It’s rare, in this sport, that the cliche about good things coming for those who wait ever actually applies.
You can build a head of steam in your division, and then all it takes is a freak fall in a training session and all of a sudden you’re set back a year.
You can avoid the pitfalls in the gym, but have misfortune befall your potential opponent, and next thing you know, the fight you’ve focused on for the past couple months is off and you’re back at square one anyway.
Or you can have everything go right, win your fights, get yourself in contention, but you never get the fight that could actually put you over the top, because you refuse to make a spectacle of yourself on social media and degrade yourself to get attention. Ask Raphael Assuncao some time about getting that big fight after doing it all right in the cage.
Oh, and even if fate and timing and circumstance all come together and your one of the chosen few who get to the top of the mountain, things can still go sideways. Welterweight champion Tyron Woodley does everything we profess to love about this sport, but just the other day, the man with the most vested interested in making Woodley as big a star as possible, UFC president Dana White, was out questioning whether Woodley, who fought four times in 12 months, ever wants to fight.
The landmines are endless in this sport.
Which only served to make Valentina Shevchenko’s coronation on Saturday night all the more satisfying.
Shevchenko has had more than her fair share of cosmic garbage flung in her direction by this sport, absolutely none of which was her fault. Shevchenko was supposed to fight Amanda Nunes for the bantamweight belt at UFC 213, but Nunes pulled out the morning of the fight. The match was rescheduled for UFC 215, which Nunes won via a hotly contested split decision (I was cageside for this and scored it for Nunes, but it was a narrow a margin as you can get).
Shevchenko went to flyweight when the division opened up, and had to sit through a system of crowning a champion through The Ultimate Fighter which produced perhaps the least worthy world champion in UFC history (At least the strawweight TUF season crowned the reigning Invicta champion in Carla Esparza). Then Nicco Montaño, failed to make the scale for the weigh-in for their UFC 228 bout, again putting Shevchenko in limbo.
Then there was a final wrinkle before last night’s UFC 231 matchup with former strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, as the UFC tried to make a Shevchenko fight with Sijara Eubanks which no one was asking for before finalizing last night’s matchup.
After all that, though, after a year and a half of false starts, it finally came together for Shevchenko in a masterful performance. Shevchenko dominated a game opponent from bell to bell, outgrappling her smaller foe, never letting Jedrzejczyk get into her comfortable point-fighting rhythm, and saving enough energy to not only ward off any ideas Jedrzejczyk had about a last-minute comeback, but also to do some of her trademark dance moves after fighting for 25 minutes.
This was one of the nastier weeks in recent UFC history, as the company showed a stunning tone-deafness in not only putting convicted woman-beater Greg Hardy on the same card as a recent victim of domestic violence in Rachael Ostovich, then doubling down on their decision when it was exposed to widespread ridicule.
Then you see a performance like Valentina Shevchenko, a world traveler, a multiglot, a class act and a credit to the sport. You see how gracefully you performed in the face of all the factors which were out of her control, and how she shined in her finest moment.
And then you remember why you were attracted to this sport in the first place, and why you continue to watch. There might seem to be an endless barrage of nonsense, but there’s still room for people like Valentina Shevchenko.
UFC 231 Quotes
“Khabib is another undefeated fighter,” Holloway said. “I got this niche, I guess. I just gave an undefeated fighter his first loss. So maybe that one might excite me the most. We were supposed to have that one. So we’ll see what happens. I don’t know. I ain’t picky. Feed me. They all can get it.” — Max Holloway ponders his future plans
“I still have unfinished business with my opponent at bantamweight (Nunes). I know exactly I never lost that fight, and she knows that she was not the winner of that fight. And we’ll see, we’ll see. Just waiting for my sister, when she climbs up to No. 1.” — Shevchenko ponders her future plans
“I love her, she’s such a great fighter and such a good person,” White said. “I actually consider her a friend. I want her to take some time off, go spend some time with her family and then we’ll get together and talk about it. But I’d like to see her stay at [115 pounds]. “ — White on what is next for Jedrzejczyk
Up: Max Holloway What’s left to be said about Holloway’s superlative performance against Brian Ortega which hasn’t already been said? That wasn’t just any old opponent Holloway defeated last night. That was Brian Ortega. Undefeated Brian Ortega. The only man ever to finish Frankie Edgar. The guy capable of pulling submissions out of nowhere. What we saw at UFC 231 is what Holloway is capable of doing after being out of the cage for a year, after weathering a series of health concerns. We also saw him weather adversity like he’s never been subjected before in the Octagon, and he took Ortega’s best shots in the third round and then resumed the show as if nothing happened. The only question left now is whether Holloway is the sport’s best pound-for-pound fighter. If he’s not No. 1, he is not very far off.
