Alexa Grasso has a familiar face ahead of her, but it’s a whole new challenge.
When Grasso fought Valentina Shevchenko six months ago, she was a massive underdog, and when she pulled off a fourth-round submission against the then-flyweight champion it was considered one of the biggest upsets in recent memory. Now, it’s Grasso entering the cage with champion status and though the legendary Shevchenko is again favored, few will be surprised if Grasso beats her again.
In Saturday’s Noche UFC main event, Grasso and Shevchenko are both putting a lot on the line. Grasso has to prove that her win over Shevchenko isn’t a one-time blip and that she’s the one to lead the next wave of UFC flyweight stars, a list that includes Erin Blanchfield, Manon Fiorot, and Natalia Silva. For Shevchenko, this is a chance to prove that age is nothing but a number and that she remains the queen of the 125-pound division, even if—win or lose—greener pastures could lie ahead with a return to bantamweight.
Other challengers might be enduring an unjust wait, but you can’t complain about the UFC giving fans an elite contest—Grasso is No. 2 on MMA Fighting’s Pound-for-Pound list, Shevchenko No. 3—free of a pay-per-view charge. Just fire up that ESPN+ and enjoy.
In other main card action, Jack Della Maddalena looks to bounce back from an underwhelming performance when he fights Kevin Holland in a key welterweight bout, 18-year-old bantamweight prospect Raul Rosas Jr. faces Terrence Mitchell, plus promising Mexican standouts Daniel Zellhuber and Fernando Padilla get their chance to shine against Christos Giagos and Kyle Nelson, respectively.
What: Noche UFC
Where: T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings)
Alexa Grasso (1) vs. Valentina Shevchenko (2)
I saw enough in Alexa Grasso’s win over Valentina Shevchenko to confidently say that she’s *ahem* “Bullet”-proof.
Look, I won’t be surprised at all if we see the best version of Shevchenko on Saturday, she comfortably 50-45s, Grasso and then we all decide that UFC 285 was a cool moment as opposed to a changing of the guard. This is Shevchenko we’re talking about. For the majority of her championship run, she looked either dominant against or, at worst, unbothered by her competition.
That can’t be said about her past two championship fights. Against Taila Santos, whether you agreed with the scores or not, you can’t make a case that Shevchenko looked good in that fight. She actually looked better against Grasso before the challenger capitalized on a wayward spin kick with a beautiful back-take and a savage neck crank. That’s consecutive performances where Shevchenko fell short of her usual standard.
Grasso is the better striker at this stage of their careers. Technique-wise, she’s always had excellent boxing and then you factor in the age gap between them and you can see where Shevchenko is at a disadvantage. Shevchenko has been fighting professionally since she was 15 years old! She turned 35 a few days after her loss to Grasso. This is the fight game. No matter how much you train or how mentally strong you are, you don’t age like wine. The battles add up and Shevchenko has been in plenty of them.
The one glaring question mark for Grasso is whether she can consistently stop Shevchenko’s takedowns. She defended well on the ground, but was still put on her back in two rounds that she lost and she was the beneficiary of a questionable referee standup. If that takedown defense isn’t on point, this is Shevchenko’s fight to lose.
I’m betting she does and I’m betting that Grasso is ready to assert herself as the best flyweight in the world. Assuming she hasn’t already.
Jack Della Maddalena (13) vs. Kevin Holland (T15)
Count me among those who were encouraged by Jack Della Maddalena managing to scrape out a win against Bassil Hafez as opposed to being discouraged by the puzzling strategic decisions he employed against a short-notice opponent. It was far from his best day. We move on.
Even so, I like Kevin Holland’s chances here. His recent win over Michael Chiesa wasn’t exactly the statement performance he was looking for, but that wasn’t his fault. Chiesa didn’t look anything like the top 10 contender he’s been in the past and Holland simply took care of business. We’re still not sure if Holland can stay on his feet against a more steady wrestling attack and that could factor into his fight with Della Maddalena.
