For as confident as Taila Santos is – and rightly so with a 16-1 record featuring 12 first-round finishes – even she did not think a shot at the flyweight championship belt would come so quickly. And yet, for her sixth jaunt to the Octagon, gold is on the line as she takes on Valentina Shevchenko in the co-main event of UFC 275 in Singapore.
The quick run to contention seems tame compared to that of Jiri Prochazka, who challenges Glover Teixiera for the light heavyweight title in the main event, but for Santos, who knew this chance would come eventually, it’s something that even caught her off guard.
“I was expecting it, but not so quickly,” Santos told UFC.com. “When I got the news, I was really happy, but at the same time, it caught me off guard, like, ‘It's already happening.’”
After dropping her UFC debut – her lone professional loss - the 28-year-old Santos racked up dominant decision wins over Molly McCann, Gillian Robertson and Roxanne Modafferi before bulldozing Joanne Wood in November 2021. The submission win over Wood was her first in the Octagon, getting rid of a slight monkey off her back after ending so many fights early in her pre-UFC days.
The statement made, Santos looked at not only the champion, but at the failed challengers who preceded her. Shevchenko hasn’t had much adversity to overcome as the flyweight queen, but Santos does see a certain intimidation factor impacting her peers.
“The girls would get in the Octagon with fear, not wanting to bring the fight,” Santos said. “They would walk back and make her comfortable, and I'm not doing that. This doesn't affect me in the wrong way. This affects me in the right way. I know I'm going there to fight the best, a girl that is good and smart. She is a high-level athlete.”
Santos is perhaps as complete a flyweight contender to face Shevchenko during her reign. Physically strong with proficient technique on the feet and the ground, Santos ranks first all-time among women’s flyweights in control time percentage (50.5 percent), knockdowns per 15 minutes (0.69) and second in strikes absorbed per minute (2.02).
Of course, none of those opponents were Shevchenko, who has operated at a level above the rest since dropping down from bantamweight. Alas, the breadcrumbs to another titanic shift in a women’s division are present. The Brazilian challenger isn’t ignorant to the tall task, but the mindset remains the same: forcing her will and getting her hand raised.
“I'm facing a tough fighter, and this is great for me,” Santos said. “I'm going in there and imposing my game. I'm going to try to grow on every single round. Imposing my game, imposing all of my training is what we've been doing. We try to impose our strategy and make our training around her flaws.”
Although the stage is the biggest and the lights are the brightest, Santos is opting to think of this fight as any other. Adding weight to the occasion isn’t beneficial, and the standard she holds herself to is enough positive pressure to meet regardless of the stakes.
But, as mindful a strategy as that is, it’s hard to get away from the fact that Santos winning equals a major upset that the division has yet to experience. She understands the moment, even if she is treating it like any other in her career, and she has already imagined that gold belt being wrapped around her waist in Singapore Indoor Stadium.
“I'm already visualizing this win,” Santos said. “I've seen it. Visualizing is really important. So I've closed my eyes and visualized it. Now we just wait for it to happen.”
UFC 275: Teixeira vs Procházka took place on Saturday, June 11, 2022, live from the Singapore Indoor Stadium in Singapore. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!