Suffice to say that Saturday’s UFC Fight Night 156 card wasn’t exactly well-received—and with good reason. Through 26 events so far this year, I think it would probably be the consensus worst of them all. With the largest thrills of the evening being Raulian Paiva’s enormous facial gash, and Mike Perry breaking the Rich Franklin scale of broken noses. That said, when a poor bill goes into full ‘bad card’ status, there’s normally an inordinate focus placed on the main event, and this card is no different.
And so I ask: What kind of blame does Valentina Shevchenko deserves for any part of this?
I think it’s kind of poetic that a fighter so intermingled with wanderlust – name another Kyrgyz-Peruvian athlete if you can – would end up defending her title in Montevideo, Uruguay. But, beyond that, did anyone think that Shevchenko’s performance would be any different? Her challenger, Liz Carmouche, is a battle-tested tank. And our champion in question is a natural-born counterstriker. Both of these women are veterans; we know their games. And thus, any educated party should’ve expected exactly what we saw play out. Shevchenko waited Carmouche out, got a bead on her leg-kicking rhythm, started picking her off and won every single minute of a 25-minute fight en route to unanimous 50-45 scorecards.
It’s not as though Shevchenko coasted, either. She dropped Carmouche twice – though not officially by FightMetric count – with a snapping left cross and a sassy spinning back fist. Late in the game, she tried to pound away from top position in hopes of producing a stoppage. This was not a complacent champion simply playing with their food; that would be very much out of step with Shevchenko’s personality and fighting modus operandi. This is just the way the cookie crumbles, sometimes.
But, because she is a champion and the headliner, and the card was largely dissatisfactory, I’ve seen a large margin of MMA fans seek to heap blame on her. Like I said previously, both of these fighters are known quantities—and I think most rational observers could’ve forecasted a 50-45 shutout based on the style matchup; don’t hate the player, hate the game. If you feel you wasted seven hours of your Saturday night for an obvious and modest payoff, blame the UFC’s desire to run a bazillion cards a year in far-flung regions—and the promotion’s pathological obsession with headlining any card with a title fight. As though ‘title fight’ has any actual purchase in 2019.
In fairness, however, the UFC itself isn’t entirely to blame either. It’s not as though the company hasn’t tried to grow the women’s flyweight division. And, more than that, they have to overcome a bizarre impasse that has troubled women’s MMA for years along the way. Traditionally, 115 and 135 pounds have been the major women’s divisions. Flyweight has always just fallen... somewhere in between, with no conscience or mind paid to it.
For years, the nexus of women’s MMA was in Japan, where women’s strawweight and bantamweight were the divisions that were featured (between Smackgirl and Jewels and the like). Whatever the reason, promoters just skipped over the flyweight division. Finally now, we see flyweight women getting the opportunity to actually ply their trade at the division they’re best accustomed for. And yet, there’s a bit of a boulder blocking the way: Valentina Shevchenko is a better fighter than all of these women and her easy, carefree dominance seems to stifle and mock attempts to dethrone her.
As a result, I think there are two important aspects to consider. Firstly, as I stated, the women’s flyweight division in many ways is the most nascent reasonably populated weight class in all of MMA—because it was so critically neglected for years. The sport is only just now populating it with fighters that should’ve been fighting in this realm for years. I mean, cast an eye towards Bellator MMA; Ilima-Lei MacFarlane should be a star for the promotion, yet she’s basically run out of viable opposition in less than two years. We’re progressing, but progress is slow. Sure, we’ve got the Maycee Barbers of the world, but does anyone believe that a win over Gillian Robertson will situate Barber to legitimately tangle with a gun-shooting marauder like Shevchenko? I’m not so keen.
The other issue I see is the willingness for onlookers to take on a style matchup and act as though they’re promised action. This is not how fights work. Maybe viewers were raised on Mike Tyson highlights and simply assume that the ‘world champion’ kills everyone within 15 minutes. But, that’s not how it works. And, within the context of MMA, I think it’s valuable to look at how the public worm turned on Anderson Silva and what actually made that happen.
Now, I’m not comparing Anderson Silva and Valentina Shevchenko. They’re obviously very different personalities, different fighters. But, they share two traits that inform the response Shevchenko has gotten coming out of Montevideo: When a division is underdeveloped and there is no real competition, a true champion realizes it. And thus, what do they do from there?
The two classic examples in this case are Anderson Silva making an absolute farce of fights against Thales Leites and Demian Maia, much to the chagrin of the MMA public. Again, I don’t want to compare personalities—because I don’t think in the slightest that Valentina Shevchenko would’ve acted as the mercurial ‘Spider’ did against those opponents. But, it’s important to consider that Silva and Shevchenko are both fundamental, thoughtful counterfighers that wait for their opponent to make the first move.
What turns up as a result is the classic ‘paralysis by analysis’ conundrum. These challengers know they are outmatched, outgunned, and may be staring down the barrel at any turn. To her credit, Shevchenko put her shoulder into it late in the game and tried to finish Carmouche. She didn’t clown around the way that Silva did. But when a promotion is taking under-skilled talent and putting them against the elite, it just becomes a survival game.
We can see this played out, repeatedly, in high-level MMA fights with a dominant champion. Athletes are gifted with the chance to go for the gold, but realize they’re outmatched on every level. It’s what gave Anderson Silva every chance to dance around and act like a dork, but it’s also what informs Valentina Shevchenko just sticking to her gameplan and doing her thing.
‘The Bullet’ is betwixt a momentary gap in MMA evolution. The only woman to hold a candle to her in the last nine years is Amanda Nunes, who she arguably beat in their last outing. While it may not be to our entertainment per se, nothing about Shevchenko’s dominance has anything to do with shortcomings.
Maybe we get the third fight with Nunes, maybe we don’t (who knows with the UFC psyche). But, all I can say is, that a disappointing night of fights like this one isn’t held upon the back of a great fighter, stitched up into a role to simultaneously excel and fail.