LAS VEGAS — Jennifer Maia knows what everyone is thinking. And, in some cases, what they’re saying out loud.
She challenges Valentina Shevchenko on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+ PPV) at Apex in the co-main event of UFC 255 for the women’s flyweight championship in a bout that no one expects her to win. Shevchenko is a massive -1500 favorite at the MGM Grand Sports Book.
Shevchenko is one of the most dominant fighters in UFC history. She’s 19-3 and her losses came in a pair of close decisions to Amanda Nunes and in a hotly disputed stoppage on cuts to Liz Carmouche.
Maia, the conventional wisdom goes, is simply cannon fodder, there because the rules require two women in the cage. But Maia, predictably, is having none of that talk.
“The people who are giving me no chance, they don’t know me and don’t know what’s in my heart and they don’t know what I have done to get here,” Maia said. “Valentina is a great fighter. No one is disputing that, certainly not me. But she’s human. She’s not invincible. Everyone can be beaten.”
A former Invicta flyweight champion, Maia knows what it’s like to have a target on her back, and she knows the pressures that await Shevchenko.
The demands on Shevchenko’s time are significant, and getting more each day. Each opponent she faces has been targeting her for a long time, while she only focuses on who is in front of her at the moment.
The weight of the expectations are great.
“She is the champion and she deserves all of the recognition that she is getting,” Maia said. “But I don’t have to worry about her past. I just have to worry about being better than her on that one night.”
That, though, is going to be easier said than done given Shevchenko’s unusual ability to focus on the task at hand. Nearly every fighter will tell you they’re not looking ahead, but it’s only true about half of the time.
But when Shevchenko says it, you believe her because of the way she’s conducted herself. Even though she lost twice to Nunes, she’s in the conversation as the greatest women’s fighter in MMA history because she was fighting well out of her weight class.
She’s constantly evolving and adds to her game each time. She doesn’t get stagnant because she’s not just trying to maintain.
Her attitude is also different than most. The pressures of the championship have caused some to crumble from within, but Shevchenko welcomes them. It’s what she’s been shooting for her entire career and, really, ever since her mother put her and older sister, Antonina, in martial arts classes as young girls.
“It’s so perfect. Perfect,” Shevchenko said of the added attention she gets as a champion. “It’s exactly where I want to be. I know exactly what pressure I have. I know what the main thing is, and the main thing is winning the fight. Of course, I know I have to do everything I can to promote the fight before the fight.
“But at the same time, I know how to control my energy to leave everything for the fight. That way, I can make an explosion and show everything I have.”
And that’s where her years of training in martial arts come into play. She has yet to show even a shred of complacency or nonchalance.
Though she has many varied interests, speaks four languages and loves to travel, at her core she is all about fighting.
“It’s my life,” she said. “Martial arts, I love to do it. I love to train. I love to see what limits my body can reach every day in the single training. It’s just my passion for martial arts, so I don’t have to have any [outside] motivation. I don’t have to have anything extra, because it’s already in me. It’s my love for martial arts. It pushes me every time to do something else, something bigger, something more interesting.
“I think it’s amazing. Even the hardest task, the hardest things that you are doing, it’s not so difficult when you love what you’re doing.”
Maia is a gifted fighter, as she proved when she submitted Joanne Calderwood. But there is gifted, and then there is Valentina Shevchenko.
Maia has gotten herself into something even she may not understand. If she pulls it off, it will be an even bigger upset than when Holly Holm beat Ronda Rousey five years ago.
In retrospect, Rousey was vulnerable going into the Holm fight, but she’d been so dominant many looked past the signs.
But if Shevchenko is showing any vulnerabilities, not even the game’s most trained eyes have picked up on it.
Maia is good, perhaps even very good.
Shevchenko is an all-time great whose exploits will forever be remembered as long as women fight in the UFC.
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