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Alexa Grasso leads a fresh pack of potential challengers for Valentina Shevchenko

Fighters to keep an eye on in the UFC’s women’s flyweight division.

Valentina Shevchenko won the vacant UFC women’s flyweight title in December 2018. She has defended that title six times. The UFC has targeted the 34-year-old champ for a title defense against the No. 4 ranked Taila Santos at UFC 275. Santos, who is 28, is 19-1 overall and 4-1 in the UFC with victories in her past four outings. She earned her title shot with a November submission win over Joanne Wood. If Shevchenko defeats Santos for her seventh title defense, there are several up-and-coming fighters who look like they could become future title challengers.

When Alexa Grasso debuted with the UFC, she was 8-0 and heavily hyped, perhaps too heavily hyped. Grasso, who was a 23-year-old strawweight, impressed in her first fight under the promotional banner, defeating Heather Jo Clark via unanimous decision. The UFC, perhaps wanting to make Grasso, who was born in Guadalajara, a focus of the promotion in Mexico, pushed her into a co-main event on a Texas card in her next outing. Things did not go well in that fight and Grasso, who was a -315 favorite, lost a decision to Felice Herrig, who entered the bout as a +245 underdog.

Grasso was up and down over her next four fights, going 2-2, beating both Randa Markos and Karolina Kowalkiewicz by decision, but losing to Tatiana Suarez (submission) and former champ Carla Esparza by decision.

With a 3-3 record in the UFC, Grasso was unranked when she moved up to flyweight to face the No. 14 ranked Ji Yeon Kim in August 2020. Grasso won that fight by decision. Her next outing came in February 2021 when she faced No. 10 ranked Maycee Barber. Grasso, who was No. 15 in the division entering that contest, won that contest via decision.

After the Barber win, UFC president Dana White hinted that perhaps the UFC had expected too much of the younger version of Grasso.

“We thought she was going to be the Ronda Rousey of Mexico, you know what I mean? She had a couple of speed bumps in her career but boy she’s on point now,” said White. “Her punching is crisp and clean, and the distance that she kept, she couldn’t look any more perfect tonight going against an absolute savage (in Barber).”

When Grasso stepped into the Octagon at UFC Columbus, she was 28 and had moved up to the No. 9 ranking in the division. Her opponent on that night was No. 7 ranked Joanne Wood, who the UFC had once booked to fight for the UFC women’s flyweight crown.

Grasso, who has mostly been touted for her striking, earned the first stoppage win of her UFC career — and first career submission victory — forcing Wood to tap to a rear-naked choke in the first round.

When the UFC updated its official rankings following the Columbus card, Grasso rose to the No. 5 spot, where she finds herself behind Jessica Andrade, Katlyn Chookagian, Lauren Murphy and Santos.

When asked if she thought her three consecutive wins were enough to get here a title shot, Grasso said, “I hope so, because I see girls in my division usually have four wins in a row. Let’s do this. I’ll be ready for whatever the UFC brings to me because I work so hard.”

Before Grasso’s win in Columbus, another flyweight earned a noteworthy victory on the prelims of the Columbus card. That fighter was Manon Fiorot. The 32-year-old opened her UFC career with two second-round TKO wins. Fiorot went the distance in her next outing, earning a decision win over Mayra Bueno Silva.

Fiorot entered the octagon in Columbus as the No. 13 ranked flyweight. She was a massive -475 favorite over former title challenger Jennifer Maia, who checked in at No. 4 in the division and as a +350 underdog.

Fiorot swept Maia on the scorecards, earning 30-27 nods from each of three judges.

I liked what I saw from Fiorot in her win over Silva, but I also noted, “Fiorot needs to work on mixing up her striking choices and timing if she wants to avoid getting countered when she faces top-level competition. Fiorot is good, but she is a work in progress.”

She did better with her striking against Maia, but she relies a great deal on her kicks, which could be an issue for her against opponents who can time those kicks for takedowns. With that being said, Fiorot used her jab effectively and she is becoming a more complete fighter as she progresses through the ranks of the flyweight division.

Fiorot’s win over Maia moved her a whopping six spots up the rankings to No. 7, where she is still one spot below Maia, who fell to the No. 6 position.

Fresh blood is welcome in the flyweight division. Of the top seven fighters in the women’s 125-pound weight class, Shevchenko has victories over four of those women (Andrade, Chookagian, Maia and Murphy.) Don’t be surprised to see Grasso and Fiorot, if they can pick up another win or two, booked to fight for the title in the near future.

As for other fighters on the rise in the division, there is No. 13 ranked Casey O’Neill and No. 15 ranked Erin Blanchfield.

The 24-year-old O’Neill is 9-0 (4-0 UFC) and coming off a decision win over Roxanne Modafferi. O’Neill impressed in that win, using high striking output — she landed 230 of 390 total strikes — and connected on 58 percent of her significant strikes, to outclass Modafferi in that contest.

Blanchfield, who is younger than O’Neill by two years, is 2-0 in the UFC and 8-1 overall. She is coming off a decision win over Miranda Maverick at UFC 269. Blanchfield was an underdog in that matchup, a scrap she dominated via her grappling skills. The young fighter scored on seven of eight takedown attempts and had 12 minutes of control time in the 15-minute contest while landing 23 of 27 significant ground strike attempts.

The UFC has O’Neill booked opposite former title challenger and No. 12 ranked contender Jessica Eye at UFC 276. Blanchfield does not have a fight scheduled.

It’s always fascinating to see what happens in a weight division when fighters have been solely focused on a single dominant champion for most of their careers. The women who are making their way up the UFC’s flyweight rankings in 2022 are in that position with Shevchenko. When a situation like this arises — think Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva, Demetrious Johnson and Jon Jones — things can get very interesting.