LAS VEGAS — Six UFC champions — regular, full champions, not interim belt-holders — have been beaten by their challengers in 2023. It began in January when interim flyweight champion Brandon Moreno defeated regular champion Deiveson Figueiredo at UFC 283.
It continued at UFC 285, when Alexa Grasso upset long-standing women's flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko at T-Mobile Arena. Israel Adesanya scored one of the signature wins of his career on April 8 at UFC 287 in Miami, Florida, when he knocked out Alex Pereira. Moreno lost his belt he'd won in January in July at UFC 290 when he was beaten by Alexandre Pantoja by split decision.
Sean O'Malley lived up to the hype, and more, when he dethroned Aljamain Sterling as bantamweight champion at UFC 292 on Aug. 19 in Boston, just as talk was building that Sterling was the greatest bantamweight in UFC history. And then, last week in the main event of UFC 293 in Sydney, Australia, Adesanya was upset by Sean Strickland.
As shocking as Adesanya's loss to Strickland was, perhaps the most shocking was Shevchenko's loss.
She had been as dominant as any champion since Anderson Silva held the UFC middleweight title from 2006 until 2012. She was 8-0 in UFC women's flyweight title bouts heading into the match against Grasso at UFC 285. In those eight fights, she'd won four times by finish.
She was around an 8-1 favorite in that bout and no one outside of her team and family was giving Grasso a legitimate shot to win.
Shevchenko seemed in command at UFC 285 and was up 2-1 on all three judges' scorecards. She'd won Rounds 1 and 2 according to the judges and lost Round 3. In Round 4, Shevchenko had the advantage until she tried a spinning back fist. It missed, Grasso took her back and won by submission with a face crank.
They meet again Saturday in a title rematch in the main event of Noche UFC at T-Mobile in a card built to celebrate Mexican Independence Day.
Shevchenko is again the favorite, but this time is a more reasonable -170 choice. Grasso is +140.
The question that persists, though, is a nagging one: Is the loss to Grasso a sign that Shevchenko is on the homestretch of her career, or is it just one of those things that happens occasionally in mixed martial arts?
Shevchenko is 35, an age where a lot of elite fighters begin the inevitable descent, though it's certainly not old. One of the politest and generally classiest fighters in the sport, Shevchenko's nose turned up a bit even at the mention that she may be on the decline.
"I am the same 'Bullet' Valentina that I was," Shevchenko sniffed, sounding almost wounded about the question.
Shevchenko leads all UFC women with seven consecutive title defenses, and that streak is tied with Jose Aldo for fifth all-time behind just Demetrious Johnson, Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre and Jon Jones. That's pretty heady company to be in.
She had a case to make as the greatest women's fighter in UFC history before that loss, though most would have (and still do) give the nod to her rival, Amanda Nunes. And during the first Grasso fight, if time had been frozen and a survey taken, it's not likely many would have agreed that Shevchenko was on the downside of her career.
She is a proud champion who has heard the critics, but she's not so interested in playing the game with them.
"I don't respond with my words," she said. "I respond with my actions. If you would watch my training, you would say, 'Oh yeah, it's nothing. She's still the same Valentina she always was. She's not even close to a decline.' People who say this, they are super wrong. Maybe they judge because if they were in this situation, they felt like they were in decline. But I can say to anyone, if you think I'm in decline, watch my training and you will change your opinion."
A decline is often subtle and hard to notice, but in the case of a dominant athlete like Shevchenko, it also occurs because she's been held to such a high standard. She fought to a split decision win over Taila Santos in Singapore at UFC 275 on June 12, 2022, a bout many thought Santos deserved to win.
Grasso was in the Octagon with Shevchenko most recently and, for the record, she's not buying that notion that Shevchenko is in decline.
"Not at all," Grasso said. "She's extremely talented; very dangerous."
But nothing other than a dominant win over Grasso, whom the UFC ranks as its No. 1 pound-for-pound female fighter, will quell the chatter. And perhaps, not even that. That's life as a 35-year-old fighter.
Shevchenko, though, has a motivation that she hasn't had for years. And if she's proven anything over her long fighting career, it's that a motivated Valentina Shevchenko is an extremely dangerous Valentina Shevchenko.