Alexa Grasso stands as the last line of defense for her countrymen on Mexican Independence Day. What started as a banner year with three UFC champions representing Mexico has quickly deteriorated. Grasso stands on her own, defending the UFC women's flyweight championship against the division's greatest export Valentina Shevchenko. Grasso vs. Shevchenko 2 headlines UFC Fight Night, dubbed "Noche UFC," in Las Vegas on Saturday.
Grasso (16-3) eclipsed expectations at UFC 285 in March by upsetting Shevchenko via fourth-round submission. It was the third consecutive month in which a Mexican fighter won a UFC title. Brandon Moreno reclaimed the flyweight title in January and Yair Rodriguez captured interim featherweight gold in February. Grasso's male counterparts lost in subsequent title fights, leaving her as the last remaining Mexican titleholder.
"I always said that making history is never easy," Grasso told reporters at Wednesday's media day. "But I've been working so hard every single day of my life to be at this moment.
"I don't think [I'd] call it pressure. I think it's more motivation. We have done so much in the sport. We've been evolving so hard and this keeps me with tons of motivation to keep the belt in Mexico."
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Grasso was competitive in her fight against Shevchenko, but the quality of her finish was called into question. Grasso ducked under a spinning back fist and leaped onto a fight-ending face crank. It looked like a fluke in real time, but it was later revealed that Grasso and her team had specifically trained for that chain of events. That revelation has not stopped Shevchenko from dismissing the loss as a tactical error. Grasso disagrees.
"It just kind of surprised me because someone with such big experience and competing at such high level, we know that there are no accidents," Grasso said. "I trained for that moment. You can see the video that I have before the fight. I was training that exact same position. It was something that I trained to win that fight."
Shevchenko (23-4) enters Noche UFC as a small favorite. That's to be expected. After all, Shevchenko has already carved her face into the Mount Rushmore of women's mixed martial arts. Not only was Shevchenko the division's most dominant champion, but she holds the record for most consecutive title defenses in any women's weight class. Shevchenko believes she was well ahead of Grasso in the minutes preceding the stoppage -- despite all three judges scoring Round 1 for Grasso -- and intends to reaffirm herself as number one with a bullet.
"Watching the fight back, I would say I was winning all the fight from first to the third round, except the last moment of the fourth round," Shevchenko said at media day. "And another thing, right now my mindset and my focus, I don't go back to March. I don't go back and think about what happened there.
"Right now, I'm a person who's motivated to get rid of that feeling back then in March. I'm determined on what I have to do this Saturday. That's my mindset. I don't watch back. Everything I had to take from the fight I took. Now it's strong energy, positive energy, no mercy."
The undercard features many fighters of Mexican heritage as the company celebrates Mexican Independence Day weekend. But the co-main event will feature an Aussie and an American looking to climb the ladder at welterweight. Jack Della Maddalena looks to bounce back from a sluggish performance last time out when he battles veteran Kevin Holland. Della Maddalena scored a decision win over late-replacement Bassil Hafez in July that left many wanting more after the Aussie had scored four straight first-round stoppages in his first four UFC appearances. Now, he takes on Holland, who has stifled many challengers at 170 pounds, but failed to breakthrough against the elite in the division.
"I don't know what to expect. I don't really care," Della Maddalena said at media day this week. "I'm coming to fight. Whatever happens leading up to it happens. There's definitely going be a time for fighting, so I'm just waiting for that. … I think a good win over Kevin Holland will get me in a nice spot to fight one of the top contenders."
Below is the rest of the fight card for Saturday with the latest odds before we get to a prediction and pick on the main event.
Noche UFC card, odds
|Valentina Shevchenko -175||Alexa Grasso +150||Women's flyweight title|
|Jack Della Maddalena -155||Kevin Holland +130||Welterweight|
|Raul Rosas Jr. -800||Terrence Mitchell +550||Bantamweight|
|Daniel Zellhuber -250||Christos Giagos +205||Lightweight|
|Fernando Padilla -250||Kyle Nelson +205||Featherweight|
UFC Fight Night viewing information
Date: Sept. 16 | Start time: 10 p.m. ET (main card)
Location: T-Mobile Arena -- Las Vegas
TV channel: ESPN+
Alexa Grasso vs. Valentina Shevchenko: I am nowhere near as confident in Shevchenko's revenge story as I was heading into Julianna Pena vs. Amanda Nunes 2. The first time, Pena dragged Nunes into a brawl unbecoming of MMA's greatest female fighter. Grasso employed a competent game plan in a fight not dissimilar from Shevchenko's previous performances. Pena's winning moment was the culmination of slop and stamina drop. Grasso won by scouting and jumping on an opportunity. Although I expect Grasso vs. Shevchenko 2 to be competitive, the evidence favors Shevchenko.
It's true that Shevchenko landed fewer total strikes than Grasso in their first encounter, but Shevchenko led in significant strikes by a margin twice as large. Shevchenko had nearly double Grasso's accuracy: landing 60% of her significant strikes compared to Grasso's 32%. The Mexican champ's volume is certainly impressive, but she isn't as tactically sound as the former titleholder. Shevchenko landed four of six takedowns. Grasso laid an egg across two attempts. Grasso had a strong opening round but Shevchenko showed her championship experience by making the necessary adjustments to take the second and third rounds.
Finally, let's unpack the finishing sequence of their first meeting. Grasso and her team deserve full credit for identifying and exploiting an opening in Shevchenko's game. That's no fluke. That's fighting at the highest level. But Shevchenko's loss is a symptom of a problem that plagues all long-reigning champions: tape study. When you are the measuring stick of a division, there is so much footage of you circulating. Top trainers around the world analyze every micro-movement to learn, apply and overcome your skills. Shevchenko can now explore new avenues to victory based on the information she has collected from Grasso. For example, Nunes completely flummoxed Pena in their rematch by fighting southpaw. I expect Shevchenko to make the adjustments necessary to win over the long haul. Grasso is five years younger than Shevchenko and has more room to grow, but a rejuvenated Shevchenko is an order too tall today. Shevchenko via decision
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