Valentina Shevchenko faces an uphill battle this weekend at Noche UFC.
For the first time in eight fight, the 35-year-old stand out walks to the Octagon as the challenger, as she faces Alexa Grasso in a rematch for the UFC women’s flyweight title on Saturday.
The two initially met in March at UFC 285, with Grasso winning the opening round through greater activity, only for “Bullet” to settle into a rhythm over the next two rounds that left everyone feeling like the long-reigning champion was on her way to another successful title defense. But then, as the clocked ticked down towards the final minute of the fourth round, Shevchenko throw one of her signature spinning back kicks, missing the target and providing Grasso the opportunity to quickly scurry to her back, where she sunk in her hooks and began attacking a rear-naked choke.
Without managing to fish her arm under the chin of the champion, Grasso found the finish, clamping down on the chin and jaw of Shevchenko with such forced and torque that the champion was left no choice but to tap, bringing her dominant reign over the 125-pound weight class to a close after 1,547 days.
This weekend, with their roles reversed, the women meet in an immediate rematch, with Shevchenko looking to build on recent history, and buck a greater overall trend when it comes to vanquished champions trying to instantly reclaim their titles.
HISTORY WORKING AGAINST SHEVCHENKO
There have been 15 previous instances where a champion lost their title and faced the individual that defeated them in an immediate championship rematch in UFC history.
Just about every division has seen one or more of these such matchups take place and overall, history has not been kind of the fighter in Shevchenko’s position this weekend.
In 12 of the 15 matchups, the new champion has walked out of the Octagon with the belt still in their possession, which includes several contests featuring long-reigning dethroned titleholders trying to re-take the throne and Hall of Fame fighters coming up short in their quest recapture UFC gold.
Anderson Silva lost the middleweight title to Chris Weidman at UFC 162, and then shattered his leg when they ran it back a little more than five months later at UFC 168.
BJ Penn dropped consecutive bouts opposite Frankie Edgar, signalling a changing of the guard atop the lightweight division before Edgar then landed on the wrong side of the scorecards in consecutive close battles with Benson Henderson, with those fights ironically coming after “The Answer” also went back-to-back with Gray Maynard.
The great Jose Aldo’s featherweight reign ended at home in Rio de Janeiro at the hands of Max Holloway, who then solidified his place atop the division with a second straight victory six months later at UFC 218, while both Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Zhang Weili lost the strawweight belt and their subsequent immediate rematches to two-time champ Rose Namajunas.
There is no one trait that ties together all the champions that have suffered this fate, but there is a commonality amongst some of them that raises questions about Shevchenko’s chances heading into this weekend.
For several of the athletes that have been through this situation — Silva, Penn, Cody Garbrandt, Jedrzejczyk — their title loss and subsequent defeat in the rematch can now be identified as the moment where things started to go sideways and they never quite got it back.
Silva dropped those consecutive fights to Weidman, took a little more than a year before returning before going 1-5 with one no contest result over the final seven fights of his UFC career… and that one victory was a shaky decision at best.
Penn moved up to welterweight and beat his old rival Matt Hughes in his first bout after losing twice to Edgar, and then managed a draw against Jon Fitch at UFC 127 in Sydney, Australia a couple months later, and then dropped each of his next seven appearances to close out his time inside the Octagon.
While Garbrandt is 2-3 in five fights since his tandem losses to TJ Dillashaw, which are marred by Dillashaw’s later positive drug test and two-year suspension, “No Love” has clearly not been the same fighter that mesmerized the MMA world with his title win over Dominick Cruz, and few foresee a future where the oft-injured 32-year-old returns to prominence in the bantamweight division.
Jedrzejczyk’s situation is the least dramatic of the group, as “Joanna Champion” won her next two strawweight bouts with a loss to Shevchenko in a battle for the vacant flyweight title sandwiched in between before she suffers back-to-back losses to Zhang and called it a career. Still, after beginning her career with 14 consecutive victories, she went 2-5 over her final seven appearances, and that run of poor results began with her losing the belt and the immediate rematch.
