Dec. 8, 2018. That’s how far back to look for a fight in which Valentina Shevchenko was anything other than a prohibitive betting favorite. And even on that date, when she won the vacant UFC
Dec. 8, 2018. That’s how far back to look for a fight in which Valentina Shevchenko was anything other than a prohibitive betting favorite. And even on that date, when she won the vacant UFC flyweight title over former dominant strawweight champ Joanna Jedrzejczyk, the odds were squarely in her favor.
For bettors and non-bettors alike, that’s a testament to how far ahead Shevchenko (20-3, 13 finishes) is considered to be than the rest of the 125-pound contenders.
But there’s a different vibe going into the champ’s fifth title defense on Saturday for UFC 261 at Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla., where she will face former 115-pound champion Jessica Andrade in one of three title fights scheduled to air on pay-per-view. For sure, Shevchenko remains a heavy favorite, but the betting line currently hovers around -400 instead of the typical -1000 from her four title defenses the past two years.
That’s likely due to the respect Andrade (21-8, 15 finishes) brings to the octagon as a former champion who has some of the tools to, on paper, push Shevchenko at some level. The challenger is short and sturdy, winning her strawweight crown from Rose Namajunas by slam knockout. (Incidentally, Namajunas will challenge Zhang Weili, the woman who took the belt from Andrade, for that title on Saturday as well).
“I think she’s a very strong fighter,” Shevchenko told The Post over the phone last Thursday. “She has very strong power. She does very good wrestling, so she’s a fighter who you have to be careful with. … I very [much] like to fight with the best ones. Only this is how you can show and prove that you are the best, to fight with all the best.
“That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m the champion, and I will hold this belt for the whole time.”
Shevchenko, a native of Kyrgyzstan who also represents her adopted home of Peru, is coming off a clear, unanimous decision victory over Jennifer Maia on Nov. 21. Though, it did include a surprising setback of sorts.
For the first time since returning to flyweight in 2018, she lost a round (the second) on all three judges’ scorecards.
That weight-class switch came in the wake of a heavily debated split-decision loss to Amanda Nunes, the bantamweight champion who since has added the featherweight title to her all-time great résumé. The two women have been equally dominant across three of the UFC’s four women’s weight classes for years, making a third meeting between the two tantalizing for outside observers despite Nunes’ 2-0 record in the rivalry — the first loss was also closely contested, going the three-round distance.
While Shevchenko is open to opportunities that arise, her sole focus is defending the flyweight title in order to “keep this belt for a long time.”
“If it’s gonna happen in the future, perfect, we will fight,” Shevchenko says of a potential third meeting against Nunes. “… I’m not the person who’s kind of, like, running for this fight and trying to rush it.”
Shevchenko’s approach to the flyweight division is similar to that of another dominant champion, the recently retired and still-unbeaten lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. Like Nurmagomedov, she believes building her legacy within her own division is a worthy pursuit, not necessarily jumping weight classes or looking to become a “champ-champ” like Nunes.
“Is it not enough to defend your belt and be dominant in your own weight class, when all your life was fighting in the bigger weight classes and now, finally, you have your own weight class where you can perform and show your best?” Shevchenko, who holds notable wins at 135 pounds over ex-bantamweight champion Holly Holm, Sarah Kaufman and Julianna Pena, asks rhetorically with conviction.
One potential complication exists at flyweight, though. Her older sister, Antonina Shevchenko, also competes in the UFC at 125 pounds. Antonina, 3-2 in the UFC, is considered a top-15 flyweight in her own right who has alternated wins with losses to respected veterans Roxanne Modafferi and Katlyn Chookagian.
Valentina would become the first to finish Chookagian when they met for the champ’s title last February.
That’s not a problem the UFC’s first and only pair of sisters are concerned with just yet. They’ll cross that bridge when they get to it.
“When it’s gonna happen, we [will] start to think about it,” Shevchenko said. “Right now, I’m focused on my way, and she’s focused on her way. She’s focusing to go and be the contender, but when it happens — and it [will] happen, I know for sure — we will make plans, for sure.”
This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Scott Fontana