After another utterly dominant defense of her UFC women’s flyweight championship against Lauren Murphy this past Saturday night at UFC 266, Valentina Shevchenko reaffirmed her position as one of the best fighters in the sport. She did it with an easy aplomb, dummying and nullifying Murphy in every way en route to a perfunctory fourth-round stoppage. Her wholesale technical and athletic domination was another demonstration that she isn’t just one of MMA’s most complete fighters, but the reaction to her win was a reminder that she is what I like to call “complete MMA.”
When you see phrases like “100 percent MMA,” “totally MMA,” or “complete MMA” used online, it’s usually to describe the peculiarities and bizarre “otherness” of an individual or event, for better or for worse. To use recent examples, Jon Jones being inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame ahead of UFC 266, only to be arrested for the umpteenth time just hours later on charges of misdemeanor battery domestic violence and tampering with a vehicle? Complete MMA. Alexander Volkanovski defending his UFC featherweight title in a thrilling bout with Brian Ortega, only for former champs and social media antagonists Henry Cejudo and Conor McGregor to call him out in ham-fisted, goofy fashion to try to steal a sliver of his spotlight? Complete MMA.
But being completely MMA need not always involve any kind of antisocial behavior. In fact, in many ways, Shevchenko’s complete MMA status is of a positive variety. First of all, as aforementioned, one component of this is that she is truly a consummate fighter, whose massive success in the cage is a function of both technique and athleticism — from the ambidextrous eight-point striking, sturdy wrestling and intelligent grappling designed to highlight her excellent positional control and ground-and-pound. In terms of her dominance, she has already racked up six consecutive successful UFC title defenses. Depending on how you feel about the reigns of Jose Aldo and Ronda Rousey, whose respective World Extreme Cagefighting and Strikeforce titles transferred into the UFC, she is, at worst, in seventh place in that regard, and if you consider strictly only UFC title defenses, she is now tied with Rousey. That puts her ahead of the likes of Matt Hughes, Chuck Liddell, and Tito Ortiz, among others. And frankly, at 125 pounds, that streak seems unlikely to be unbroken soon. More on that shortly.
But, we all know that she is an exemplar of the universal fighter we hope all MMA fighters aspire to in 2021. What makes Shevchenko truly “complete MMA” is all the wacky extraneous things that go with her personality, persona and perception. For a start, we all identify her as being from Kyrgyzstan, yet early in her UFC tenure, she would fly a combo Kyrgyz-Peruvian flag to honor the eight years she spent living in Peru, a strange combination of passports you probably wouldn’t get in too many sports other than MMA. This is not to mention her love for the state of Texas and cowboy culture, due to living in the Lone Star State for two-and-a-half years. In years past, when people called heavyweight boxing legend Lennox Lewis “a man of many passports,” it was a pejorative, referring to the fact that no one country or group of people could, or wanted to, claim origin of his greatness, which bred hostility. Yet, when Shevchenko goes out, blisters her opponents, then twirls in enthusiastic Kyrgyz folk dance, and giving polyglot interviews in three or four languages, it is nothing less than a bizarre yet beautiful virtue. No question, complete MMA.
It’s not just that, though. Shevchenko knows how to flex her social media profile in a particular way, too, an aspect that is part and parcel of the modern MMA star, and something the UFC preaches in an almost Kafkaesque fashion. Yes, just over 805,000 Twitter followers compared to MMA stars may not sound outstanding, but why does two-division and pound-for-pound queen Amanda Nunes only have 1.5 million Instagram followers, compared to Shevchenko’s 2.2 million? You may be a rosy-tinted goggle type and think it’s strictly due to inactivity; it’s not. It’s because Shevchenko’s Instagram is a melange of training photos, bikini faux-model posed snaps in far-flung destinations and videos of her shooting firearms. In so many revealing ways, it strips back the layers of the onion and tells us about what magnetizes a certain audience to an individual. If you do a hard scan of Valentina Shevchenko’s social media platforms and the responses to them, it’s the complete MMA blend: hardcore fight fans debating whether or not she would beat pound-for-pound queen Amanda Nunes in a third contest, “horny online” dudes professing marriage to her, and some weird caste of folks either praising her choice of vacation destination or her love of guns. I mean, she already self-glossed her own nickname, “Bullet,” based on that. Absolute, complete MMA.
Based on everything I’ve described, this should make her a larger star. She is a beautiful woman, with nearly unparalleled combat sports success between her MMA and kickboxing careers, after turning pro as a teenager. After her Saturday win over Murphy, she declared she would love to fight for another two decades, until she is 53 years old. While I wouldn’t necessarily advise that, the most crucial part here is that despite the rollercoaster dynamic that came come with fame, success or riches, she purely loves fighting. This is a fighter, whether it means getting aged, losing her mantle, and going on to ONE Championship to do dumb kickboxing matches, is going to to go down throwing hands and legs to the end. Again, this is a complete MMA trait.
The reality is, no one denies that Shevchenko is an incredible fighter by any measure, given her being the second best pound-for-pound woman in the world, due to her two close losses to P4P queen Amanda Nunes. That’s fine. But what comes next is the most unsettling and unfortunate “complete MMA” status obligates.
What hurts is the fact that any savvy onlooker knows there is almost nothing to be gained from Shevchenko continuing in her dominance in process. She has cleaned out the entire UFC division, and that is not to say the company hasn’t cultivated talent. Taila Santos, the winner of Mayra Bueno Silva and Manon Fiorot, or even a prospect bout like Casey O’Neill taking on Valentina’s own sister Antonina isn’t a worthy competitor. But, as we know, there are degrees to this shit. The UFC hasn’t messed up because they haven’t farmed good flyweight women’s talent, it’s that the talent simply isn’t in step with how good the “Bullet” is in her current form.
In MMA, these same fickle fans want to place blame, but this is, in a rare case, not on the UFC. This is just that the company jump-started a division on the back of a talent so skilled that she has exposed the very fact that this has long been MMA’s ultimate bastard weight class. She is the flag bearer — many flags, perhaps — for an entire division, but one that has been slow to develop, and in this moment, absolutely destroyed everyone in her way. Neither Shevchenko, nor the UFC, are to blame for this awkward passage in time.
So this is what we deal with. Is Valentina Shevchenko an all-time great? Yes. Is she either a paragon of technique and dominance, or a simply a master of the arts going through the motions against women who aren’t equipped to deal with her? Both can be true. Is she ever going to fight Juliana Velasquez? We can only hope dreams come true. But we know this is a pipe dream.
This is precisely what I’m saying: when a transcendent and incredible fighter is hopelessly trapped by the die she has been cast into promotionally, how do you evaluate? Even understanding that the MMA audience is inherently fickle, she is caught between ideas of “Oh, she is technically brilliant but I would rather not be bored by her just destroying the JV team,” that’s not a stupid concept. On the same hand, pining for a third bout with Amanda Nunes — a bout she arguably won in the rematch against the best woman in the world — isn’t stupid either. There is no wrong or right answer, and there is nothing more contentious to the MMA audience than that. Yes, that may afford the UFC some promotional ideas, but it doesn’t help the overall perception of what Shevchenko’s accomplishments are.
Shevchenko has some options, many of them positives. But at the end of the day, she is still caught in the grips of simply being too good, too soon, in both a division and sport that doesn’t know how to fully relate to her greatness and appreciate it fully. And nothing could be more complete MMA than that. A complete combat sports athlete whom has dominated at her game, has a wholly unique personality and persona unmatched in her sport, who is a constant source of martial technique on ever level, yet left in a lurch by onlookers judging her by the meager competition she is forced to face? No, that’s complete MMA.