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Valentina Shevchenko had a performance at UFC Fight Night 156 on Saturday in Uruguay. Usually a sentence like that deserves an adjective or two, but not this one. She had a fight, and she won her fight, and that’s pretty much the extent of description warranted.
It’s a somewhat strange thing to say considering the context. Shevchenko is arguably the best pound-for-pound female fighter in the world -- her only losses in the Ultimate Fighting Championship have been controversially close decisions to Amanda Nunes in a heavier weight class -- coming off of a spectacular knockout win in her first title defense two months ago. She seemed to be finding her groove. Against Liz Carmouche, she had a chance to not only avenge her first career loss but to do so emphatically. Instead, she walked away with a win but still came off as a loser in a larger sense.
This may seem harsh, but only to those who didn’t watch the fight. A total of 60 significant strikes were landed in the bout, or 2.4 per minute. That’s the combined total for both Shevchenko and Carmouche, by the way. Landing under two and a half strikes per minute would be on the low side for an individual fighter, let alone split between two. (For the record, it wasn’t an exact split, as Shevchenko landed 1.68 significant strikes per minute and Carmouche landed 0.72.) The dearth of damage done wasn’t for a lack of trying -- sort of. Both women attempted a lot of strikes, and by that I mean they repeatedly pawed at the empty space between them for the duration of the fight. It was a horrid display of dominance.
Shevchenko is not alone in this phenomenon. Other dominant champions have had similar duds against painfully overmatched opponents. Georges St. Pierre’s bout against Dan Hardy was bad; Anderson Silva’s wins over Demian Maia and Thales Leites were awful; and Jon Jones has had a handful of yawners, most notably his wins over Ovince St. Preux, Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos. Most great champions have had flawless but forgettable victories because at some point their dominance steers them into opponents who pose little to no challenge. As a result, the better fighter lowers his game to the level of the lesser fighter.
Of course, dominance is seldom entertaining. In any other sport, blowouts are cause for clearing the stands and changing the channel. The best fights tend to go back and forth, though there are also instances of phenomenal dominance: Silva’s wins over Forrest Griffin and Chris Leben come to mind.
The question is why. If you’re so much better than someone else, why not steamroll them? There’s a general point to be made about being cautious in a sport where everything can change in an instant. In the aforementioned Jones duds, that was a reasonable alibi for otherwise inexcusable performances; St. Preux, Smith and Santos were all outgunned, but they also possess one-punch power that can completely change the course of a fight. Carmouche hasn’t displayed that kind of power, though. When she finishes fights, it tends to be the result of accumulated strikes, not a singular devastating blow. She has never scored a knockdown in any of her Strikeforce or UFC fights, including the ones she won via KO or TKO. By the same token, Shevchenko has never been dropped in her MMA career, and she spent 40 minutes in the cage with perhaps the hardest hitter in women’s MMA. She has also never been knocked out in her extensive professional kickboxing career. It’s unlikely she had any concern of getting hit too hard.
The more likely explanation is that keeping Carmouche at distance was simply the easiest route to victory. There’s no honor in making something harder than it needs to be, especially in violent competition. Add to that the financial incentives of remaining champion, and the abstract virtues of putting on good performances for the fans become irrelevant. It doesn’t mean you need to appreciate Shevchenko’s tactics or rationalize her performance as anything other than awful, but as the old adage says, the game is far more deserving of hate than the player.
There’s no way around it: Shevchenko’s second title defense was a bad fight, but don’t count out “Bullet” yet. All the greats have bad fights. Authoring her own championship snoozer was another stripe earned. In a weird way, it was a testament to just how good she is.
Eric is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.