When UFC flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko enters the Octagon on Saturday, she'll do so as a -1,200 favorite against veteran Liz Carmouche. The two met previously in 2010, with Carmouche earning a second-round TKO win, but times have changed. Shevchenko has gone on to become one of the most dominant fighters in the sport. Her hand has been raised in 10 out of 12 bouts since the first Carmouche fight, losing only to arguably the greatest women's fighter of all time, Amanda Nunes, at bantamweight.
Shevchenko dropped down to flyweight in 2018, and she has since dominated her three opponents. Competition at that weight class appears sparse. Is her reign as champion the least in doubt long term?
We posed that to ESPN's MMA team of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi.
Who is the most untouchable UFC champion?
Helwani: My answer came down to UFC flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko or light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. Ultimately, the answer is an easy one: Shevchenko. I'd argue there is a larger gap in talent right now between her and the rest of the division than there has ever been in any weight class. I know she has only been champion for less than a year, but it's clear that she is far and away better than the division at the moment.
I hope that isn't viewed as a slight toward the rest of the fighters at 125. I think the division is evolving, and there are some good fighters coming up, including Andrea Lee, Maycee Barber and Gillian Robertson. That said, I don't think anyone is currently a serious threat to Shevchenko, and I don't see a serious threat on the horizon, either. And you know what? I don't mind. I like dominant title reigns. It makes the eventual loss (because they all lose at some point) that much more memorable.
Okamoto: My immediate reaction to this question was Jon Jones -- and honestly, that might be the best answer. I mean, Jones has done it. He has proved his dominance over this division 14 times over (the number of UFC title fights he already has won). When it comes to the greatness of Jones, no speculation is required.
But when I went to actually write "Jon Jones" in my response, Valentina Shevchenko wouldn't let me do it. Who is the most "untouchable" champion? I think it's Shevchenko. Jones just narrowly defeated Thiago Santos. Jones is in a division in which it's far more likely a single punch could end his reign at any moment.
I believe Jones is the greatest fighter to have ever lived, but if I had to bet my life on who holds onto their belt longer -- Jones or Shevchenko -- I'm taking Shevchenko. She is so much better than the rest of her division -- and at the same time, still so hungry, motivated, focused -- she is my final answer.
Raimondi: Amanda Nunes is the best answer to this question because she has a stranglehold on two different divisions. Nunes has darn near cleaned out women's bantamweight; she has defeated every fighter who has ever held that title or the women's featherweight title, which Nunes also holds. Germaine de Randamie could be competitive with Nunes at bantamweight, but Nunes already has beaten her, and that was six years ago, long before Nunes found her footing as the best women's fighter on the planet.
As for featherweight, if Nunes actually does go up and defends that title, there are precious few potential contenders. Now that Cris Cyborg is leaving the UFC for another fight promotion, the one compelling matchup for Nunes at 145 pounds is gone. And, of course, Nunes knocked out Cyborg in the first round at UFC 232 in December. The one fighter perhaps best equipped to give Nunes a run is Shevchenko, but Shevchenko holds the flyweight title and there hasn't been much talk of her coming back up in weight. Plus, Nunes already has beaten her twice. So who is left for "The Lioness"? No name truly stands out.
The type of fighter who could beat my selection is ... ?
Raimondi: We know how strikers have fared against Nunes lately. She knocked out both Cyborg and Holly Holm in the first round, and they are among the best strikers in women's MMA history. Grapplers? Nunes made short work of judoka Ronda Rousey. The path to victory against Nunes is probably to put her on her back, but that is no easy task.
Shevchenko had success in that regard late in their first fight, though Nunes escaped and ultimately won. Nunes fought Olympic wrestling silver medalist Sara McMann but knocked her out before McMann could ever impose her will. The bantamweight or featherweight equivalent of rising star strawweight Tatiana Suarez would be the best bet, but that woman does not currently exist right now, it seems. I would give Shevchenko a shot in a third fight -- she is truly brilliant -- but, once again, Nunes has defeated her twice.
Okamoto: Well, Shevchenko has lost twice in the UFC -- both to the same woman, Amanda Nunes. It's hard to say Nunes is the "type" of fighter to defeat Shevchenko, however, because a lot of it came down to size. Both of Shevchenko's losses to Nunes were at 135 pounds. She is now the champion of the 125-pound division, while Nunes has fought, comfortably, as high as 145 pounds.
That said, you can take something from Shevchenko's losses to Nunes. Whoever beats her at 125 pounds will have to possess enough power to earn Shevchenko's respect. Shevchenko is extremely calculated, almost to the point of being inactive at times. A flyweight opponent who possesses real, fight-changing power she has to respect, as well as a physical grappling ability, could challenge Shevchenko.
Helwani: To beat Shevchenko, you have to be a very well-rounded fighter who is also good in the striking and grappling department. You have to be very strong. You have to be very quick. You have to be able to bully her and set the pace early. All much easier said than done, of course. Even her past two losses -- to current women's MMA queen Amanda Nunes -- were supremely close, and many people believe she won one, if not both fights.
Which moment or victory best defined your selection's dominance?
Okamoto: This answer's easy: Shevchenko's decision win over Joanna Jedrzejczyk in December. Jedrzejczyk is the UFC's former five-time defending strawweight champion. She is a former Muay Thai champion and one of the few women in the sport who can even somewhat rival the amount of time Shevchenko has spent training combat sports.
Jedrzejczyk was an underdog when she fought Shevchenko the first time, but she was at least considered to be on her level. Shevchenko dominated her that night, winning four of five rounds. One could easily make the argument Jedrzejczyk would beat every flyweight in the division except for Shevchenko, and even Jedrzejczyk struggled to give her a competitive fight. What does that say about the chances of any other flyweight?
Helwani: It's hard to pick just one. I think Shevchenko's flyweight debut against Priscila Cachoeira opened a ton of eyes because she was so dominant in that fight. It actually was hard to watch at times because Shevchenko was just that much better than Cachoeira. Shevchenko outclassed her, outstriking her opponent 230-3.
The win over Joanna Jedrzejczyk also was notable because she was a former champion. And of course, the second-round head-kick knockout of Jessica Eye was just downright vicious. I know I'm listing all three of her flyweight wins in the UFC, but they were all tremendous. And let's not speak ill of her wins at 135 over Holly Holm and Julianna Pena. I honestly can't say enough good things about how Shevchenko has looked as of late. I think she is one of the most well-rounded fighters in the sport, regardless of weight class or gender.
Raimondi: Nunes left bantamweight for featherweight in 2018 and knocked out Cyborg in slugfest eight months ago at UFC 232. Cyborg was the -250 favorite, the featherweight champion and the most dominant women's MMA fighter of all time going in. And Nunes made quick work of her in the first round. No one had ever seen Cyborg hit like that.
Most thought Cyborg could beat Nunes, and it could not have gone any more differently.
Nunes' head-kick knockout of Holly Holm was almost as impressive, but Nunes was a big -350 favorite coming in.