At UFC 261, Valentina Shevchenko was supposed to face the toughest test of her flyweight career – a bout with former strawweight champion Jessica Andrade. Though she won her title a weight class below 125 pounds, Andrade had a successful career up two weight classes at 135 pounds and had made a scintillating flyweight debut last year, knocking out top contender Katlyn Chookagian in the first round. The general idea coming into this bout was that though Shevchenko was favored, Andrade presented the kind of physically imposing challenge that could trouble the champion. They could not have been more wrong.
On Saturday night, Shevchenko bulldozed right through Andrade in arguably the most impressive performance of her career. In 8 minutes and 13 seconds of fight time, Shevchenko landed 32 of her 39 significant strikes, went 7 for 7 on takedowns, and allowed Andrade to only land 10 significant strikes in return. To call it a demolition would be an insult to Shevchenko. Controlled detonations don’t take down buildings half as effectively as Shevchenko did to Andrade on Saturday. Finally, after one of her many takedowns, Shevchenko stepped into top crucifix and pummeled Andrade with punches and elbows until referee Dan Miragliotta had no choice but to intervene. All told, it took Shevchenko less than two rounds to dismantle her greatest threat.
The performance was made all the more impressive by context surrounding the bout. After (gasp!) actually losing a round to Jennifer Maia in November in a fight she went on to win with clear-cut 49-46 scores across the board, there were the beginnings of rumblings that maybe the great “Bullet” actually was fallible. Those rumblings were put down emphatically on Saturday, and in true Shevchenko fashion, she danced on their grave after the win, telling all her future opponents “don’t waste your time” trying to determine her weaknesses, because she doesn’t have any. After Saturday, it’s hard to argue with the champ’s assessment.
Of course, performances that spectacular also create their own set of issues. Shevchenko has now defeated the first, second, fourth, and eighth-ranked contenders in her division, as well as the second-ranked strawweight in the world, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and she has been practically flawless in doing so. The next most obvious contender for her would be the winner of the Lauren Murphy vs. Joanne Calderwood fight in June, and to believe either would have a realistic shot at beating Shevchenko is a tough sell. They simply aren’t as good as Shevchenko in any category. Does the winner of that fight deserve the right to have that fact proven to them emphatically over 25 minutes or less? Yes, they do. But the fans of the sport also deserve something. They deserve to see competitive bouts, not perfunctory title challenges with -2000 favorites. And at this point, the only way to give Shevchenko a competitive bout is to either have Lauren Murphy and Joanne Calderwood fight her at the same time, or to bite the bullet and run back the third fight with bantamweight and featherweight champion Amanda Nunes.
Talk of a third fight between Nunes and Shevchenko has been seemingly ever-present since Shevchenko dropped to 125 and claimed the title, and with good reason: both women have proven to be unbeatable for anyone else. In their two previous fights, Shevchenko gave Nunes substantially more problems than anyone else has since Nunes began her tear through the sport, even winning one judge’s scorecard in their 2017 bantamweight title fight. Similarly, Nunes is the only person to have beaten Shevchenko in the UFC, and though she got her hand raised twice, both times it was tough sledding and that’s why they have to fight again, because with it we are wasting the two greatest female fighters ever.
One of the fundamental appeals of fighting is the emotional struggle and subsequent transcendence or downfall of human beings pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. We love watching people reckon with their own limitations in real time, with high stakes, and we love to see them overcome that adversity, or lay bare their souls in the effort regardless. But for Shevchenko and Nunes, that’s not on the table unless they face each other, because there is no adversity standing across the cage from them – just a sacrificial lamb. The two greatest female fighters ever have spent years honing their craft to become finely tuned killing machines, and the best we can offer them is Lauren Murphy and Julianna Peña? That’s like using a bazooka to go deer hunting.
It’s easy to understand the reticence to book a third contest when Nunes already won the first two and neither was tremendously exciting. But at this point, it has to be what comes next, because anything else that gets booked (after Nunes dispatches Peña) is just a showcase. Neither fans nor fighters are in this sport for showcases – they’re in it for a fight, and right now, the only way either Nunes or Shevchenko are getting a real fight is against one another.
UFC 261 Quotes
“Extra shots? What do you mean? Those extra shots? The ref didn’t pull me off yet. I keep going until the ref pulls me off. Those were super necessary.” - Kamaru Usman twisting the knife on Jorge Masvidal.
“All the props to him in the world. He caught me by surprise. He’s got my number, man. Nothing I can say but he won this fair and square and God bless him.” - Jorge Masvidal just minutes after getting knocked out.
“I am the best.” - Rose Namajunas after having the belt wrapped around her waist.
“Come get some.” - Valentina Shevchenko to the rest of the flyweights, upon prompting from Joe Rogan.
“I hope he recovers and hey, whatever rank I am in the future, if he gets well, I owe him this fight. I hope he can come back from it.” - Uriah Hall after Chris Weidman was stretchered out of the octagon.
“F*** Jake Paul!” - The fans in attendance chanting their disdain for combat sports’ biggest heel.
Kamaru Usman: The “Usman is the GOAT” calls that have started to ring out are still a bit premature, but you cannot deny that “The Nigerian Nightmare” is continuing to build a case for just that. He’s still got some ground to cover to catch Georges St-Pierre, but he’s getting there.
Rose Namajunas: Namajunas became the first woman to ever reclaim a UFC title, and she did so in style, knocking out Weili Zhang emphatically. A triumphant return to form for the new champion.
Valentina Shevchenko: In what was widely considered to be the toughest contender at 125, Shevchenko blew the bricks off of Jessica Andrade. She’s so far beyond her peers at this point, she will never be less than a -700 favorite again.
Randy Brown: Brown took a durable, wily veteran and ran through him with ease. A perfect rebound performance from Brown.
