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The (W)reckoning of Valentina Shevchenko - The Fine Art of Violence
What can Shevchenko's best performances tell us about her chances to reclain the title from Alexa Grasso?
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The (W)reckoning of Valentina Shevchenko
Many fighters win a UFC championship but only a select few manage to hold onto the belt, defending their title against wave after wave of contenders. While it’s easy to assign the highest accolades to an unblemished record, even that is subject to debate. Plenty of fans, analysts, and the occasional hater will nitpick the lack of pink on both Jon Jones and Khabib Nurmagomedov’s wikipedia pages.
There’s something about perfection that makes people less relatable, and the career of a fighter who must overcome stumbling blocks forms a more rewarding story. Valentina Shevchenko and Alexa Grasso both have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of a former UFC champions, albeit from different angles.
One way this could go is for Valentina Shevchenko to emulate Georges St. Pierre. Arguably one of the top 3 all-time MMA fighters, GSP lost his belt to Matt Serra, who earned the title shot by winning a season of TUF. After Serra capitalized on the champion’s hubris with a career-defining performance, the world was set right again.
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St. Pierre rattled off two more wins including an interim belt until he was finally able to rematch Serra and thrash the usurper to his throne in a way that everyone expected the first time around. This is one way things could go for Valentina Shevchenko, however there is one caveat.
While Shevchenko had shown herself to be on another level compared to the competition at flyweight for five straight years, she is now thirty five years old. That’s a difficult number for athletes in a sport where speed and reflexes are key components for success. Father Time is, like Khabib, undefeated.
Even if Shevchenko’s physical durability remains unblemished there is a wrinkle to her fighting that gives cause for concern: Shevchenko cannot stop taking people down even if she’s winning on the feet.
In her first UFC flyweight fight, Shevchenko announced herself by battering Priscila Cachoeira on the feet all over the octagon, but insisted on taking the Brazilian fighter down and dragging the fight out far longer than necessary.
In Shevchenko’s last successful title defence, the champion was a far superior striker to challenger Talia Santo but again stuck with whatever plan was in place and repeatedly got out-grappled. Santos threatened from the back with chokes multiple times and it wasn’t until an accidental headbutt widened the gap that Shevchenko could finally cruise through the championship rounds.
The methodical nature to Shevchenko’s game has always irked me, and if an amateur like me can spot this then Grasso’s camp can see a lot more.
Alexa Grasso was tapped by Dana White as a future star when she was still with Invicta. High praise from the UFC equals high expectations, and in the days before Sean O’Malley and Paddy Pimblett there was no such thing as slowly building prospects.
Grasso traded wins and losses in her first six UFC appearances, with the losses of varying quality; steamrolled by Tatiana Suarez, the majority decision to Carla Esparza was debatable. At 27 years old she moved up to flyweight and seems to have hit her stride.
There is now a grit that was missing in her earlier fights, a willingness to throw hands in the pocket with Araujo, to bully on the ground against Barber, and a killer instinct necessary to capitalize on a sixty second window of opportunity in the Shevchenko fight.
Alexa Grasso’s path is more reminiscent of Robbie Lawler and Jan Blachowicz. The former was touted as a future champ but had to go life a lifetime before fulfilling that promise. The latter was a KSW champion who stumbled badly upon arriving in the UFC, going just 2-4 in his first six bouts.
Both men took unconventional routes to becoming champions and it’s probably a more realistic way for us all to perceive the crooked path that many of our lives take. Late success tastes much sweeter when you’ve got something to compare it to.
Alexa Grasso is the last Mexican UFC champion in a year that seemed full of promise for the country. Mexican fighters Brandon Moreno, Yair Rodriguez, and Irene Aldana all either held gold or fought for it this year, but each of them stumbled.
There’s no shame though, two of them fought against the best fighters their divisions have seen in Alexander Volkanovski and Amanda Nunes, while Moreno and Alexandre Pantoja put on one of the best fights of the year.
Grasso has been with the UFC almost seven years and seems to be cresting. Manon Fiord, Erin Blanchfield, and Yan Xiaonan are waiting in the wings. At thirty years old, in the right weight class and full of confidence, one wonders if we’re on the precipice of a new, post-Shevchenko era.
Speaking of the cham- I mean challenger, Valentina Shevchenko is at her best when she gets to play woodchipper to an aggressive opponent. Give the woman what she wants and she’ll eat you alive, but those days might be over. We will find out soon enough, en la fin de semana, proximo.