Yet, with all due respect to Santos, the focus is not on her, but rather Shevchenko's next opponent – which will most likely be the winner of the bantamweight title bout in July pitting champ Julianna Peña against Amanda Nunes.
"I'm open to a return to bantamweight against Amanda or Julianna," says Shevchenko, who has lost twice to Nunes – the first being a unanimous decision in 2016, then the second a split a year later in 2017 – but defeated Peña by submission in 2017, as well. "A trilogy with Amanda would be amazing, or a rematch against Julianna would be very interesting. I'm definitely open to either of those opportunities."
Shevchenko (22-3 MMA, 11-2 UFC) is the overwhelming favorite as she seeks her ninth straight victory, and it is impossible not to look ahead. A victory Saturday would further clear out the contenders at flyweight. Santos is currently ranked fourth in the division, and Shevchenko has already defeated everyone else in the top five.
Either Peña or Nunes would headline a pay-per-view against Shevchenko, which she cannot currently do with her current slate of opponents in the flyweight division. And that is the case with the less-heralded Santos (19-1 MMA, 4-1 UFC), as this is the co-main event fight underneath Glover Teixeira defending the light heavyweight title against Jiri Prochazka. UFC 275 will mark Shevchenko's fifth straight title defense where she does not headline the card, but that streak would come to an end if she fights Nunes or Peña.
While Santos has won her past four fights – most recently, coming off a dominant victory against Joanne Wood in November – she has never faced a challenge like Shevchenko. While Shevchenko has advantages in her striking and her ground game, she refuses to take Santos lightly.
"I don't just close my eyes and think I'm the best," Shevchenko says. "I know how tough she is. Anything can happen, and that's why I put in so much preparation. I've worked very hard with my team. I feel great, I feel strong and I'm ready for the defense."
Shevchenko continues to reach new levels of excellence. She returned in November 2020 after requiring surgery to repair her medial collateral ligament, then effectively used the five rounds against Jennifer Maia at UFC 255 as a sparring session to test out her leg. Since then, she's defeated Jessica Andrade by TKO, ushering her out of the flyweight division, and has followed that up with another TKO in her fight against Lauren Murphy last September. Only 34, Shevchenko believes she is just now entering her prime.
"This is my time," Shevchenko says. "Age is just a number. I've never felt better."
This upcoming stretch will help define Shevchenko's legacy. She needs the victory against Santos, preferably in a convincing manner, which should open up the possibility for career-defining moments in the bantamweight division. Finally solving the Nunes puzzle would further cement Shevchenko's legacy as one of the greatest ever. If, in addition to that, Shevchenko could also string together a few wins as champion of both the flyweight and bantamweight division, it would elevate her to another tier of greatness.
All of that is moot until she defeats Santos on Saturday, a fact no one understands better than Shevchenko.
"This is my life," Shevchenko says. "I want to win; I need to win. There is nothing else more important than this."
This story first published at SI.com/MMA.