There is being good at fighting. There is being great at fighting. And then, about nine levels above that, in that fine line between being a human and an indestructible piece of machinery sent from the future to save (or destroy) mankind, there is what Valentina Shevchenko is at fighting.
Consciously, we know that Shevchenko can be beaten. We know that because we’ve seen it in the UFC, twice, first in 2016 and then in 2017. But then we remember who did it — two-division champion Amanda Nunes — and how she did it — both via decision, in a division above Shevchenko’s current one — and what Shevchenko has done since then — win, a lot — and that objective piece of factual information suddenly doesn’t seem all that objective. Shevchenko can lose, we know, but she’s been so busy doing the exact opposite of losing that we’re not quite sure whether we really believe that anymore.
There’s reality, and there’s whatever realm Shevchenko occupies.
I say that hyperbolically, of course, but also kind of seriously. Like when we say that Shevchenko must be some kind of spy. We’re joking, but at the same time we’re legitimately trying to explain how this fellow human with such a wide array of skills and such an interesting life can exist in the same plane as the rest of us. We’re trying to make sense of how this polyglot who’s lived in several parts of the world and learned how to shoot and dance and cook and be photographed in statuesque positions across scenic backdrops can still somehow manage to be one of the most dominant mixed martial artists of her time.
And while Shevchenko almost makes it sound simple, or at least as simple as having an unwavering lifelong dedication to a thing can be, there’s still plenty to be a little mystified about. Sure, she has trained to be a fighter since literal childhood, but still. How can Shevchenko be just so… Good? How can anyone?
In the cage, Shevchenko’s goodness translates to the kind of odds we see leading up to Saturday’s title defense. At the time of this write-up, she was as big as a -1700 favorite over challenger Jennifer Maia. It’s a startling number, but one that is in keeping with her history; Shevchenko has been a runaway favorite for all of her flyweight fights, with the exception of the vacant title bout against former 115-pound queen Joanna Jedrzejczyk (Shevchenko was still a favorite, but more moderate).
Shevchenko was, in fact, a favorite even going into the Nunes rematch — which ended in a split-decision loss that Shevchenko still disputes — and hasn’t been the other side of those odds since a fight with former bantamweight champion Holly Holm in 2017. Shevchenko handily beat Holm, by the way, like she’s done in the UFC with everyone who isn’t Nunes.
And if the numbers don’t do it for you, perhaps consider the fact that Nunes now reigns over both divisions above Shevchenko’s and that Holm has been a contender in both (and a former champion at bantanweight, when she defeated Ronda Rousey in one of the division’s biggest upsets). In fact, here’s an exercise: Close your eyes and try to come up with an opponent in any of the UFC’s four women’s weight classes, and think of any non-Nunes names who you would pick to win — and I mean not to maybe have a chance, or be a fun challenge, but to actually beat Shevchenko.
Yeah. I know.
That has to do with how much Shevchenko has won, of course, but also with the way in which she’s done it. If Shevchenko’s fights aren’t always nail-biters — see: the grand Liz Carmouche yawner of 2019 — it’s because she’s not about to give her opponent anything that she doesn’t need to. Shevchenko fights with the instincts of someone who’s been doing this forever but also the intelligence of someone who knows that isn’t enough. There’s grace, but there’s also power, and there’s the calculated aggression of someone who seems to genuinely love fighting but probably loves winning just as much.
There’s being good at fighting, there’s being great at fighting, and there’s being the kind of fighter who people simply expect to always win, if only because it’s hard to imagine a world in which they do something else.
That’s great, of course, in the sense that it’s amazing to witness one of the very best people at a thing being the best at that thing. But it’s less great in the sense that, as sports fans and humans, we tend to be spoiled brats who both cherish and admire champions but also kind of long for the chaos that ensues when they get overthrown.
We don’t say it in so many words, of course, but we know the drill.
We saw it just recently, when Jon Jones decided to vacate the 205-pound premises and suddenly a stale division seemed infused with new life. “Wide open,” we called the light heavyweight field, thinking of all the possibilities that the absence of a long-reigning champion unlocked at its top. We saw it when human pressure-cooker Khabib Nurmagomedov announced his retirement from MMA, and our collective mourning became enmeshed with illusions of a tournament and a renewed appreciation for the mix-and-match opportunities among top-15 killers whom we can see beating each other but couldn’t see beating him.
We’d seen it with Demetrious Johnson, with Georges St-Pierre, with Anderson Silva, and now with Amanda Nunes. The dilemma of the dominant champion. We ask their peers and ours, knowing there’s no right answer: Is it bad for this division that it is kept under such control? It’s a weird trade-off, ultimately, but one that is inherent to sports: We crave — and create — these dominant, larger-than-life figures that tower over the competition, but we also want the competition to fight back. We like our narratives clean, complete with rises and falls, even if we can never really specify when or why we want those things to happen, probably because we never really know or understand that ourselves.
We love to see winners but we also love to see fellow humans and sometimes, inexplicably and somewhat unfairly, these concepts seem to clash.
Which is not to say that Shevchenko isn’t celebrated or appreciated as champion; she is, arguably more so than others who have been in her position. But the thing about us greedy humans is that even greatness can be taken for granted. On Saturday, Shevchenko will fight yet another opponent who is experienced and talented but whom she is widely expected to beat. If that happens, Shevchenko will leave the octagon trailed by both the regular “What Nows” that follow a sport that is always looking into the next weekend but also the particular, almost ungrateful “What Nows” that are less objective questions than they are rhetorical provocations to the universe.
We like the idea of greatness — love it, even — but we never seem to quite know what to do with the real thing, do we? So we prod and we poke and we awkwardly place our champions in precarious pedestals that we sometimes nudge with mixed hopes that something will happen but also that it won’t.
It’s a good thing, then, that our feelings on the matter are ultimately irrelevant. Shevchenko, herself, doesn’t seem all that bothered by the weight of her position. In fact, one could argue, part of her greatness is how comfortable she seems with it. We’ve heard talks of champions who expressed relief upon losing their majesty, who relished the lightness of just being their regular selves, but, with Shevchenko, being champion seems to very much be her regular self. She carries her greatness with the graciousness of someone who’s not only worked for it, but seems to truly believe that it exists. And even if she does lose, on Saturday or two years from now, we got to see it exist, too.
There’s being good at fighting, there’s being great at fighting, and there’s being Valentina Shevchenko.
Now let’s just hope she isn’t here to destroy mankind.