In each of the three years since Valentina Shevchenko ascended to the top of the women’s flyweight division, the champion has fought twice and won twice, successfully retaining her title, adding to her legacy, and further establishing herself as one of the greatest talents in the sport today.
This past year was no different in the basic sense, as the 33-year-old standout made her customary two appearances and earned her two victories, giving her six consecutive successful title defenses, most of any current champion in the UFC.
But this year’s triumphs weren’t run of the mill wins, and while the outcome of her fights continues to feel like a foregone conclusion more and more each time she steps into the Octagon, what Shevchenko is doing should not be taken for granted or be passed off as anything but incredible.
UFC 261 was supposed to be the champion’s toughest test since migrating to the flyweight division — a date with former strawweight titleholder Jessica Andrade, who had surprising success as an undersized bantamweight before moving to the 115-pound weight class, winning championship gold in dramatic fashion, and settling in between at the end of 2020.
Her divisional debut against Katlyn Chookagian highlighted all the reasons Andrade was viewed as a legitimate threat to Shevchenko’s reign the instant she opted to move up in weight.
Chookagian, who owned a stellar 14-3 record and had previously established herself as the difficult-to-beat opponent other hopefuls couldn’t get past in order to land a date with the final boss, had little to offer Andrade. From the jump, the Brazilian dynamo was in the perennial contender’s grill, stalking her with forward pressure and a frequent assortment of heavy, impactful blows. Late in the opening stanza, Andrade attacked the body and Chookagian folded over in agony.
Now it was Shevchenko’s turn to deal with this powerful, Brazilian marauder that won strawweight gold by slamming Rose Namajunas and earned her championship opportunity by putting a painful end to Chookagian’s night. Now it was Shevchenko’s turn to combat the constant forward pressure and obvious power Andrade brought to the cage, and after a couple years of relatively low-risk assignments in championship pairings, the reigning queen of the 125-pound weight class was finally going to be pushed and challenged.
In space, Shevchenko was always expected and known to be the superior fighter, but questions lingered about how she would do in close quarters, with Andrade closing the distance, looking to grapple and use her physicality. Those questions were answered early in the opening round when the champion controlled the challenger in the clinch, muscling her way off the fence whenever she momentarily found herself there while putting Andrade on the deck five times in as many tries.
She threw just 16 significant strikes over the first five minutes of the fight, yet still ran away with the round, and in the second, she wasted little time showing that her “toughest test to date” was no test at all.
In the second, Shevchenko picked at Andrade with sharp left hooks off the restart and outmuscled her in the clinch, defending the challenger’s attempt to twist her to the canvas before showing her how it’s done. Andrade eventually worked back to her feet, but Shevchenko once again stifled her attempt to change the placement of the fight, twisting the Brazilian to the canvas for a second time at the midway point of the round.
Andrade wouldn’t return to the upright position until the fight was over.
Shevchenko quickly climbed into the mounted crucifix position and started unleashing a torrent of elbows, cutting Andrade and forcing the stoppage. When the champion rose to her feet, the look on her face was a blend of defiance and dominance; Maximus in the middle of the Coliseum asking, “Are you not entertained?” after effortlessly dispatching the fighter everyone thought would present her with the most challenges.
A new challenger emerged in June, as Lauren Murphy edged out Joanne Wood (nee Calderwood) on the scorecards to earn her fifth straight victory and secure a championship opportunity. They were booked as the co-main event at UFC 265 in Houston, Texas towards the end of September, and Shevchenko turned in one of her most breathtaking performances to date.
While very few gave Murphy a chance of unseating the champion, the dominance displayed by the multi-lingual international superstar was still a sight to behold.
There wasn’t a single round where the challenger landed more than five significant strikes, while the champion connected at nearly a 60-percent clip over the 19 minutes that the fight lasted. At every turn, in every facet, Shevchenko was two or three steps ahead of Murphy, leaving the challenger with no way to stem the gathering tide before the bout was finally halted with a minute remaining in the fourth round.
There was no quit in Murphy, who trudged back to her corner after each five-minute walloping, looking for insights and adjustments that could help her find more success, but there was nothing for her to do.
In an odd twist of fate, the best thing that probably could have happened for Shevchenko didn’t involve her stepping into the Octagon to compete.
Julianna Pena dethroning Amanda Nunes at UFC 269 not only made the champion from Kyrgyzstan the longest-reigning titleholder in the UFC, but it also underscored how difficult it is to be a long-reigning champion.
While the challengers always have endless amounts of energy, drive, and motivation to get into the best shape of their careers and be as sharp as ever come fight night, it can become increasingly more difficult with each fight when you’ve already turned back three, four, five threats. Readying to face whoever is next in line doesn’t necessarily force you to hustle out of bed and push like you’ve never pushed before when you’ve already vanquished the top three or four or five contenders in the division.
Except if you’re Valentina Shevchenko.
No matter the opponent, no matter how many consecutive victories and title defenses she’s already stacked up (eight and six, respectively), the champion is in the gym, as driven as always, and turns up on fight night laser-focused, ready to make another statement.
She did it twice in 2021, just as she had the two years before that, and will undoubtedly be ready to do the same in the coming year, as well.
The outcomes may feel inevitable, but that doesn’t mean the performances should be downplayed and the athlete should be taken for granted.
What Valentina Shevchenko is doing is incredible, and there is little doubt that “Bullet” is amongst the very best mixed martial artists in the world.