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While much of the drama leading up to UFC 228 card will center around the headlining welterweight title fight between Tyron Woodley and Darren Till, the stakes will be much higher for the women’s side of things. No matter the outcomes, both the flyweight and strawweight divisions will undergo significant reshuffling, and each individual fighter on the docket has a lot on the line.
This is most obvious in the co-main event. Inaugural women’s flyweight champion Nicco Montano will put her belt on the line for the first time against longtime bantamweight contender Valentina Shevchenko. Despite being a sizable underdog, Montano went through the ringer on “The Ultimate Fighter 26,” beating two former Invicta Fighting Championships titleholders -- Lauren Murphy and Barb Honchak -- on her way to winning the season and the Ultimate Fighting Championship flyweight crown. From a narrative standpoint, it was a great Cinderella moment of a No. 14 seed going all the way, but instead of breaking out to wider MMA audiences, Montano was shelved by injuries and health problems.
Nine months, foot rehab and a tonsillectomy later, Montano has the opportunity to pick up where she left off. Her pre-fight media appearances have highlighted her wit, charm and sense of humor, and a memorable performance as a historic underdog would be a true breakthrough for her. She just has to get through Shevchenko first.
“Bullet” is rightly favored in her second flyweight bout, but being as high as a -2300 favorite comes with its own pressure. Expectations for Shevchenko stretch beyond this individual fight. When the flyweight division was installed, she was quickly anointed as heiress apparent, and for good reason. Despite being undersized at bantamweight, she comfortably cruised past former champ Holly Holm and dismantled surging contender Juliana Pena. Both of her UFC losses came against current champion Amanda Nunes, and both of those losses stung. The first one prevented her from getting a title shot -- Nunes’ next fight was for the belt -- and the second one was a split decision loss for the championship.
Shevchenko is far more experienced in combat than Montano, having won multiple world titles in muay Thai and kickboxing, but an MMA title has thus far escaped her. A loss against an opponent who is widely considered to be overmatched would be a devastating setback, especially as the flyweight division continues to flesh out with women too big for strawweight and too small for bantamweight. It’s too early to say that a loss for Shevchenko would be all she wrote on her championship aspirations, but if it doesn’t happen now, the window becomes increasingly narrower from here on out.
Yet flyweight is not the only division that will undergo divisional shakeup. The next strawweight contender will almost certainly be the winner of the Jessica Andrade-Karolina Kowalkiewicz fight. Both women benefitted significantly when Rose Namajunas dethroned longtime champ Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Prior to losing the belt, Jedrzejczyk’s last two title defenses were against Andrade and Kowalkiewicz, leaving them waiting in line to earn a rematch. Now, the path to the title shot is a lot clearer, and the only thing in their way is each other.
Andrade has beaten a murderer’s row of strawweights through sheer tenacity and ferocity. The type of physical aggression she brings to a fight is exactly the kind of test that Namajunas has yet to convincingly pass. Meanwhile, Kowalkiewicz was the last woman to defeat Namajunas and has been good enough to get past everyone except Jedrzejczyk and perennial contender Claudia Gadelha. Both women are difficult matchups for Namajunas, and both pose real threats to snatch the crown.
Another important strawweight match is on the undercard, one that could possible determine half of the next No. 1 contender match. Former champion Carla Esparza looks to get back on track against the undefeated Tatiana Suarez, who has the chance to prove there is elite-level substance behind her deserved hype. After losing the belt, Esparza has made zigzagging progress, beating solid competition while dropping two close split decisions to Gadelha and Randa Markos. Against Suarez -- who would have been an Olympian had she not been injured and then diagnosed with cancer -- Esparza will have to prove she is capable of dealing with high-pressure grappling. If not, she will likely be relegated to gatekeeper status. For Suarez, this is a big step up in competition and a chance to transform from a prospect to a contender. She’ll have to deal with an opponent who is far more experienced, crafty and multi-skilled. A win here would put her on the fast track to a championship bout.
Doubted vs. anointed, aggression vs. finesse, veteran vs. prospect. Each of the three women’s bouts taking place at UFC 228 is compelling in terms of narrative, style and divisional relevance. For fight fans, that’s about as good as it gets.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.