UFC 228 co-main event breakdown: Can Nicco Montano pull massive upset to retain title?

MMAjunkie Radio co-host and MMAjunkie contributor Dan Tom breaks down UFC 228’s top bouts, and today, we look at the co-main event.

UFC 228 takes place Saturday at American Airlines Center in Dallas. The main card airs on pay-per-view following prelims on FX and UFC Fight Pass.

Also see:

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Nicco Montano (4-2 MMA, 1-0 UFC)

Staple info:

  • Height: 5’5″ Age: 29 Weight: 125 lbs. Reach: 65″
  • Last fight: Decision win over Roxanne Modafferi (Dec. 1, 2017)
  • Camp: FIT NHB (New Mexico)
  • Stance/striking style: Southpaw/kickboxing
  • Risk management: Fair

Supplemental info:
+ UFC flyweight champion
+ TUF 26 winner
+ Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt
+ Regional MMA title
+ 5-0 as an amateur
+ 2 KO victories
+ 1 first-round finish
+ Consistent pace and pressure
+ Deceptively diverse striking
^ Switches stances, mixes up kicks
+ Strong inside the clinch
+ Solid transitional grappler

Valentina Shevchenko (15-3 MMA, 4-2 UFC)

Staple info:

  • Height: 5’5″ Age: 30 Weight: 125 lbs. Reach: 67″
  • Last fight: Submission win over Priscila Cachoeira (Feb. 3, 2018)
  • Camp: Bushi-Ban (Texas)
  • Stance/striking style: Southpaw/muay Thai
  • Risk management: Good

Supplemental info:
+ 17x muay Thai and K-1 champion
+ 9x IMFA champ (56-2 as a pro)
+ Tae kwon do black belt (2nd dan)
+ 2 KO victory
+ 7 submission wins
+ 6 first-round finishes
+ Superb technical striker
^ Footwork, shot selection, timing
+ Competent and crafty clinch game
^ Strong base and balance
+ Underrated grappler
+ Physically and mentally durable

Summary:

The co-main event for UFC 228 features a flyweight title fight between Nicco Montano and Valentina Shevchenko.

Since winning TUF 26 and becoming the first female flyweight champion of the UFC, Montano has had a hard target placed upon her back. And with her critics growing in her absence due to illness, Montano – the first Native American UFC champion – will have more than the oddsmakers to prove wrong come Saturday night.

Swaying both the betting lines and the spotlight is Shevchenko, one of the most accoladed female fighters under the UFC banner. Since dropping to her natural home of 125 pounds, the expectations – which were already high – have only increased since the Kyrgyzstani-born fighter debuted in the division late last year.

Starting off on the feet, we have a unique pairing of two southpaw strikers.

Hailing from FIT NHB in New Mexico – a gym that’s produced fighters like Tim Means – Montano shows to be absorbing the lessons from both Tom and Arlene Vaughn. Flowing from a southpaw stance, Montano typically works her offense off of a prodding jab. When ready to make her move, the 29-year-old champion will follow up with crosses and kicks, parlaying missed Thai kicks into sidekicks, or even occasionally shifting her stance to fire off a quick one-two.

The potential problem, however, is that pressure becomes a potent two-way street when stacking up against a counter striker the caliber of Shevchenko.

Coming from a martial arts family – Shevchenko has been a practitioner of combat since age 4 – amassing multiple titles in K-1 and the IFMA, an organization where she fought and beat Joanna Jedrzejczyk three times.

A counter fighter by nature, Shevchenko wields all the weapons that a southpaw should never leave home without, keeping everything from check-hooks to counter crosses on a hair-trigger. And though she usually sticks to spinning assaults and liver kicks to corral her opposition, I suspect that the former muay Thai champ will attempt to celebrate a rare same-stance pairing by opening up her arsenal here.

Regardless of Montano’s approach to the striking stylings of Shevchenko, I believe that her success may hinge on clinch exchanges.

Whether the champion is looking to strike, stifle or take her opponent down, Montano’s ability to control action inside of the clinch appears to be a potential crux of her game. From trips or tosses to singles or doubles, Montano has a serviceable takedown game she can apply. The question, though, is will she be able to take Shevchenko down?

Underrated inside of the clinch, Shevchenko possesses all the tools you would expect from a muay Thai practitioner. Not only does the Kyrgyzstani wield mean elbows off the break, but she also does deceptive work to the body with knees, something that could pay dividends for her if she’s able to defend the initial clinch offense from the champion.

Though many high-level strikers have failed to develop grappling games in MMA, I think that fighters who come from traditional muay Thai backgrounds bring an aspect of grappling that is typically understated. A devastating striking art with an often overlooked emphasis on clinch wrestling, Shevchenko embraced and excelled in the grappling aspects of muay Thai as it became a huge key to her success while competing in that sport.

That said, Shevchenko is not beyond being taken down or being subject to activity lulls when inside of the clinch, which could give an opening to Montano. A solid transitional grappler, Montano attacks like a honey badger once hitting the floor, immediately looking to strike and improve upon her position. Typically working to establish the mount, Montano will rain down with strikes, sometimes snatching up arms in a submission attempt when they become available.

Nevertheless, action will be a double-edged sword in regards to the grappling department. Shevchenko, whose leg dexterity translates to her guard game, displays good bottom work when it comes to submissions or staying safe. And should Shevchenko find her way topside, she shows solid positional awareness and hand-fighting, which in turn help her defend submissions and deliver hard strikes.

The oddsmakers and public seem to be running to the bank on this one, listing Shevchenko -1250 and Montano +800 as of this writing.

With record odds going against a sitting champion, it can be easy to scoff or scratch your head when initially looking at the spread of the betting lines. And though MMA has provided us with reminders such as Holly Holm’s upset over Ronda Rousey to keep our perceptions in check, I’m not sure this will be one of those instances.

Montano is more well-rounded and game than she is given credit for, but this is a hard road for her to hoe on and off the paper. Not only does Montano seem to be dependent on her ability to mix things up in the clinch, but her striking defense does not appear to be up to snuff, something that I suspect Shevchenko will quickly test. Unless Montano can turn this into an ugly affair and get the challenger to drop the ball with activity lulls, then I see Shevchenko stinging the champ with counter strikes early, earning a stoppage come the second round.

Official pick: Shevchenko inside the distance

For more on UFC 228, check out the UFC Rumors section of the site.

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