By: Ty O'Keefe
Almost exactly three years after beginning her UFC journey with a split-decision win over Sarah Kaufman in December 2015, Valentina Shevchenko reached the pinnacle of her sport by defeating Joanna Jedrzejczyk to claim the vacant women's flyweight title at last Saturday's UFC 231 in Toronto.
While Shevchenko was pitted against an extremely accomplished opponent and longtime rival from her time as a Muay Thai champion, her victory had been seemingly inevitable heading into UFC 231. A pair of failed attempts to dethrone bantamweight queen Amanda Nunes represented the only losses of her UFC career prior to defeating Jedrzejczyk, and many believe that the most recent of those two losses--a split-decision defeat at UFC 215 in Sept. 2017, should've gone in Shevchenko's favour.
Since claiming the UFC's 125-pound crown, Shevchenko has made it fairly clear that she'd like a rubber match with Nunes for the women's bantamweight belt after the Brazilian meets the immortal Cris "Cyborg" Justino for the women's featherweight title at UFC 232 on Dec. 29. But at the UFC 231 post-fight press conference, Shevchenko also stated her desire to stay active as her division's new champion, and that means facing a group of potentially unqualified contenders.
"I don't care who will be my next opponent," said Shevchenko via MMA Junkie. "I'm ready for anyone. This is what I want to do: to defend the belt as much as I can. I'm healthy now--I didn't get any hand injuries. Just go straight to the busy work again. I don't want to spend the time saying, 'OK, I'll keep the belt for a year,' doing nothing and just say hello to the media. No."
While Nicco Montano became the UFC's first women's flyweight champion when she defeated Roxanne Modaferri at the TUF 26 Finale in Dec. 2017, issues involving her weight cut forced her to withdraw from her scheduled showdown with Shevchenko at September's UFC 228. When coupled with the long layoff that immediately followed Montano's 2017 title win, the weight-cutting issues led the UFC to strip her of the belt, leaving it vacant until last weekend's UFC 231.
With Montano out of the title picture, the UFC initially booked Shevchenko to face Jedrzejczyk before temporarily cancelling that fight and awarding Sijara Eubanks a shot at "Bullet" and the vacant women's flyweight belt. However, the UFC reversed its decision just one week later in order to re-book the more popular matchup between Shevchenko and Jedrzejczyk.
The fact that the UFC needed Jedrzejczyk--a career strawweight who's likely headed back to her old stomping grounds, to create the best women's flyweight title fight possible at UFC 231, says a lot about the current state of the division. Shevchenko has proven that she's far superior to the group of top flyweight contenders, and third-ranked Katlyn Chookagian's UFC 231 loss to ninth-ranked Jessica Eye means that Eubanks will likely be awarded the next title shot.
At just 2-0 with wins over Modaferri and Lauren Murphy, Eubanks is far from accomplished in the UFC. Despite her inexperience, she'll remain the biggest threat to Shevchenko's reign until further notice. But the UFC has finally crowned an extremely talented flyweight queen who's willing to defend her throne against any and all challenges, and for now, that's all that matters.