Valentina Shevchenko extended her winning streak Saturday at UFC 275, defeating Taila Santos in a flyweight championship bout that went the distance and ultimately ended with the champ retaining her title.
"My goal was to find a way to get that victory," says Shevchenko, who won by split decision. "That defines a champion. I never give up, no matter what I am up against."
Shevchenko improved her winning streak to nine straight in the co-main event at UFC 275.
Shevchenko (23-3 MMA, 12-2 UFC) landed more significant strikes, 77 to 55, and caused far more damage. But it was Santos (19-2 MMA, 4-2 UFC) who held a decisive advantage in grappling. While both fighters landed three takedowns, Santos controlled the action on the mat for eight minutes and 49 seconds, more than double the amount of time that Shevchenko held her down.
Santos provided a legitimate challenge, but Shevchenko was quick to state that it was nothing she could not handle.
"Santos did exactly what I expected," Shevchenko says. "She used her weight, which helped her wrestling. But no matter the position she put me in, even when she was on my back, I was never in critical trouble. None of the positions were too dangerous. I was never in any danger."
The turning point came in the third round when Shevchenko and Santos had an accidental head clash. Santos took the brunt of it, and it was later learned she suffered a broken orbital bone. She was barely able to open her right eye at the beginning of the fourth round, and the injury was only exacerbated by the ensuing punishment. Once Shevchenko saw that Santos was compromised, she attacked.
"I heard my sister Antonina in my corner, and she was saying to finish her," Shevchenko says. "She didn't want me to think; she wanted me to go after her. That is when I become more aggressive and put her in real trouble.
Shevchenko controlled the majority of the final two rounds, erasing any fleeting thought that was going to lose her title.
"I did not want to go the judges; that is not what I want to do," Shevchenko says. "But that happens, so I worked until the very last second to make their decision easier. And those final two rounds, that's when I did the most damage."
After the valiant effort from Santos, there is no clarity regarding Shevchenko's next opponent. She has a nine-fight win streak and could avenge her last loss, which took place five years ago against Amanda Nunes – who has defeated her twice. Or, if Julianna Peña defeats Nunes and retains the middleweight title, Shevchenko could jump weight classes in pursuit of her second victory against Peña and a second championship. Either of those bouts would serve as a pay-per-view main event, a spot that Shevchenko has earned.
"The main event, that's what I am working toward. That is what I want, and I will keep working as hard as possible for it to happen."
This story first published at SI.com/MMA.