At 125-pounds in professional mixed martial arts, you’ll travel far and wide in search of a force as dominant and poised as defending champion, Valentina ‘Bullet’ Shevchenko.
Laying waste to opposition on cue, the Kyrgyzstan standout looks to knock back the fourth challenger to her flyweight throne, as she takes co-main event honours at UFC 255 this weekend – opposite another well-traversed opponent, Jennifer Maia.
Entering the co-headlining tilt as a sizeable favourite, Shevchenko was slated initially to match with Joanne ‘JoJo’ Calderwood at a planned UFC 251 event earlier this year, until injury to the defending champion shelved that clash.
Electing to remain active in the champion’s absence on the sidelines, Scottish contender, Calderwood featured at UFC Vegas 5 at the beginning of August against Maia on short-notice, following a positive COVID-19 test return from Viviane Araújo.
Unfortunately for the Syndicate MMA mover, the decision to replace Araújo on short-notice marked the end of her championship aspirations, albeit for the time being – as Maia instated herself into the title picture instead, with an expertly applied opening-round armbar late in the frame. The finish, her premier under the UFC’s banner, also earned her Performance of the Night spoils.
For Tiger Muay Thai ace, Shevchenko, to describe her almost three yeat stint at flyweight as straightforward would be underselling her escapades. In five flyweight fights, the 32-year-old has looked almost untouchable.
Donning flyweight colours for the first time since her razor-thin bantamweight title rematch with current champion, Amanda ‘The Lioness’ Nunes – Shevchenko travelled to Brazil in 2018 to match with promotional newcomer, Priscila Cachoeira.
In one of the most one-sided and brutal gulfs in ability in recent memory, Shevchenko completely battered the then-undefeated Cachoeira for almost an entire opening round, before wrapping up a rear-naked choke win with just over thirty-seconds remaining in the frame. Quite the arrival.
In a reworked vacant title opportunity, Shevchenko met with prior career rival, former strawweight queen, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and over five-rounds, scored a comfortable 49-46 (x3) unanimous decision win, in a championship crowning effort.
June 2019, Shevchenko clashes with Jessica ‘Evil’ Eye who has sights set on springing a massive upset win. Utilizing her often overlooked grappling prowess in the opening-round, Shevchenko began the second frame with a trio of body kicks, before switching target and dropping Eye up high with a stunning walk-off knockout.
Avenging her prior career defeat to former bantamweight title challenger, Liz Carmouche in Montevideo, Uruguay – Shevchenko took home another unanimous decision victory in a wily point-fighting display.
Successfully defending the flyweight crown for the third time on the trot, Shevchenko featured again in the co-main event of UFC 247 in February, stopping common-opposition, Katlyn Chookagian with a third-round barrage.
From common-foes Chookagian, and Carmouche, former Invicta FC flyweight best, Maia has come unstuck against both of note – in a pair of three-round decision defeats.
A twenty-five fight professional veteran, Maia, who is predominantly a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner has gone the distance three times over five-rounds, against two-time opponents, Vanessa Porto, and Roxanne Modafferi, as well as Agnieszka Niedzwiedz – each of them championship outings.
From eighteen victories in that eleven-year career, Maia has scored four knockouts and five submissions, however, August’s armbar win over Calderwood came as the Curitiba native’s first finish in nine fights.
Maia, who plys her trade at the renowned Chute Boxe Academy in her hometown, can certainly present some interesting offence on the ground when compared to recent opponents of Shevchenko, but even fellow grappler, Julianna Pena struggled with Shevchenko’s Judo black belt – suffering two takedowns on her way to a somewhat surprising armbar defeat.
Whilst Maia can most definitely hold her own in the striking exchanges, it would be largely naive to put her standup acumen on par with someone of Shevchenko’s expertise. And that’s not a knock to Maia’s ability, more so a compliment to Shevchenko’s spacial awareness, composure, and shot selection which seen her outpoint one of the consensus better strikers to ever step foot in the UFC, Jedrzeczyk.
Not only is it naive to back Maia in the possible striking exchanges, but it’s also an incredibly brave decision to pick the Brazilian to pull off what would be one of the most surprising upsets in recent Octagon memory. Maia is a fine mixed martial artist and will continue to cause problems for the majority of high-level opposition at flyweight, however, looking beyond another successful title defence for Shevchenko, feels rather foolish.
Prediction: Valentina Shevchenko remains queen of the flies with a comfortable, counter-approach on her way to a unanimous decision.