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Valentina Shevchenko won’t set goals for title reign, because pressure to meet them is how most champions ‘break’

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Few people were surprised when Valentina Shevchenko opened as a heavy favorite to defeat Jessica Eye and defend her UFC flyweight strap on June 8th at UFC 238.

Shevchenko is one of the top pound-for-pound female fighters in the sport and was widely considered to be the best 125-pounder on the planet even before she captured the UFC title last December with a rout of Joanna Jedrzejczyk, having been previously listed as a historically large favorite to dethrone then-champion Nicco Montano at UFC 228 before Montano was stripped of her flyweight belt.

Considering her impressive résumé and the unsettled state of a UFC women’s flyweight division still very much in its infancy, it’s likely that Shevchenko will be a sizeable betting favorite in each of her next several title defenses as long as things go well for her against Eye at UFC 238. Regardless of whether those future defenses come against Liz Carmouche, Joanne Calderwood, or some other flyweight, the majority of the MMA fanbase will expect Shevchenko to emerge victorious and with the belt still strapped around her waist.

But the fight game is also a volatile beast — and those sort of extravagant expectations have shown an ability to play tricks on champions in positions like Shevchenko’s in the past.

So how does “Bullet” handle it all? Do the outside expectations that no opponent in the division is a match for her mess with her mentally in the lead-up to a fight like UFC 238, where she will once again be a heavy favorite to succeed?

“It’s good, yeah, but I’m not expecting things like this, because flyweight is — UFC just created this weight class, and you could see that now [there are] a lot of strong female fighters in this weight class,” Shevchenko explained recently on The MMA Hour. “A lot of fighters, they move from 135, and a lot of girls move up from 115.

“It’s going to be the hardest weight division among all girls in the UFC, and it will be a more exciting weight class. I just am who I am because I’m training a lot. It’s not because of something else. No, it’s just that I know what exactly I have to do beat my opponent, and this is where I am — I was dedicated all my life to martial arts. I’ve been training since five years old. Already, 26 years, I’m training every day. And this is why I’m here, this is why everybody thinks [about me] like this. And, for sure, I will continue to do the same, to keep the same [dedication] for the people, but at the same time entertain all my fans and show just beautiful and very good fights in all my fights.

“This is what I want: To fight, to perform as good as I can, and enjoy my life.”

To that end, Shevchenko, 31, is finally set to embark on the title reign that eluded her at 135 pounds.

A decorated Muay Thai fighter, Shevchenko twice lost to two-division champion Amanda Nunes back in her bantamweight days, the latter instance of which came in a controversial split decision loss at UFC 215 that is still debated to this day. Her UFC résumé outside of those two setbacks is flawless: A 5-0 Octagon record that includes wins over respected names like Jedrzejczyk, former UFC titleholder Holly Holm, TUF 18 winner Julianna Pena, and former Strikeforce titleholder Sarah Kaufman.

Shevchenko has pledged to be as active of a champion as the UFC will allow her to be, and there are no shortage of women at 125 pounds who would jump at the chance to challenge her. But while many past UFC beltholders have elected to lay out goals and benchmarks they hope to accomplish and surpass during their time on the throne — breaking the record for most consecutive title defenses is a common one, both in a divisional sense but also the all-time mark held by Demetrious Johnson — Shevchenko is choosing to buck that trend.

Instead, she simply hopes to carve out her own legacy organically, and that won’t include setting any specific goals Shevchenko will then feel pressured to meet during her run.

“I don’t want to put any [expectations] for me, any goals for me, because I’m not like this,” Shevchenko explained. “It’s so, like, ‘Everyone, okay, I have to put a goal for me and I have to reach it.’ I do my best. I try to be the best in everything that I’m doing. But of course the No. 1 [goal for me] is to win the fight, and it doesn’t matter how many times I do it. I’m going to do it every time. Every single time when I go into the cage, I’m going to win the fight, because this is my mindset.

“Of course I want to do the maximum [that] I can, but I don’t like to put the goals [out there], to put the numbers [on it] or something like this, because if you set up this, it’s already in your head. And if you can’t reach it, your mind starts to break, and you have all kinds of troubles and problems. Not physically, but mentally. And this is usually the most [common reason] why people, they are broken. Not because of the body, because of, like, physical issues. No, it’s because of mental issues. And I don’t want to put [myself] in this situation.

“I just want to be No. 1 in everything that I’m doing, and of course I want to defend my belt as much as I can. But it doesn’t matter [if] I’m not going to do something else [related to those goals] on my way, because if the opportunity shows up, you just have to take them. And we’ll see what kind of opportunities will show up on my way as a champion of the UFC.”