In early 2017, women’s flyweight bouts were mostly being contested on the regional scene, with Invicta FC reigning as the premier promoter of the category. As the year moved on, though, major promotions started getting on board with the idea of the 125-pound women’s division. When the UFC made the announcement that it too would add the weight class through the familiar The Ultimate Fighter format, fans and media began crowning their favorite fighters as the obvious queen of the new division.
Going into The Ultimate Fighter 26 Finale on Dec. 1, the promotion thought it had it all figured out. Nicco Montaño and Sijara Eubanks became the unlikely finalists after working their way through the TUF house and defeating prospects, proven veterans and former champions along the way. The two ladies were expected to compete for the inaugural UFC women’s flyweight title, but it was not meant to be. Eubanks was removed from the bout the day before the big fight due to medical issues that arose during a tough cut to the contracted weight. She was quickly replaced by the woman she defeated to earn the shot at the title, Roxanne Modafferi.
Montaño defeated Modafferi to make history by becoming the first woman to be crowned champion at the flyweight level under the UFC banner. Most expected that Eubanks would be the first challenger to Montaño’s crown, but now, three months removed from the experience, it is anyone’s guess what will happen next.
With no flyweight title bout scheduled, the debate has turned to who should get the first shot. The discussion revolves around three fighters: the aforementioned Eubanks, former bantamweight title challenger Valentina Shevchenko and current No. 1-ranked flyweight and Invicta FC champion Jennifer Maia.
Why the rush with Shevchenko?
Well, her fanbase has grown substantially since her debut for the industry leader at UFC on Fox 17 in late 2015. The multiple-time Muay Thai and kickboxing world champion was given a stiff test in her first outing, but she outpointed Sarah Kaufman to earn her first win for a major MMA promotion.
After going 3-2 at bantamweight with her only defeats coming in the form of close decision setbacks to Amanda Nunes, Shevchenko decided to set her sights on flyweight. Before she had even fought Priscila Cachoeira, many in the media were already calling her the uncrowned champion of the 125-pound weight class. She looked the part in her flyweight debut as she thoroughly dominated her Brazilian opponent before stopping her in the second round.
While Shevchenko has enjoyed success at bantamweight, she needs a win over a top-10 or top-15 opponent before she’s granted a title bout, especially with more qualified fighters lying in wait.
Why the rush with Eubanks?
The TUF finalist may not have the accomplishments on her resume that Shevchenko does, but she is more deserving of a title shot. She was all but guaranteed a title fight by making it through the TUF competition. Her victory over former Strikeforce, Invicta and UFC title challenger Modafferi opened a lot of eyes, but the misstep on the scales hurt her chances.
Instead of trying to rebook Eubanks against Montaño, the promotion has decided to go in another direction. On June 1 at UFC Fight Night 130, Eubanks will face former Invicta bantamweight titleholder Lauren Murphy. A win over Murphy may be enough to get Eubanks back in the good graces of the UFC, while at the same time inching her closer to the top of the ladder.
Why the wait for Maia?
The newest addition to the flyweight roster is Jennifer Maia. With Maia currently ranked No. 1 in the division and entering the promotion as the most recent Invicta champion at the weight, it is easy to see why she is the most deserving out of these three potential title challengers. In addition, Maia is on a six-fight winning streak that includes victories over the likes of Aga Niedźwiedź, Modafferi and Vanessa Porto.
If the UFC fails to book Maia against Montaño for the belt, then it could result in the top fighter in the division not holding the title for the promotion. This move could delegitimize the current champion.
Flyweight is the only category in the UFC where the current champion is not the top-ranked fighter in the weight class. If the promotion decides to go any route other than pitting Maia against Montaño, expect it to stay that way.