More likely, Della Maddalena will be happy to stand and slug with Holland and for good reason. He has easy knockout power, a good chin, and a flair for the dramatic. He’ll relish being in there with the theatrical Holland, both for the sheer entertainment value and the possibility that a showboating Holland will leave his chin open to get cracked.
That goes both ways though. There’s plenty of substance to go along with Holland’s style. He’s a finisher of the highest order (his past six wins have all come by way of knockout or submission), so if Della Maddalena is thinking highlight, he’ll have to be careful to not end up on the wrong end of it.
Holland is the wild card of the welterweight division, which makes him an extraordinarily precarious obstacle for Della Maddalena’s title journey. I think Della Maddalena gets there some day, but I have this weird feeling that Holland gets there first, and a knockout win on Saturday is what will vault him ahead in the race.
Raul Rosas Jr. vs. Terrence Mitchell
You know what 18-year-old Raul Rosas Jr. looked like in his first loss? An 18-year-old!
Blame the UFC for putting undue pressure on Rosas, a talented kid for sure, but by no means a guarantee to be a future champion as he and the promotion have pushed him to be. Maybe he strings together 10 title defenses someday. Maybe he’s out of the UFC in 10 months. He’s a teenager in MMA, no one can predict where this is going.
All that said, they’ve seemingly given him a layup in Terrence Mitchell and I think he makes the shot with less stress this time around. His loss to Christian Rodriguez exposed several weaknesses, but Rodriguez is a fine prospect in his own right. He gave Rosas plenty to work on in camp as we saw that the youngster’s wrestling, cardio, and standup all need time to develop. I wish he’d take more time off to train as opposed to throwing himself right back into the fire, but this is a favorable matchup.
Mitchell can impress when he’s on offense, so if he throws caution to the wind he might give Rosas some problems early on. Outside of that, it’s unlikely that he beats Rosas to the punch and I expect him to spend plenty of time on his back against the aggressive Rosas. Quickness and explosiveness are two areas that Rosas doesn’t need to worry about, so Mitchell better show improved defensive responsibility or he’s cooked.
Rosas gets back on track with a first-round finish.
Pick: Rosas Jr.
Daniel Zellhuber vs. Christos Giagos
For my money, Daniel Zellhuber is the most intriguing prospect on this card, not Rosas.
Zellhuber, 24, is so physically gifted. He’s a muscular 6-foot-1, he has great hand speed, and is pretty advanced in the boxing department. His “Golden Boy” nickname is well-earned. With intelligent matchmaking, he could climb the 155-pound charts quickly.
Christos Giagos is a step in the right direction. He’s never been a contender, but he’s well-experienced with 30 pro bouts, including a dozen UFC appearances to his name. He walks forward and he punches hard. If you mess around, he’ll shut your lights out.
Those intimidating tactics won’t rattle Zellhuber. He’ll use his long arms to jab Giagos repeatedly until he finds an opening for power punches and knees. Giagos will swing freely in response, but he won’t outlast Zellhuber.
Zellhuber by second-round knockout.
Fernando Padilla vs. Kyle Nelson
The main card opens with a battle of lanky featherweights, with Fernando Padilla’s slightly freakier physique giving him a noticeable five-inch reach advantage over Canada’s Kyle Nelson. That alone is one reason to give Padilla a major edge here as Nelson relies on being able to control range to counter and control his opponents. Padilla’s ability to strike accurately from distance is a problem.
I don’t have a ton of faith in Nelson winning this fight with grappling either. Padilla has a sneaky submission game and—not to oversell it—his long limbs make him a dangerous fighter to mess around with on the ground. If Nelson actually manages to score a takedown, he may find the end result being more trouble than its worth.
Love this test for Padilla and he’s talented enough to figure Nelson out after what should be a competitive first round. He’ll hurt Nelson in Round 2 before pouncing for a submission.