She had no chance.
That’s what people were saying when Alexa Grasso finally got her shot at UFC gold.
It wasn’t because Grasso wasn’t quality or because she had gotten lucky on her way to the belt, or even because a rightful contender was injured or skipped over, and she wasn’t the best-suited person for the job. Quite the opposite. Grasso was undefeated at flyweight, was highly ranked, and had four consecutive wins.
Yet, it didn’t matter who Grasso beat or how she looked doing it. The Mexican fighter was never going to come close to Valentina Shevchenko in terms of betting odds, and to be fair, that was true for any woman in the division.
Prior to UFC 285 on March 4, 2023, Shevchenko carried a prestige and an aura that UFC champions dream of. She wasn’t just the best at that current time in her division. She was a generational talent, a living legend, and already an all-time great who ruled over the UFC’s women’s 125-pound division with unmatched discipline and vast technical superiority.
No matter what Grasso did, she had no shot at beating Shevchenko, much less finishing her. If lucky, she might be able to say she went the distance with the greatest female flyweight in MMA history. That was the public sentiment.
Yet, MMA is going to MMA.
Meaning, just when you think a result is a given, the sport will remind you that you know nothing, and that fighters can make unimaginable leaps in evolution. That’s exactly what happened.
In the first round, Grasso more than held her own. To many’s surprise, she walked down Shevchenko, connecting with her crisp boxing. On all the judges’ scorecards that night in Las Vegas, Grasso won the first round.
In the second and third round, things returned to normality. Grasso would have her moments, but Shevchenko’s versatility kicked in, as she had success on the feet and mixed in her takedowns and dominant positioning. It seemed Grasso was en route to a moral victory. Even while losing, Grasso was looking phenomenal compared to Shevchenko’s previous title challengers. She wasn’t getting run over.
However, Grasso wanted to be more than a title contender waiting for the day Shevchenko retired from the sport, so then she could make a real run at the belt.
In the final minute of the fourth round, Grasso countered one of Shevchenko’s main attacks and took her back, something she had practiced in the lead up to the fight. From there, there was no mercy. Grasso would go for the rear-naked choke. As expected, Shevchenko did the proper defense by tucking in her chin, so that Grasso didn’t attack her neck – but that didn’t matter. Grasso was going to become champion, with or without her neck.
Grasso squeezed the jaw of Shevchenko with incredible pressure. It was too much to handle. Reluctantly, Shevchenko had no choice, but to find a way to relieve the pain, and there was only one way to do that – tapping out.
It was an incredible moment, literally.
Shevchenko’s historic run of title defenses shockingly came to an. She had never been finished in her career, and her only two losses in the UFC came a division above against the consensus greatest female fighter of all time, Amanda Nunes.
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Few saw Grasso surviving 25 minutes, even less people saw her winning, and nobody saw her submitting Shevchenko. That’s why Grasso’s title-winning victory is MMA Junkie’s 2023 Upset of the Year.