How one of the UFC's blossoming stars just can't catch a break

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Valentina Shevchenko, right, won’t fight Nicco Montaño at UFC 228 in Dallas. (Getty)

Valentina Shevchenko stood in the Octagon at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, following an agonizingly close split decision loss to Amanda Nunes in a women’s bantamweight title fight at UFC 215 on Sept. 9, 2017, with a stunned looked on her face and her arms outstretched with palms up as if to say, “How?”

It was the kind of fight that could have gone either way, although Shevchenko had slim advantages in strikes landed, strikes thrown and striking percentage.

It’s all but impossible for those of us who don’t dedicate our lives to the sport to understand the torment a loss in a fight of that significance causes.

I’m guessing, though, that it’s nothing compared to what Shevchenko feels this morning: rage, bitterness, fury.

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Women’s flyweight champion Nicco Montaño fell ill during her weight cut Friday for her planned title defense against Shevchenko on Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 228 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas and was pulled from the show.

It continued a devastating run of bad luck for Shevchenko over the past 15 months.

She was supposed to fight Nunes for the bantamweight belt at UFC 213 in Las Vegas on July 8, 2017. On the morning of the fight, Nunes had sinus issues and withdrew from the card. So Shevchenko had gone through an entire camp, made weight and didn’t get to fight, setting up her heartbreaker in Edmonton.

And now on Friday, her worst fears came true. Throughout training camp, she spoke of her doubts about whether Montaño would show up to fight. At Thursday’s open workouts, ESPN’s Ariel Helwani pointed to a seemingly healthy Montaño across the room and asked Shevchenko if she still thought Montaño wouldn’t fight.

Shevchenko told Helwani that she wouldn’t believe it until she saw Montaño enter the Octagon. That won’t happen now, as Montaño struggled with her weight cut and was taken to a local hospital.

Shevchenko weighed in and looked in magnificent condition, coming in a half-pound under the division limit at 124.5. All that work she put in during camp to prepare once again is for naught.

Shevchenko is a star waiting for the chance to blossom, and the UFC’s creation of a flyweight division set her on the path to that. Montaño won the title by winning her season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” shrugging off a difficult weight cut then to best Roxanne Modafferi.

Shevchenko had been fighting up in weight because until late last year the UFC did not have a flyweight class for women. She was among the best at bantamweight, where she was giving away a lot of size, and had notable victories over ex-champion Holly Holm and Julianna Peña.

When the fight with Montaño was made, Shevchenko was a minus-1400 favorite, the biggest title fight favorite in UFC history. That meant that in order for a bettor to earn a $100 profit with a Shevchenko win, he’d have to wager $1,400.

Have no doubt, it’s a financial blow to Shevchenko, because in the UFC, the champions are the fighters who routinely make the most money.

It’s unlikely, though, that the thought of money ever crossed her mind Friday. The chance to show that she just may be the best pound-for-pound female fighter in the world was what she wanted. She wanted to wrap that belt around her waist to be able to say definitively she’s the best.

The fight is the reward for the sacrifices in training camp, and for the second time in 15 months, she’s been robbed of that.

Given her talent, her exciting fighting style and her charisma, she’s not going to have to wait long. She’ll either fight in an interim title fight or just be awarded the belt if the UFC determines it’s no longer safe for Montaño to fight at flyweight and strips her of her championship.

It’s hard to imagine, though, that any of it is of much consolation to Shevchenko today.

She once again lost her chance to make history. There may be no more snakebit fighter in the business than Valentina Shevchenko.

She could accept losing. And even though she believes deep in her soul that she did enough to beat Nunes at UFC 215, she understands she didn’t fight a perfect bout and that there were things she could have done better.

Not getting the opportunity after putting in the work, though, leaves her helpless.

That, more than anything, has to be the killer.

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