Noche UFC: Shevchenko-Grasso rivalry stutters with split draw main event
Josh McNally

While the UFC has been spending millions developing Abu Dhabi and China into potential future markets and making regular visits to the UK and France to capitalize on, and siphon off talent from, the ongoing boom in MMA there, under their noses, Mexico got three champions: Yair Rodriguez, Brandon Moreno and Alexa Grasso.

To capitalize on this boom, the UFC took the Fight Night event booked for September 17, placed it in the T-Mobile Arena in Nevada and renamed the show "Noche UFC" to capitalize on Mexican Independence Day. It was such a grand gesture that Mexican boxing champion Canelo Alvarez, known for being a patriot who arranges all his fights to major dates in the Mexican calendar, pushed his fight with Jermell Charlo to the end of the month.

But, to paraphrase Scottish poet Robert Burns, the best laid plans of mice and Dana White often go awry: Rodriguez lost his interim title in a unification bout with Alexander Volkanovski, Brandon Moreno lost his championship to longtime rival Alexandre Pantoja and, in the meantime, Irene Aldana got hotshotted into the women's title picture against Amanda Nunes and put in one of the worst main event performances of all time.

That left Alexa Grasso as the last champion standing, and they booked her in a rematch with the person she beat for the women's flyweight title, Valentina Shevchenko.

Going into their contest at UFC 285 on March 4, 2023, Shevchenko was unbeaten in nine with an overall record of 23-3 and on her eighth defense of the 125lb title. Grasso took the first round but Shevchenko stormed back with her grappling in the second and third and, going into the fourth, had a big lead on the scorecards – then she threw her trademark spinning back kick.

Against all other opponents, this kick created space for Shevchenko to escape pressure. But Grasso had prepared well. She capitalized on the rotation, took Shevchenko's back and shocked the world by forcing her to submit to a brutal face crank.

With the champion winning at the moment of her defeat, it's one of the few times an immediate rematch made sense and, when the bell rang at Noche UFC, it felt as if the fight from months prior was continuing as if Grasso's win didn't happen.

Shevchenko, a multi-time muay thai and kickboxing champion before she jumped to MMA, controlled the range with her striking and, as with their first contest, going for grapples and takedowns when Grasso got a bit too close.

In the second, it became clear that Shevchenko was concerned about throwing kicks with any menace, as that was what led to her losing previously and Grasso picked up on it. She moved into range and walloped Shevchenko was a right hook, getting a knockdown, and forcing her to turtle up. But Grasso couldn't get a finish and Shevchenko got back to her feet for another takedown.

In the third, Shevchenko began with a massive takedown and established over three minutes of control time which didn't get a finish but clearly fatigued Grasso. As with the previous fight, Valentina improved as time progressed and in the fourth, weathered a flurry of knees to cut her opponent wide open with a short, sharp elbow and seemed to be cruising to becoming a two-time champion.

And in the fifth, she tagged Grasso over and over again with a jab. She had taken the reluctance to engage from the opening round and turned it to her advantage in the finale. And then, for no reason at all, attempts a head an arm throw from a clinch and ends up on bottom. Once again, Grasso pounced and spent 90 seconds on her back, trying again for the face crank that won last time.

It was a close, exciting fight, defined by Shevchenko's finesse collapsing into error when the heavy-handed Grasso pushed the pace.

The way Bruce Buffer began reading the scores signaled it was obviously a split decision. Judge Sal D'Amato scored it 48-47 for Shevchenko, Junichiro Kamijo 48-47 for Grasso – and then Mike Bell had it 47-47 making the fight a split draw. Bell scored round 5 as 10-8 for Grasso; had he graded it 10-9, Shevchenko would be champion.

Alexa Grasso kept her belt, but with a result nobody wanted and, worse, with the special branding for the show and every other Mexican dropping their belt, Valentina Shevchenko is already claiming bias. She might be right. And a one loss and one draw, she may never get another chance at the title.

(Header: Referee Herb Dean raises both Alexa Grasso (L) and Valentina Shevchenko's (R) hand following the split draw result to the UFC women's flyweight championship main event of Noche UFC at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. on September 17, 2023. /Zuffa)

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