Danaa Batgerel: On the early prelims, Batgerel had a sensational KO that looked poised to win him some bonus coin. Unfortunately for him, the three title fights delivered the goods but Batgerel still added something substantial to the highlight reel.
Jorge Masvidal: Masvidal had a lot of soundbites coming into this fight about how Usman wasn’t “manly enough” to hurt him. Oops.
Weili Zhang: Though she wasn’t a huge favorite, Zhang was expected to defend her belt and instead got knocked out inside of 90 seconds and probably isn’t getting an immediate rematch.
Jessica Andrade: Andrade was expected to lose but it wasn’t supposed to go like that. Andrade was bulldozed in a fashion we’ve rarely seen and that sets her pretty far back from another flyweight title shot.
Chris Weidman: While the fight itself was too short to be indicative of much, the horrific ending has left serious concerns about Weidman’s future in the sport.
Two key things stick out from UFC 261, and for the first time in a long time, one of them isn’t judging. Was the scoring in the Dwight Grant-Stefan Sekulic fight questionable? Sure, but that was far from the biggest issue on the card.
First and foremost, the UFC and Jacksonville’s decision to allow full fan attendance, while having no mask mandate and a health questionnaire as the only requirement for entry – other than the cost of the ticket, obviously – remains a baffling decision, and the crowd who were admittedly fun to have back, but almost entirely without masks, was just not a good scene.
Secondly, why is Joe Rogan interviewing the losing fighters again? It was Rogan who, rightly, pushed for no longer interviewing fighters who just got concussed. But on Saturday, he did it for both the main and co-main event. I’m willing to afford him some leeway with Jessica Andrade given that she seemed fine, and even Masvidal appeared to have his wits about him, but asking Weili pointedly about her reaction to the stoppage when she’s clearly still a little fuzzy and doing it all through a translator was horrible form.
Rogan also conducted a standing interview with Jimmy Crute, who had one functional ankle. Again, we’ve seen better from JR.
Fights to Make
Kamaru Usman vs. the winner of Leon Edwards-Nate Diaz: There are a number of options for Usman to defend against next, but the most obvious one would be the winner here. Edwards clearly deserves a shot, and if Diaz pulls off an upset, that’s a money matchup for the champ.
Jorge Masvidal vs. Nick Diaz: I remain skeptical that Nick Diaz will ever fight again, but if what Dana White is saying is true, the Masvidal fight is undeniably the right one to make as it’s two fan favorites and carries on the Masvidal-Diaz rivalry.
Rose Namajunas vs. the winner of Yan Xiaonan-Carla Esparza fight: Both women are on big win streaks and they are the third and fourth ranked fighters respectively. If Yan wins, she affords the UFC another shot at a Chinese champion, and if Esparza wins, there’s a built in narrative in a Namajunas-Esparza rematch.
Weili Zhang vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk: The UFC would have been fine to run back the Fight of the Year candidate between Weili and Jedrzejczyk immediately but with Namajunas now the champion, and having a clear contender match on the horizon, the UFC should go ahead and pull the trigger on that.
Valentina Shevchenko vs. Amanda Nunes: As outlined above.
Jessica Andrade vs. loser of Katlyn Chookagian-Viviane Araujo: Andrade needs a few wins to get back in the title picture so no need to rush her back in against top contenders. Let her put in some work in the division.
Uriah Hall vs. Paulo Costa II: Since losing to Costa in 2018, Hall has put together four wins and the UFC is looking for a quick turnaround for him, given how this one went. Costa had to pull out of his recent fight against Robert Whittaker so he’s probably the most ready to battle again soon.
Anthony Smith vs. Magomed Ankalaev: Smith got the win, but it definitely didn’t leave anyone clamoring for a title shot soon. “Lionheart” needs to work his way back up the ladder and Ankalaev is in search of his first big name.
Randy Brown vs. Li Jingliang: Brown has been a fringe top-15 guy for awhile now and he deserves another shot to break into the rankings. “The Leech” would present a fun, difficult matchup for “Rude Boy”.
Final Thoughts and Reflections
- I know the “BMF” title was a one-time thing, but we should go ahead and hand that over to the champion. He didn’t deserve it after the foot stomp heavy UFC 251 fight but definitely deserves it now. No one has done anything remotely like that to Masvidal in over a decade.
- Go rewatch the right hand from Usman that floors Masvidal. He steps so far through it that his shoulder is almost parallel to Masvidal’s chin. Picture perfect and the current front-runner for KO of the year.
- Usman isn’t the WW GOAT yet, and he’s still a decent way off, but he’s probably got the No. 2 spot locked up now with many years left in his career.
- Smart of Rose Namajunas to be friends with Valentina Shevchenko. Now the fans will never call for her to move up and fight her.
- The less said about Chris Weidman’s injury, the better but it is practically unbelievable that the man who ended the reign of Anderson Silva and then shattered Silva’s leg, had an almost identical thing happen to him against a man once dubbed “The Next Anderson Silva.” It’s so improbable that you literally couldn’t put it in a movie.
- Uriah Hall literally could not have handled that situation better. Note perfect post-fight interview from Hall.
- Anthony Smith vs. Jimmy Crute was fun as hell while it lasted with both men choosing to not defend anything. And that Crute won the exchanges after his foot stopped working is pretty remarkable.
- So we’re clear, there is no rule that says you have to have a functional ankle to fight. They should have let him go out there and pull guard/butt scoot his way through the rest of the fight.
- Remember when Ben Askren was selling a fight with “Marty from Nebraska”? Man, that one would not have gone well for him.
- You don’t have to like him but you have to acknowledge that Jake Paul is playing MMA fighters and fans like a fiddle. He’s the most hated man in the sport and he doesn’t even compete in the sport. A+ heel work from Logan’s brother.