Valentina Shevchenko dominated Liz Carmouche on Saturday, cruising to a unanimous decision victory in Montevideo, Uruguay, to retain her UFC flyweight belt. The win was her second defense of the title, and no end for her appears to be in sight. Is this dominance — and lack of any true competition — a good thing or bad thing for the UFC?
We asked ESPN MMA’s team of Ariel Helwani, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim that and more after Saturday’s card.
Is Shevchenko’s dominance a good thing for the UFC?
Helwani: Nothing to worry about here. Dominant champions are good. They help establish belts. Let’s not overreact because that fight wasn’t very exciting. We all knew going into Saturday night’s main event that the gap between Shevchenko and the rest of the division was very big, so we didn’t really learn anything new here. I like a champion who reigns supreme for a long time because it makes the eventual loss that much more impactful. If the belt just gets passed around all the time, it doesn’t mean as much.
Raimondi: Dominance is fine. Sometimes it can be very good. But it’s hard to sell the kind of main event Shevchenko and Liz Carmouche had Saturday. It was not entertaining. If Shevchenko is going to knock people out like she did to Jessica Eye at UFC 238 in June, then she’ll be one of the most popular champions in the UFC. This fight was very technical and tactical, which is more in line with Shevchenko’s style — she has only five knockouts or TKOs in 18 career wins.
The other thing about dominance is that it’s most effective as a selling point when there are compelling challengers. Shevchenko was a monster favorite against Carmouche, for good reason. There don’t seem to be many compelling challengers for Shevchenko right now at flyweight. Her most interesting future fight is a third bout against Amanda Nunes. What Shevchenko is, though, is great. She’s one of the best women’s MMA fighters to ever live.
Wagenheim: The dominance itself appeals to me. Seemingly unbeatable champions, such as Demetrious Johnson, Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre and even Ronda Rousey for a spell, have always been fun to follow, whether we’re cheering them on or rooting for their demise. What concerns me is the UFC’s recent obsession with superfights. Yes, that’s where the money is. But now the promotion has 12 weight classes but just 10 champions — because a couple of them reign in two divisions. That’s a net loss, as I see it, from a competition perspective.
When Shevchenko defends her title, and the first question asked of her in her Octagon interview is whether she’s looking to move up to face Amanda Nunes, that sounds like matchmaking with just the short term in mind. Nunes can keep plenty busy defending her bantamweight and featherweight belts. Let’s allow Shevchenko to rule at 125 pounds, even if she’s crushing the competition. That won’t last forever. It never does. Just ask “Mighty Mouse,” Silva, GSP or “Rowdy Ronda.”
Vicente Luque has won six in a row and 10 of his past 11. Does he need to adjust his rugged style as he moves up the ranks?
Raimondi: Maybe. But you can go a long way in the welterweight division with that kind of propensity for exciting fights. Just ask Robbie Lawler and Carlos Condit. Luque is a very technical striker — he’s no brawler by any stretch. He just has some deficiencies when it comes to defense. Luque will be more effective as he continues to climb the ladder by using his grappling more. He’s an excellent submission artist. Luque has three submission wins via d’arce choke variations.
Wagenheim: Luque is who he is, and he’s going to live or die with that style. His ability to take a punch and then absorb dozens more suggests that even as the competition gets stiffer, he’ll be able to make a mistake or two and maybe not have it end his climb. What stands out for me more, though, is his ability to dish out damage. Look at his six-fight streak and even his 10 wins out of 11: Before he went the distance on Saturday, when he was able to break Mike Perry‘s nose but unable to break Mike Perry, Luque had finished every last one of his recent fights. That can be the great equalizer when he’s facing higher-ranked guys more skilled than he is.
Helwani: If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it, right? (And no, that’s not a joke about Mike Perry’s nose. How dare you think that.) Luque’s style is working for him just fine. Sure, there’s a case to be made that he lost that fight and that he hasn’t faced the crème de la crème of the division just yet, but I think he’s good enough to adjust his style based on his opponent and is a talented fighter who has come a long way. He’s due for a marquee fight next.
Volkan Oezdemir ended a three-fight losing streak with an impressive top-10 victory. Is this the start of his climb back to being a contender?
Wagenheim: Oezdemir looked good. Of course, he was in with a fighter so much shorter than him that he was easily able to maintain safe range. Factor in that he trained with Ilir Latifi and knew his tendencies for closing distance. So Oezdemir did have some advantages working for him.
