If there's a downfall in being a dominant UFC champion over a sustained level of time, it might be how often the fighter's level of opposition can become criticized simply due to the gap in ability between champion and challengers.
UFC women's flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko (19-3) knows that reality all too well. Since moving down to her natural weight of 125 pounds in 2018 after the UFC created the weight class, the 32-year-old Shevchenko is 5-0 with three title defenses while churning out one masterpiece of technical brilliance after another.
Entering Saturday's return in the co-main event of UFC 255 in Las Vegas, talk of Shevchenko's next title defense has centered more upon the division's glaring lack of depth or the footnote of the champion sharing an MMA card with her older sister Antonina for the first time under the UFC banner than whether Jennifer Maia (18-6-1) has a legitimate shot to win.
Shevchenko, who once pushed two-division champion Amanda Nunes to the limit at bantamweight in a pair of disputed bouts, believes the critics have gotten it all wrong as she continues to build upon her historically-strong resume.
"From time to time, I keep hearing all the people saying, 'The flyweight is not that good. It's not that good.' But it's not that," Shevchenko told CBS Sports during an interview on "Morning Kombat" on Tuesday. "I don't know why people put in this cliche for flyweight because it's totally not truth. If you will see each fighter in the top 10, they are very strong and very interesting fighters. I think that they would do a lot of problems for anyone in bantamweight or strawweight.
"I think the future of MMA is going to be [about] the flyweights because it's the perfect [weight] for female athletes and you can see now a lot of bantamweights going down and a lot of strawweights going up. Yes, it's going to be even more interesting in the future."
The debate regarding flyweight's shallow depth can be polarizing. At first glance, the stigma appears to be just as true for 125 pounds as it has been for the UFC's featherweight and (most recently) bantamweight divisions where one dominant champion has made quick work of recycled contenders who offer little hope (or even a realistic path to victory) of pulling an upset.
A quick glance at the betting odds seems to confirm this truth as William Hill Sportsbook has Shevchenko as an astronomical -1667 favorite with the 32-year-old Maia settling as a +800 underdog. But the deeper reality seems to be that the division, Maia's odds notwithstanding, seems to be deeper at the moment than ever before.
Former strawweight champion Jessica Andrade made an emphatic debut in 2020 by stopping former title contender Katlyn Chookagian. Fellow contenders Cynthia Calvillo and Lauren Murphy have entered the title picture on a bit of a hot streak.
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That doesn't mean any of them will get close enough to unseat Shevchenko, however, which goes back to her dominance sometimes playing against her because of how easy she makes it look. While Shevchenko doesn't believe it's right for an active fighter to be talked about in terms of their legacy, there's little question the native of Kyrgyzstan is in the midst of building a legendary one.
Along with the close defeats to Nunes, Shevchenko has recorded victories over everyone from Sarah Kaufman, Holly Holm and Julianna Pena at bantamweight to Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Chookagian and Liz Carmouche at flyweight.
None of the big-name victories have been particularly close. And if Shevchenko has her way, things will remain as such. For as competitive as she is, Shevchenko is simply not sitting around hoping someone will finally emerge who can push her to the brink of defeat.
"I train very hard to be that dominant. I don't want to lose my position," Shevchenko said. "I just don't look at [betting odds]. My attention is far away from these things. I'm more concentrated on my preparation, and that's what really matters to me -- how I feel, how my body feels, my mind and my everything. I'm so focused on my preparation and my performance."
A veteran of mixed martial arts for 27 years and a 16-time world muay Thai champion, Shevchenko's experience and toughness is simply unparalleled at this weight. While she considered Maia a strong opponent and complete fighter, Shevchenko couldn't help but break out a smile while revealing the hard truth about her preparation.
"I know exactly what to expect from her and what I have to do to beat her," Shevchenko said.
A former Invicta FC flyweight champion, Maia is 3-2 inside the Octagon with decision defeats to both Chookagian and Carmouche. But it was an August demolition of top contender Joanne Calderwood which seemed to raise Maia's stock in the blink of an eye as she needed less than one round to record a submission.
"I hadn't been able before that fight with Joanne to fully show all that I'm capable of and show my full potential and surprise everyone like I did," Maia told CBS Sports during a "Morning Kombat" interview on Tuesday. "I showed that I'm ready to be the next champion."
Although Maia will enter in seemingly the best shape of her career, her key to a potential upset might lie more in just her ability as a grappler and submission expert. Call it delusion or call it a premonition, Maia has the mindset that a victory is well within her reach, and is hoping to take Shevchenko out of her comfort zone.
"I hope to surprise everyone. I don't think Valentina is unbeatable," Maia said. "She's a very smart opponent, but I'm stepping into that Octagon to get that win. I'll do whatever it takes, and I'm fully prepared to show the world that she is beatable and to be the next champion.
"The matchup for this fight is really good for both of us. I think it will not only be a common fight, it will be a spectacle because I will put on a show. I think it will be a disputed fight round by round, and I'll show that I want this more than she wants it."