UFC 266: Shevchenko Looks to Display Greatness Against Murphy

Valentina Shevchenko and Lauren Murphy, UFC 266
Valentina Shevchenko and Lauren Murphy, UFC 266 press conference Credit: Gabriel Gonzalez/Cageside Press

UFC flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko is on the cusp of a division sweep and only Lauren Murphy is left standing in her way at UFC 266.

Rather than recite Valentina Shevchenko’s accomplishments once again, it is easier to discuss what she has left to do.  Currently, she has five title defenses, trailing only Amanda Nunes and Ronda Rousey who are tied with seven apiece in the history of the women’s divisions in the UFC.  Perhaps more importantly, she will have defeated four of the top five fighters in her weight class.  In the eyes of many, Saturday is considered her last step towards a sweep of the division.  While new contenders will emerge, most see Murphy as the last of an established guard for “The Bullet.”

If you need more convincing of her greatness, you should remember that the flyweight numbers don’t tell the whole story for Shevchenko.  She’s gone the distance twice with pound-for-pound great Nunes at bantamweight, the latter of which many scored for Shevchenko.  She’s also stopped upcoming title challenger Julianna Pena and won a decision against perennial title contender Holly Holm.  While Shevchenko competes most optimally at 125 pounds, she’s also proven herself to be an elite talent at 135 pounds should she choose to move up again.

It took several years of grinding, but “Lucky” Lauren Murphy is finally on the cusp of reaching the sport’s summit.  A professional since 2010, Murphy took a unique route in that she began her career at bantamweight and was already signed to the UFC when she moved down in weight to join The Ultimate Fighter in 2017.  While she entered as one of the most experienced women on the show with four UFC fights, she was eliminated early by eventual winner Nicco Montano.  Murphy struggled to gain momentum right after the show, dropping a decision to Sijara Eubanks and was out of action for roughly a year due to a foot injury.

When Murphy returned, it was the start of an impressive fight fight win-streak as she reeled off consecutive victories over veterans such as Joanne Calderwood, Andrea Lee, and Roxanne Modafferi.  However, she is also at a precarious tipping point.  At 38 years old, Murphy is a late-bloomer.  While she is at the top of her game going into her first UFC title opportunity, the competition will only get increasingly younger.  While any fight is a must-win, it would be an unenviable position to have to regroup at this stage of her career if she comes up short.

Murphy’s greatest strengths are her physicality and her ground game, two attributes that most have concluded are paramount toward defeating Shevchenko.  Murphy must push forward and be prepared for the counter-striking of the champion as she closes the distance to work for takedowns.   Her biggest challenge will be getting in close against arguably the best fighter in the history of the women’s game at maintaining the fight at her preferred range.  Shevchenko should look to take a patient approach, staying off the fence and using a multi-faceted attack to make Murphy weary of entering the pocket.

A win for Murphy would be a seminal moment as she would upset one of the best talents ever seen in women’s MMA.  A rematch would be a no-brainer, with heavy anticipation for the bout in 2022.  A win for Shevchenko would lead to a search for new competition from a rising contender or perhaps to see if there will indeed be a third fight against Amanda Nunes should “The Lioness” win her fight in December.