December 14, 2018

#1 With A Bullet: Shevchenko Is Positioned To Rule 125 With An Iron Fist, But Stardom Is Far From Surefire

By Raphael Garcia

The Ultimate Fighting Championships is in the business of not only putting on great fights, but also building those fights around athletes that audiences want to see. That’s especially important when it comes to the women on its roster, who have to compete in a sport where marketability is dictated mostly by the male gaze. Last weekend, the UFC finally put a title belt around the waist of a female competitor who fits the mold of athlete the promotion seeks to push to the forefront: Valentina "Bullet" Shevchenko. The new UFC Women’s Flyweight Champion is positioned to become a dominant force in the division, but the promotion aims to make her a star.

When after multiple hiccups, the UFC was finally able to bring together two women that were very familiar with each other for the UFC 231 co-main event, the result was a little anticlimactic. For five rounds Shevchenko dominated former UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. It was a bout that the public clamored to see, but it wasn’t competitive and ended in a one-sided victory for the 30-year-old Shevchenko. In her path to the title, Shevchenko showed that she has the skill set to pose a problem for grapplers and strikers alike, and with this win, she is set up for a strong run at 125 pounds.

But as far as the UFC is concerned, the question remains as to whether Shevchenko can grow into a major pay-per-view and ratings draw. It’s well known that ever since Ronda Rousey left MMA for the world of professional wrestling that the UFC has lacked a strong female star. Amanda Nunes and Cris Cyborg have not gotten the same type of attention from the UFC as Rousey, regardless of the fact that they have skills and storylines for the organization to promote around. Rose Namajunas isn’t active enough, and contenders and prospects like Mackenzie Dern, Michelle Waterson, and Paige VanZant haven’t broken through, leaving the promotion without a woman capable of taking the place of Rousey.

Shevchenko has main evented one PPV in her UFC career so far -- UFC 215, where she dropped a split decision to Nunes as she challenged for the women’s bantamweight title -- and that show only garnered 100K buys, a number that is widely considered a “failure” by industry standards. She has been in the main event twice on Fox platforms, facing Holly Holm and Julianna Peña. Her viewership numbers against Holm were amongst the best of that time, reaching 4.6 million viewers. The bout against Peña, however, did less than half of that at 2.02 million viewers. It's worth considering the roles Nunes, Holm, and Peña played in the success (or lack thereof) of these cards, but these numbers can still be used to gauge Shevchenko's potential as a draw in her own right.

Whether Shevchenko can maximize that potential is dependent on how the UFC books and promotes her in the future. Shevchenko is willing to talk trash and be very candid with her opinions about opponents, which is important in not only building up potential fights, but also the fan base's rooting interest in those bouts. In addition, UFC commentators routinely give her the kind of high praise that makes it clear that the organization is firmly behind her as a champion and a competitor.

However, she doesn’t have a full cabinet of athletes with intriguing stories to challenge for her title. Sijara Eubanks has left the division. Jessica Eye, who scored a win over Katlyn Chookagian on the UFC 231 undercard, probably placed herself at the front of the queue, but beyond that, there aren’t any competitors that pose a threat to Shevchenko, nor do any inspire the kind of curiosity that would cause fans to tune in.

So what we could potentially see is Shevchenko enjoying a run that’s eerily similar to that of the UFC's former men’s flyweight champion, Demetrious Johnson. It's unclear whether she will be spoken about in the same vein as "Mighty Mouse," who lorded over what was considered a “weak” division, but if Shevchenko puts together a string of destructive title defenses, do not be surprised to hear calls of her once again challenging for the women's bantamweight title.

In the end, the UFC got a women’s champion with the potential to give many fans what they want to see both inside and outside of the cage. Going into UFC 231, this was exactly what the organization was looking for. Now it’s time to see if this new champion can be built into a promotional powerhouse. Shevchenko has proven thus far to be capable of impressing in the cage, on the mic, and on the posters, but whether that translates to impressive box office and pay-per-view numbers remains to be seen. Time will tell.

UFC 231
Valentina Shevchenko vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk (UFC Women's Flyweight Championship): Valentina Shevchenko def. Joanna Jedrzejczyk via unanimous decision (49-46, 49-46, 49-46).





UFC 231: Holloway vs. Ortega takes place December 8, 2018 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.


Click HERE for more UFC 231 Post-Fight Analysis