If you hadn’t seen UFC 255 but only knew of the result, Valentina Shevchenko’s performance would look like business as usual on paper. Two of her last four fights before Jennifer Maia went to a decision. They were both unanimous. Lo and behold, Shevchenko beat Maia by a unanimous decision at UFC 255.
So why the long faces, MMA? Granted, it wasn’t the perfection we’ve come to expect from Shevchenko. In addition, Maia didn’t strike most people as a serious contender. Phil and I certainly didn’t. Maia was and is a fine fighter. But with a 3-2 UFC record, and missed weight issues, the threat level never seemed imminent.
Instead, Maia looked like the division’s best kept secret this weekend. She appeared to lowkey crack Shevchenko with a solid right hand in the first round. Although she lost the first round, she controlled the second round by bullying Shevchenko for large portions of the round. On top of that, Shevchenko’s trademark patience wasn’t on display. Instead of waiting for her opponent’s offense, she would lunge in with a lead left hand. When she wasn’t doing that, she would slam Maia with a spinning bodylock takedown. Wait...that sounds exactly like Shevchenko, doesn’t it?
Let’s step back for a second. Even if we include that second round, was Shevchenko actively in trouble? She was on her back, sure, but did Maia threaten any submissions? Did she land any serious punches? Conversely, did Maia ever look like she’d be able to counter any of Shevchenko’s takedowns? Did Maia look like she’d be able to adjust to getting strafed with that lead left hand over and over?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the commentary booth of Joe Rogan and Daniel Cormier, here. I understand that it’s not the easiest job in the world. They have to communicate as much verbally as they do emotionally in response to what’s taking place in the cage. Consider this thought experiment. If Noam Chomsky suddenly decided he wanted to learn about all-things UFC, and went into sports commentary, he’d probably be good at communicating technique to the audience, but would he get you pumped to continue watching? I doubt it. There’s a unique tightrope to communicating emotion and mechanics to a wide audience. However, how much would fan perception change if Rogan and Cormier didn’t transform one round of top control into ‘Maia could be winning this fight!’?
I don’t like harping on the commentary, because — as mentioned — I don’t think what they do is easy. But Rogan and Cormier completely ignored some of massive shots Shevchenko was landing in the later rounds: shots that visibly busted up Maia’s face. They spent literal minutes talking about the size of Maia’s shoulders like dorm room stoners watching The Matrix for the first time. For what purpose? To talk up Maia’s strength? A quick observation following the walkout would suffice.
Now, do I think Shevchenko looked great? Not necessarily. Even weighing her performance against the low expectations of Maia’s threat level, things definitely seemed ‘off’. Valentina seemed to sometimes force the action. Those lead left hands, and bodylock takedowns have always been a part of her wheelhouse. Even the oddly-timed takedowns, where she seems to ignore the striking momentum that’s been built up, have always been there. But against Maia, Shevchenko seemed a little rushed; like she didn’t have time to figure out Maia’s rhythm, nor was she interested. Still, what does that change?
I think I know what it is. In MMA, dominance tends to be aesthetic more than temporal. The more dominant you are, the more dominant you should look. Khabib Nurmagomedov didn’t need to defend his title long for people to consider him one of the greats. The aesthetic of his drowning top control is his legacy, and that’s plenty. Conversely, I think this might explain why Georges St-Pierre was criticized for so long: he never made it look easy. I’m not even sure fans gave him his official GOAT creds until he became a two-division champion.
But you don’t have to look great, all the time, to dominate or to be dominant. That’s a silly expectation to have of our champions. It betrays just how significant their accomplishment is: to become champions, and to routinely deny those who would sacrifice everything to replace them in order to stay champions. Let’s be real. Shevchenko dropped one round. Out of how many over the last three years? She’s still the woman to beat at flyweight. After all, what does it say about Shevchenko’s dominance that losing one round would be such a big deal?