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LAS VEGAS — Valentina Shevchenko faced a near-impossibility Saturday: Living up to the hype and the expectations that surrounded her women’s flyweight title defense against Jennifer Maia in the co-main event of UFC 255 at Apex.
Though it often doesn’t seem like it when she’s in the cage, Shevchenko is human and Maia came to win on Saturday.
The result was a closer-than-expected fight in which Maia stunned everyone by being competitive throughout. Shevchenko retained her title by winning a unanimous decision by scores of 49-46 three times, but it wasn’t the blowout the roughly 18-1 odds suggested it would be.
Shevchenko, one of the sport’s most well-rounded fighters, chose to grapple for much of the night against Maia, who has a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and who earned the title shot by upsetting Joanne Calderwood with an armbar.
Except for the second round, when Maia got top position, Shevchenko was in command throughout. But there wasn’t the highlight reel ending nor the sheer decimation in her three previous title defenses.
Maia spent much of the fight on her back, pinned beneath Shevchenko, but Shevchenko was never able to come close to a submission. Nor did she do a lot of damage with ground-and-pound.
The Brazilian challenger, who had missed weight in two of her three previous bouts, came out hard to start the final round and was bouncing on her toes. She defended herself well in the stand-up, and though she didn’t do well defending the takedowns, she was never in much danger on the ground.
The result was a tactical bout by Shevchenko, who was patient and took the points where she could find them. Coming off a dominant finish of Katyln Chookagian and one-sided defenses against Liz Carmouche and Jessica Eye, Shevchenko had to settle for being very good instead of great on this night.
By the midpoint of the fifth round, some blood began to drip from Maia’s nose and, mixed with her sweat, made it look like she’d taken more damage than she actually had.
She was never really a threat to win the fight, but Shevchenko knew she was in one, which has been a rarity for her in the UFC.
She entered the fight No. 2 on the UFC’s women’s pound-for-pound list, behind only bantamweight/featherweight champion Amanda Nunes. Nunes scored two close victories over Shevchenko in bantamweight fights.
Upon the creation of the flyweight division, Shevchenko opened with a destruction of Priscilla Cachoeira and then won the title from Joanna Jedrzejczyk. She’s been nearly untouchable at 125 pounds.
She was pushed more on this night, but she wasn’t particularly breathing hard at the end. It looked close only because expectations were so heavily weighted in Shevchenko’s favor.
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