevchenko was punctuated by a third-round comeback by this weekend’s challenger.
What will be interesting to see – if it gets there – is how much she’s been able to improve her conditioning and what she’s done to control her pace and energy expenditure since their first encounter last March. Nunes put Tate and Rousey in danger early and didn’t need to let off the gas with either, but if Shevchenko is able to weather the early storm as she did at UFC 196, the champion will need to have something in reserve for later in the fight.
Record: 14-2 overall, 3-1 UFC
Last Fight: def. Julianna pena by Submission at 4:29 of Round 2 at UFC on FOX 23 (January 2017)
Shevchenko is the real deal – a serious title threat with an expansive offensive arsenal, tons of combat sports experience and unflappable confidence in the cage. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone if she emerges from UFC 213 with the women’s bantamweight title around her waist.
Where the champion brandishes raw power and a suffocating, aggressive approach, the challenger is technical and polished, relying on footwork and range control; sniping with punches and kicks that come at a steady clip. Last time out, Shevchenko showed there is more to her game than just rangy striking as well, catching Pena in a slick armbar that showed she’s adept on the canvas as well.
Her first meeting with Nunes also provides reasons to believe the challenger may ascend to the throne on Saturday, as Shevchenko rallied to dominate the action in the third and seemed ready to run the table had it been a five-round fight.
The biggest question for the challenger heading into this weekend’s championship main event is whether she will be able to push the pace and tire Nunes while avoiding the punishing blows that halted Tate and Rousey in their tracks? If she can stick and move and stay out of danger early, Shevchenko has a real chance to claim the women’s bantamweight title this weekend.
Holly Holm (11-3 overall, 4-3 UFC) is coming off a highlight reel finish of Bethe Correia last month and is the biggest remaining name in the division with Rousey out of the picture and Tate having retired. She’s already lost (convincingly) to Shevchenko and is entertaining a return to featherweight, so it’s unclear what comes next for the former champion.
Julianna Pena (8-3 overall, 4-1 UFC) hasn’t fought since losing to Shevchenko in January and needs to get back in the win column before being considered for a title shot. Pena has all the tools to be a contender and possibly even champion, but she needs to improve her focus and add more polish before that can happen.
Raquel Pennington (9-5 overall, 6-2 UFC) is currently recovering from shoulder surgery with no established return date on the books. Whenever she does return, Pennington will do so as the most intriguing contender in the division, having won four straight with her only losses coming by split decision against Holm and Jessica Andrade. Gritty and durable, she dominated Miesha Tate last time out and should get a look in a title eliminator when she is cleared to return to action.
Sara McMann (11-3 overall, 5-3 UFC) appears to have turned a corner in her last two fights, using her freakish strength and outstanding grappling skills to squeeze out finishes against Alexis Davis and Gina Mazany. McMann profiles (to me) as someone who was thrown to the wolves when she wasn’t ready, but is figuring it all out and putting it all together now and if that is the case, she’s a dangerous contender to watch going forward.
Cat Zingano (9-2 overall, 2-2 UFC) hasn’t fought since UFC 200, hasn’t won since beating Nunes at UFC 178 and is currently dealing with medical issues that are keeping her out of the cage. And when she does return (if she returns), it might be at featherweight. See why she’s a question mark?
Tonya Evninger (19-5, 1 NC overall, 0-0 UFC) is fighting Cris Cyborg for the women’s featherweight title later this month at UFC 214, but she’s been running things in the Invicta FC bantamweight division for the last couple years and has to be considered an instant contender if (when?) she moves to the 135-pound ranks following her promotional debut.
The Ones to Watch
Aspen Ladd (5-0 overall, 0-0 UFC) makes her UFC debut Friday against Jessica Eye in what should be an instant indicator of where the 22-year-old fits in the division for the time being. She’s been impressive in Invicta, brandishing a strong top game on the ground, and has the raw materials to develop into a top tier talent in the next couple years with the right coaching and a strong developmental strategy.
Ketlen Vieira (8-0 overall, 2-0 UFC) has maintained her perfect record through her first two Octagon appearances, posting decision wins over Kelly Faszholz and Ashlee Evans-Smith. She’s slated to face McMann at UFC 214 and if she emerges victorious, the 25-year-old Nova Uniao product could graduate to being a contender.