Former two-division champion Daniel Cormier is also included in this group, having lost the heavyweight title to Stipe Miocic and then come up short in their trilogy bout a year later. After going 22-1 with one no contests through his winning and successfully defending the UFC heavyweight title, “DC” hung up the gloves on a two-fight slide after losing the belt and the immediate rematch.
We always say that Father Time is undefeated and eventually catches up to everyone, and the collection of greats that lost their titles and the subsequent rematches and then never quite returned to their elite form makes you wonder if that Shevchenko’s fate this weekend?
Prior to losing to Grasso in March, the standout from Kyrgyzstan was coming off her most competitive fight since she relocated to the flyweight division — a split decision win over Taila Santos at UFC 275 the previous June where it felt like the momentum of the contest shifted in her favor following an accidental clash of heads where the Brazilian challenger got the worst of things.
Shevchenko has been doing martial arts ostensibly for her entire life and made her professional MMA debut more than 20 years ago. She’s fought 27 times in MMA and at least 59 times as a kickboxer, though probably far more, and eventually, those miles, the toll they take on your body catch up to you.
Is the bout with Santos and her loss to Grasso a sign that her days as an elite talent in the UFC are behind her? That the next generation of talents have officially taken over the flyweight division?
SO YOU’RE TELLING ME THERE IS A CHANCE
Sorry to go all Lloyd Christmas on you, but we have to address the three instances where fallen champions have quickly recaptured their titles as well — not only because it’s key to present both sides, but also because they took place the last three times a champion was presented with this opportunity.
After battling Brandon Moreno to a draw on the final pay-per-view card of 2020, DeivesonFigueiredo dropped the belt to Moreno at UFC 263 the following June. Seven months later, they met for a third time, and the Brazilian reclaimed the title.
Note: Moreno then won it back when they met for a fourth time, though it doesn’t qualify here because he won an interim title fight against Kai Kara-France in between his third and fourth meetings with Figueiredo.
At the end of 2021, Amanda Nunes lost the bantamweight title to Julianna Pena at UFC 269, getting stopped by the massive underdog and former Ultimate Fighter winner in one of the more shocking upsets in UFC history. They ran it back seven months later, and “The Lioness” mopped the floor with Pena, dominating the contest before successfully defending her belt against Irene Aldana this summer and announcing her retirement.
And most recently, Israel Adesanya bounced back from dropping the middleweight title to long-time rival Alex Pereira at UFC 281 in New York City by knocking out “Poatan” at UFC 287 in April.
Following years and years of fallen champions failing to reclaim the titles they’d lost, Shevchenko now has three very recent examples of instances where athletes, contemporaries in her current position picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and walked out of the Octagon as champions once again.
THE REAL TAKEAWAY
Regardless of whether Shevchenko reclaims the title on Saturday or suffers the same fate as the first dozen champions that faced this situation inside the Octagon, the real takeaway for me is what an incredible run it has been for “Bullet,” win or lose.
From debuting on short-notice with a win over former Strikeforce champ Sarah Kaufman and her bantamweight rivalry with Nunes to changing divisions, realizing her championship dreams, and reigning at flyweight through seven consecutive successful title defenses — the most by any female champion and tied for fourth all-time with Jose Aldo — the 35-year-old all-around bad ass has put together a Hall of Fame-worthy career, and the outcome of this weekend’s rematch with Grasso doesn’t change things either way.
We talk all the time about the window of opportunity for these athletes being incredible small, and for eight years, Shevchenko has been one of the absolute best fighters on the planet, across two division.
Her second fight in the UFC was ostensibly a title eliminator against Nunes at UFC 196, she then beat a former champ (Holly Holm) and a future champ (Pena) before dropping a maddeningly close decision to Nunes in a bantamweight title bout at UFC 215 before moving to flyweight.
After thrashing Priscila Cachoeira in her divisional debut, she won the belt by soundly beating Jedrzejczyk, successfully defended her title seven times, with the first six of those being dominant efforts, and was ahead on the scorecards against Grasso before things went akimbo.
For the better part of a decade, Shevchenko has been an absolute world-class competitor, and more than anything else, that’s what I’ll take away from Saturday’s main event.