However, he also has seemingly moved past a time of personal problems in his life. How significant a role they played in his losses is impossible to say, but even on his best day, Volkan is probably not better than Daniel Cormier, who beat him up last year to begin the skid. Still, based on Saturday’s performance, Oezdemir looks sharp and focused, and while the light heavyweight top 10 has become crowded with dangerous fighters, we can safely count the 29-year-old Swiss among them.
Helwani: I don’t see why he can’t make a run. For starters, you could argue he beat Dominick Reyes and should currently be on a two-fight winning streak. Light heavyweight is deeper these days than when he got a title shot in January 2018, but when you hit as hard as Oezdemir does, you’re always in the mix. Obviously, he isn’t getting the Reyes rematch next, but I don’t hate the idea of him fighting Jan Blachowicz, as he suggested.
Raimondi: Oezdemir’s performance in stopping Ilir Latifi on Saturday was the most impressive of his career. We’ve seen Oezdemir pull off quick knockouts en route to his title challenge against Daniel Cormier in January 2018. But this was no fluke. This wasn’t just a punch that landed in the right place. Oezdemir absolutely pieced the very tough Latifi up. I think Oezdemir will continue to be a factor at light heavyweight. He’s just 29 years old and was coming off a very close split-decision loss to Dominick Reyes.
There were some notable UFC debuts on the card. Whose was most impressive?
Helwani: Yes, it’s true that there were some solid debuts on this card, but this one came down to Rodolfo Vieira, the five-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion and a former ADCC gold medalist, and Francis Ngannou protégé Ciryl Gané. Both looked solid in their respective debuts. If I had to pick one, though, I’ll go with Vieira. He looked really good and really, really strong out there. I mean, did you see those back muscles when he was applying the arm-triangle choke? I don’t know how he makes 185.
Wagenheim: I loved the ambience at Antel Arena in Montevideo when Eduardo Garagorri, the only Uruguayan on the card, walked out. But while Garagorri put on a winning performance and remained undefeated, I think much of the plaudits should go to the UFC’s matchmakers, who made that raucous scene possible.
As far as debut performances inside the Octagon go, I was most excited by Ciryl Gané, maybe because he was less excitable than I was. The French heavyweight, who was signed to the UFC at just 3-0, looked way more poised than someone with his level of experience should. Maybe his training with Francis Ngannou helped that. If you can stand in front of “The Predator,” you can stand in front of anyone. And the fact that Gané, known for his heavy hands, ended his fight with Raphael Pessoa via submission gives other heavies something to think about.
Raimondi: Rodolfo Vieira was very formidable in his debut win over Oskar Piechota, and he should be someone to watch in the middleweight division. Vieira is as elite as it gets in terms of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He’s a four-time IBJJF world champion and one of the best black belts of his size ever. Vieira beat Piechota with an arm-triangle choke, and his top game looked pretty oppressive. The jury is still out on his striking, but Vieira will be able to take just about anyone at 185 on the ground. The Brazilian has only six career fights, so there’s likely to be some growing pains. He’s also only 29 years old. This was a nice peek into what could be a bright future for Vieira.
Marina Rodriguez is undefeated and just beat a top-10 strawweight, Tecia Torres. How excited should we get?
Raimondi: She’s definitely a prospect. Rodriguez is a talented Muay Thai striker with the kind of height and length that will be a tough matchup for her strawweight peers. The best part was Rodriguez was actually better when Torres closed distance and got into a clinch. There, she was a buzzsaw of elbows and knees. Anyone who can beat Torres is a credible threat in the division. Torres had lost to only champions and top contenders previously, and Rodriguez won comprehensively. Someone such as Nina Ansaroff would be interesting next.
Helwani: Rodriguez is definitely an intriguing prospect, but I think she needs a big finish to get people excited about her at 115. Don’t get me wrong: Hard-fought victories over Jessica Aguilar and Tecia Torres are certainly nothing to scoff at, but I just don’t think she has that signature moment yet. I’d like to see her against the winner of the Carla Esparza vs. Alexa Grasso fight next. Maybe that’ll do it.
Wagenheim: Prior to Saturday, Torres had lost only to 115-pound champion Jessica Andrade, ex-champs Rose Namajunas and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and Aug. 31 title challenger Zhang Weili. Rodriguez, by convincingly defeating someone who has beaten everyone set in front of her except that crème de la crème group, has instantly made herself a serious contender. It’s not like she’s right behind Zhang in line for a shot, but on Saturday, she started her build in that direction.