2020 was a wild year for MMA, that feels like it lasted a lifetime. With all the action that took place over the year, it’s hard to remember what took place. This series looks to help out with that, providing an overview on what happened in each weight class, and a look at what we can expect to come in 2021.
Year in Review
For the women’s flyweight division, 2020 was a nuts-and-bolts kind of year. There were no enormously exciting highlights or End of Year awards to be had, just a year of perfectly solid performances up and down the rankings and the steady churn of a healthy division creating new contenders and storylines.
UFC champion Valentina Shevchenko defended her belt twice in 2020, both times against new challengers to the throne. Beyond Shevchenko, the rest of the division also kept moving forward with former strawweight champion Jessica Andrade joining the division and immediately staking a claim for a title shot by beating No. 2-ranked flyweight Katlyn Chookagian. Then there’s Lauren Murphy who had a sensational year, stringing together three wins (and a lovely title shot plea) to announce herself as a bona fide contender.
As far as outside of the UFC goes, arguably no division had a more impressive year. Bellator’s flyweight division in particular got more interesting as it saw a new champion crowned when Juliana Velasquez took the belt off Ilima-Lei Macfarlane. The division also added Invicta FC champion Vanessa Porto to their roster and featured the promotional debut of Liz Carmouche, still undoubtedly one of the best flyweights on Earth.
It feels harsh to say given that it was only one performance, but Bellator champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane losing her title is a tough pill to swallow, both for Macfarlane and Bellator. Having held the belt since 2017, Macfarlane was a homegrown star for Bellator, one the promotion was very much behind. Her loss to Juliana Velasquez, while not unexpected, was a definite setback for both her and the promotion and given the tenor of their fight, it’s unlikely Macfarlane can reclaim the title, meaning one of Bellator’s best stars is now just an also-ran in the division.
It’s fair to say that Maycee Barber is one of the most hyped prospects in women’s MMA at the moment (and even if you don’t say so, she certainly will). At only 22 years old, Barber has already been in the UFC for two years and “The Future” has made no bones about her aspirations, repeatedly saying she plans to be the youngest champion in UFC history, and while that goal is technically still possible (Barber would need to win the title by January 16, 2022 to break Jon Jones’ record) it no longer looks remotely plausible (such that it ever did).
In January, Barber became one of the biggest favorites in UFC history to lose when she was beaten by Roxanne Modafferi at UFC 246. The loss, to put it bluntly, was bad. Modafferi is one of the most experienced veterans in the entire sport but if your aim is to be the youngest champion ever, you can’t lose to her at this stage of her career.
However, if the loss was bad, her and her team’s reaction to it was substantially worse. After the loss, Barber’s father and coach entirely discredited Modafferi’s win, blaming it on an ACL tear suffered during the bout and in no way reflecting on the other factors that played into her loss, namely that she was soundly out-grappled for 15 minutes. Losing to a veteran after suffering an injury is a pretty standard “prospect loss” that most people could write off. But losing in a reasonable manner and then rejecting that loss entirely is both an ugly look and doesn’t portend the kind of self-reflection required to make the necessary adjustments moving forward.
The MVP of a division is not just a question of “Who is the best fighter in the division?” Instead, it looks at who provided the most entertainment in the division over the course of the year, win or lose.
Though the flyweight division as a whole had an excellent year, there actually weren’t that many standout fighters in 2020. Most women only fought once or twice and few put together a resume that demands to be watched. The exception to the rule though is, as always, UFC flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko.
With Khabib Nurmagomedov retired, there is a good argument to be made that Shevchenko is the most dominant fighter in the sport with respect to her peers, and 2020 just kept driving that point home. First, Shevchenko defended her title against top contender Katlyn Chookagian in February, dismantling the No. 1-ranked flyweight with laughable ease. Then she defended her belt again in November, winning a competitive decision over third-ranked Jennifer Maia. The fight was certainly closer than most expected it to be, but the final result was still definitive. Shevchenko won four of the five rounds and never appeared in any danger of losing the bout.
In a year without any Kevin Holland-type runs, two dominant wins in defense of the title is enough to get it done.
Highlights to Watch
Roxanne Modafferi scores major upset over Maycee Barber, UFC 246
Looking Ahead to 2021
As with the strawweight division, the women’s flyweight looks to have a bright 2021 ahead of it. In the UFC, champion Valentina Shevchenko remains one of the most dominant fighters in the sport, however her lackluster performance against Jennifer Maia gave hope to the crop of rising contenders, chief among them, former strawweight champion Jessica Andrade. Though nothing is official, Andrade is the frontrunner to receive the next flyweight title shot, which is about the biggest fight Shevchenko can get right now, other than a trilogy bout with Amanda Nunes.
Outside of the UFC, things should be even better. Bellator has a new champion and while losing one of their most marketable fighters as a belt-holder certainly hurts, it set the table for a big rematch should Ilima-Lei Macfarlane get another win somewhere. Beyond that Bellator has a number of rising contenders in the ranks, including divisional stalwart Liz Carmouche, who should be first up for new champion Juliana Velasquez (unless Bellator opts for a Grand Prix). Then to cap it all off, Invicta will once again be looking to crown a new champion, following Vanessa Porto’s exit in September to sign with Bellator. All in all, there should be a lot of action for the flyweights this year.