No easy path: Why Manon Fiorot will be Erin Blanchfield’s toughest test yet

The women’s flyweight division will have a new No. 1 contender this weekend. MMA’s best young prospect, Erin Blanchfield, will face fellow title contender Manon Fiorot in the main event at UFC Fight Night on Saturday (10 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN+).

Blanchfield, No. 1 on ESPN’s 2023 25 under 25 list, could earn a title opportunity against champion Alexa Grasso and become the youngest champion in UFC history if she can get past Fiorot. Blanchfield is ESPN’s No. 4-ranked flyweight.

Fiorot, who is 5-foot-7, often has a height and reach advantage over her opponents, and she is an excellent striker still looking for her first shot at UFC gold. Like Blanchfield, Fiorot is also undefeated inside the Octagon. Fiorot is No. 3 in ESPN’s flyweight rankings.

While this fight has enormous implications for the division, the winner may have to wait for their title shot, as Grasso is expected to face Valentina Shevchenko in a trilogy bout after coaching on the upcoming season of “The Ultimate Fighter.”

What makes both fighters special? What are their potential weaknesses? Let’s take a look at how this high-stakes fight might play out.

Don’t rule out the underdog

Even though Blanchfield (-190 per ESPN BET) has faced tough competition in former strawweight champion Jessica Andrade and former flyweight title challenger Taila Santos, this will be the real litmus test for her. Blanchfield bulldozed her way through opponents until she faced Santos last year. While Blanchfield won that fight, she had to work through adversity. And Fiorot is a much tougher matchup for Blanchfield.

Fiorot (+160 per ESPN BET) is a southpaw whose range control and systematic approach could decide this fight. She’s a sound fighter who always comes in with a game plan that she sticks to. A big part of that plan is Fiorot’s best weapon: the jab. If Blanchfield can’t shut down her jab, it could be a long night for her.

With her fast hands and in-and-out movement, Fiorot throws the jab in volume while still landing at a high percentage. But how she uses it makes it so difficult to adjust to.

And even when opponents avoid the jab and enter range to throw their strikes, they must get past Fiorot’s kicking range. Doing so is difficult because she throws a unique mix of side and oblique kicks that opponents must fight through. And then they have to get past the range of her punches before closing the distance enough to grapple or shoot for a takedown. Fiorot’s opponents must account for her physical strength and exceptional takedown defense. Fiorot does well avoiding getting caught in open mat takedown attempts. She always gets back to the fence and then uses that position to help her defend the takedown.

During the rare occasions that Fiorot has to fight on the mat, she’s good at leveraging her weight. When taken down, she never settles for that bottom position.

Fiorot is a safe, technical fighter. She’s well-rounded, with power in her hands but doesn’t take many risks. She has occasionally been the aggressor, while not putting herself in many bad positions.

While she doesn’t have many finishes inside the Octagon, Fiorot has mostly been dominant in each of her bouts, even when taking on top-level opponents. Her past four wins came against fighters who have held or challenged for a UFC title.

While Fiorot does plenty well, there are still some weaknesses in her game that an opponent could capitalize on.

One is her head movement. When she throws punches, Fiorot leaves her head on the center line. She also sometimes appears to lean back when she throws, like she’s trying to avoid getting hit when she throws strikes.

There’s also the question about her submission offense. We’ve established that she does well defensively when a fight goes to the mat, but knowing that she’s taking on somebody who will look to take the fight to the ground. How will Fiorot fare if she has to be a threat there?

How can Blanchfield keep rolling?

Blanchfield has earned all of the hype that she has generated. She improves every time we see her in the cage, but we still haven’t seen her reach her full potential.

She is widely recognized as a Brazilian jiu-jitsu prodigy, so when her fights hit the ground, she has yet to face much adversity. We don’t usually see many jiu-jitsu specialists develop a strong striking game, but Blanchfield has, doing so in just a couple of years.

Against Santos, a proven high-level striker, Blanchfield was willing to stand and bang with her. Blanchfield doesn’t shy away from her striking and is willing to grow and learn. She’s a real student of the game.

To beat a fighter as skilled as Fiorot, Blanchfield must show that she is better at combining striking and grappling. Much like the Santos fight, it’s hard to imagine that Blanchfield will easily get Fiorot to the mat. To grab ahold of Fiorot, she has to aggressively close range.

Blanchfield must understand that she will have to get hit at times, but she should not let that deter her from throwing strikes at a high volume. Sometimes, she should double, even triple up, on the jab to set up takedowns with her striking. She also has to use feints so that Fiorot can’t get a beat on when the takedown attempts are coming.

When facing skilled wrestlers and grapplers, opponents are often so concerned about the threat of a takedown that it opens opportunities for striking. Blanchfield needs to capitalize on that.

There will also be openings for leg kicks against Fiorot. When moving in and out, Fiorot often puts a lot of weight on her lead (right) leg. If Blanchfield can time her kicks right, it could slow Fiorot’s movement. If Blanchfield can do that, getting the takedowns she’s looking for will be much easier.

We’ve also seen Fiorot take body kicks that appeared to affect her. She’s a big fighter for the division, so she may not have the easiest time cutting weight. Attacking the body early could wear her down throughout the fight and pay off later.

And when Blanchfield gets in the pocket, she has to make it a brawl. Don’t allow Fiorot to set the pace and keep the fight pretty. If Blanchfield can force Fiorot to fight at a pace that she is uncomfortable with, we’ve seen Fiorot struggle.

How will it play out

This is a tough fight to call. Both fighters are talented, but I think Fiorot’s striking will be the difference in this fight. It won’t be easy; Fiorot will have to aggressively defend takedowns for 25 minutes, but I see her pulling it off to win by decision.

Fiorot is a fighter who prefers being at range and excels at keeping fights there. I’m just not sure Blanchfield will be able to close the range, and even if she does, I’m not sure she’ll be able to get Fiorot down. Fiorot’s takedown defense is just that good.

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