Hold: Brian Ortega Some will look at last night’s results and decide that Ortega isn’t what he’s cracked up to be. There’s a word for those people: Morons. Like Daniel Cormier going through the light heavyweight division just to find Jon Jones -- or Holloway rising through the featherweight ranks in Conor McGregor’s shadow -- Ortega is a superb, world-class talent who just happens to share his class with one of the world’s very best. Ortega adjusted after the first two rounds, gave Holloway a real run for his money in the third, and then, for all the punishment he took in round four, he was never dropped, never stopped looking for an opening to try to get the match to the floor and go for a submission, and it took the doctor waving things off for the fight to end. Now, the latter might not bode well for Ortega’s long-term health, but never doubt that this product of one of Los Angeles’ roughest hoods as an absolute warrior.
Up: Thiago Santos There are examples all over the sport these days of the good things that can come to fighters who stop draining themselves of ridiculous amounts of weight and instead move up a class. The upcoming middleweight title fight between Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum is one such case on both sides of the bill. We can add Thiago Santos to this list, too. Santos was a heavy hitter at middleweight, but one who clearly wasn’t competing on a full tank. Now he’s fighting at light heavyweight, and is 2-0 with a pair of knockouts after finishing veteran Jimi Manuwa in a compelling brawl. Santos has some holes in his game which could catch up to him eventually, but until then, his fights are a must-watch in a division needing fresh blood and it will be fun to see how far he can go.
Down: Joanna Jedrzejczyk On one hand, you don’t want to get too down on the former strawweight champion. She and Shevchenko were fighting two weight classes apart until recently, and it showed in the new flyweight champion’s size and strength advantage. On the other hand, she’s now lost three of her past four fights, and while they’ve all been to champions (two losses to Rose Namajunas rounding things out), Jedrzejczyk simply hasn’t shown the adjustments to her game which are going to be necessary if she’s going to again wear gold. A move back to strawweight is probably in her best interest, but a rethink of her approach should be on the agenda either way.
Up: Gunnar Nelson I can’t lie, I kind of forgot how good Gunnar Nelson is at his best. The only time we had seen the stoic jiu-jitsu ace over the past nearly two years was in a fast knockout loss to Santiago Ponzinibbio. But not only did Nelson not show any rust in his return, but he also showed remarkable poise against Alex Oliveira. Oliveira seemed determine to exploit every grey area in the rules, from questionable strikes to blatant fence grabs. And Nelson weathered the storm when Oliveira turned things in his favor in the first round. The end result was that Nelson proved he’s still lethal on the floor, both in dishing out the ground and pound -- Oliveira’s cut was at Yves Edwards at UFC 61/Joe Stevenson at UFC 80 levels -- and in administering his 13th career submission finish. Yeah, I kind of forgot about Nelson, but the welterweight division better take notice.
Per our friends at MMADecisions.com, all of Benoit Roussel’s judging work at major events has come in Ontario and Quebec. Perhaps he should be sent back to smaller shows for a little more practice. Roussel was the dissenting voice in three straight split decisions on Saturday night. Jessica Eye’s win over Katlyn Chookigian, okay, that was three 29-28s and you could make a case for Chookigian. But the 29-28 card in favor of Kyle Bochniak over Hakeem Dawodu was as ridiculous as the notion of the Toronto Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup (the other two judges correctly had it at 30-27 Dawodu). At least Roussel didn’t screw up Shevchenko-Jedrzejczyk, getting the same 49-46 as his colleagues. But this is the first we’ve seen from Roussel at a major event in three years and hopefully it will be at least as long before we see him again.
I’m as big a fan of Jon Anik and Paul Felder as anyone (Joe Rogan is all over the map), but the entire crew seemed a bit off during the women’s flyweight title fight. As a one-sided Shevchenko victory unfolded, the crew tripped over themselves to praise Jedrzejczyk and make the bout appear far closer than it actually was. I don’t want to go overboard here, because they’re really good at what they do, but this was a rare misfire by some real pros.
Fight I’d like to see next: Max Holloway vs. Tony Ferguson
Yes, I know, there are plenty of reasons not to make this fight from divisional perspectives. Ferguson vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov would be one hell of a memorable fight, too. So would Holloway vs. Khabib. And a Holloway-Conor McGregor rematch would be a hell of a spectacle.
But from a pure sport perspective? I can scarcely think of a better next-level style matchup than Holloway and Ferguson. Crazy angles. Crazy footwork. Offense invented out of thin air. Endless gas tanks. Yes, please.