UFC 247: Can anyone stop Shevchenko at flyweight?
There has only been a handful of fighters quite as dominant as Valentina Shevchenko inside the Octagon over the last two years. “The Bullet” has steamrolled every opponent that’s been put in front of her since her return to Flyweight in 2018, and on Saturday, the reigning champ will look to claim her fifth scalp at 125-pounds in the UFC 247 co-main event bout against Katlyn Chookagian.
Shevchenko (18-3) choked Priscila Cachoeira to near-unconsciousness this month two years ago. It was her flyweight debut in the UFC and the beginning of a special journey. “The Bullet” was already known as somewhat of an assassin coming into that fight, but the manner of her victory over Cachoeira was a different kind of vicious. It epitomized a bullet piercing through a body. It portrayed a woman destined for championship gold.
That has always been Shevchenko’s goal — to be a world champion. She could have already been one at Bantamweight if not for the great Amanda Nunes. And even that wasn’t for a lack of controversy. Shevchenko is to this day the only concrete challenger to have come for Nunes’ throne. You could easily make an argument that she should have won the rematch. But life goes on.
While the trilogy fight seems inevitable with each and every fight both Shevchenko and Nunes compete in, the 31-year-old Kyrgyzstani got to a point in her career where it was time to start writing a legacy of her own. And as fate would want it, the 125-pound weight class, which Shevchenko could easily make, was wide open and waiting for a queen to rule over it.
It was the perfect opportunity for “The Bullet” to have a division of her own, get her hands on a championship belt, and potentially wait her turn for another shot at Nunes. So, she obliged.
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Shevchenko’s dismantling of Cachoeira struck fear into her divisional opponents. Literally. Nicco Montano, the inaugural Flyweight champion, did not want to fight her. Montano was eventually stripped of the title. Shevchenko then played the waiting game until a golden opportunity presented itself. And she got it. A clash against Joanna Jedrzejczyk was next. A chance to revisit an old muay Thai rivalry.
It was just the kind of high profile bout that Shevchenko was looking for. Even though Jedrzejczyk was going through a dry spell in the win column, she was still a name worthy of anyones resume. And so, “The Bullet” went on to land another victim.
In what was a bit of a chess match at times, Shevchenko claimed the gold in a convincing unanimous decision. She finally reached the holy grail. Perhaps it didn’t taste quite as sweet as defeating Nunes would have, but her name would not be taken out of the history books now. And as we’ve come to realize soon after, that was really only the beginning.
Shevchenko did not rest on her laurels. After taking six months off following the Jedrzejczyk bout, she has since already defended the belt twice. It was over a span of three months, from June until August, 2019, as she pummeled Jessica Eye and Liz Carmouche on her relentless quest for greatness. The gold didn’t blind Shevchenko. She didn’t miss a beat. Her focus: still razor sharp. Her appetite for success: still enormous. The journey that she’s on is certainly about more than just being a champion. It’s about all-time greatness. And you just have to wonder, what can Katlyn Chookagian (13-2) do in order to stop that well oiled machine?
Well, it’s extremely difficult to look past a woman who’s as brutal and efficient as Shevchenko. But, with that said, the best hopes of beating her probably lay somewhere on the canvas. You will not out strike Shevchenko. Her range and precision are on a level not many can attain. But she has not been truly tested fighting off her back in her UFC career. Julianna Pena was the first one to really try, but she found herself tapping from an armbar moments later. This just goes to show that Shevchenko not having a lot of fight time on the ground does not mean that she is a slouch. She has a ground game. She has taken down and beaten up her opponents from top position before. But it’s not clear just how crafty Shevchenko really is when she’s the one being taken down.
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Chookagian has a BJJ brown belt and a bit of size on Shevchenko; and it wouldn’t be surprising in the slightest if the Pennsylvania natives game plan was to try and turn her title challenge into a slug fest. The champ’s takedown defense is on point, but making her feel uncomfortable by closing down the range and repeatedly shooting for takedowns may be the recipe for at least some success.
Chookagian has never stopped an opponent in the UFC (5-2). Therefore, she is no stranger to grinding out victories. Her last two wins, both unanimous decisions against JoJo Calderwood and Jennifer Maia, will have prepared her for a war. But it’s not truly a war until Shevchenko and her weapons are involved. You also have to take into consideration the fact that Shevchenko has been preparing for a bigger opponent who might like to try and take her to the ground.
So, inevitably, Chookagian will enter the Octagon on Saturday in Houston as a massive underdog. It cannot be any other way. But she’s earned her way to a No. 1 Contender spot and crazier things have certainly happened. In this sport unlike in any other, you can never totally write anyone off. Everyone has a puncher’s chance in those four ounce gloves. But Shevchenko’s and Nunes’ respective domination has put them on such a collision course once again that it is hard to imagine either of them losing before they get the chance to lock fists again.
Sports journalist based in CA, USA.