Little by little, Valentina Shevchenko's MMA game peels away new layers, exposing a mastery far beyond what reveals itself in any cursory viewing. She can fight in and out, fast and slow. She can box and wrestle. She's sharp and tactical.
If there is any issue for Shevchenko, it's her size. She is a natural flyweight, but that's a division the UFC does not have for women, so she fights on and manages to excel one class above where she should be.
She is so good, in fact, that her ultimate bantamweight destination is to be the division's champion. After Shevchenko beat Julianna Pena on Saturday at UFC on Fox 23, the only one standing between her and destiny is champion Amanda Nunes.
Nunes is the same fighter who beat her once before, but who she dominated in the third round of their bout after the Brazilian ran out of gas. The next time they meet, it will be for five rounds. More time for Shevchenko to implement her fight IQ, her complete game, her stamina.
Shevchenko will almost certainly get the opportunity to face Nunes again after submitting Pena with a second-round armbar victory in Denver. She will almost certainly win.
More on that later.
Saturday night was a crowning moment in itself, another one to follow her recent defeat of former 135-pound champ Holly Holm, a woman who is big enough to soon be fighting for the inaugural featherweight belt.
This one was notable because it was different—the method of victory coming as a surprise that highlights Shevchenko's complete skill set.
It had been years since she had tapped out an opponent. In fact, she hadn't pulled off the trick in a full decade, since tying up Yulia Nemtsova in an Ezekiel choke in March 2006.
In the time since, she's mostly been viewed as a stand-up stylist who displays technical muay thai and poise.
While it has been clear that her game has been rounding out, the close of the fight was a master's trap; the finish both measured and sharp. After spending over a minute on her back with Pena in her guard, she trapped Pena's right arm with her own, shifted her hips and completed the arm lock.
It was a checkmate kind of moment, one predicated on ring smarts over sheer aggression.
"I don't know what you guys thought, but I thought if the fight stays standing, Shevchenko wins all day," UFC President Dana White said in the post-fight press conference. "If it goes to the ground, Julianna Pena was going to submit her or ground-and-pound her or something. You never know. Shevchenko proved us wrong, that she's a very well-rounded mixed martial artist, and that she's ready for a title fight. Stylistically, I think it's a very fun fight with these two."
It will be, and Shevchenko should be considered the favorite in the bout due to Nunes' propensity for fading as fights go on. She has fast hands and crushing power, but both of those attributes have proved to be temporary weapons.
Witness, for instance, the third round of their first bout. Final strike count of the third round? Shevchenko 17, Nunes three. And those FightMetric numbers aren't a one-off mirage. Nunes landed zero in the final round against Cat Zingano—a fight she dominated early before losing via third-round stoppage. It was a similar story against Alexis Davis several years ago.
If Nunes begins to struggle around the 10-minute mark, 25 will seem like an eternity. In that kind of fight, you have to pick Shevchenko.
Her success feels like something of a throwback to earlier MMA, when there were clear distinctions between skill and size, and the former could make up for a lack of the latter. All these years later, the gap has mostly closed, and it's the rare athlete who can continually succeed while being undersized.
Yet that's exactly what Shevchenko is doing, much like Demetrious Johnson did in the men's bantamweight division before the UFC instituted his natural weight class, flyweight, allowing him to dominate. Even fighting up, Johnson came within a couple of rounds of winning the belt.
Shevchenko can go one step further later this year.
Of course, she will have to play everything just right. Nunes' explosion is not to be ignored, but the same could have been said about Holm and Pena, who often fights with an intensity that makes it seem like there is something personal at stake. What she lacks in proficiency, she makes up for with aggression. Yet that kind of approach usually only works up to a certain level.
Pena found the dividing line Saturday, and early. After trapping Shevchenko against the fence in the opening minutes of the first, she threw a series of knees. However, Shevchenko recognized the pattern, caught one in the series and used it to sweep Pena's left leg, scoring a takedown.
Moments later, she did the same thing.
In that moment, it was easy to get the feeling that they were playing on two different planes of enlightenment.
"You know I can say exactly about Pena, she's good fighter," Shevchenko said in the press conference. "She's wild. But I'm a master."
With each passing round, she's proving that to be true.
Always undersized and often outgunned, Shevchenko is something to see. And by the end of the next time we see her, she may have proof of her mastery strapped in gold around her waist.