After outpointing Viviane Araujo with slick boxing back in mid-October, Alexa Grasso  faces the toughest challenge of her 11-year professional career this weekend against long-reigning flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko. Riding a four-fight winning streak at 125lbs, is she ready for the Bullet?
Mixing the martial arts: Grasso gearing for uneasy task
Valentina Shevchenko (c) vs. Alexa Grasso  for Shevchenko’s flyweight title
She conceded during Thursday’s ceremonial press conference that she’d have to mix the martial arts to prove successful against a dominant titlist, one many critics have – not for the first time – confidently declared her championship reign is closing.
Most don’t expect it’ll end this weekend. Too big, too strong, too advanced for Alexa Grasso – that’s the assignment waiting a 29-year-old who unlike Lauren Murphy and Taila Santos before her, can point to an impressive resume of UFC opponents.
Two of her three defeats were close decisions (Felice Herrig, Carla Esparza), while recently-returning Tatiana Suarez justified her heavy favourite tag.
Swarming her with relentless grappling and swift transitions en route to a R1 submission win (rear-naked choke) five years ago, during Grasso’s strawweight stint.
Since then though, she’s only got better and more well-rounded.
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The majority decision defeat against two-time strawweight champion Esparza was a tough pill to swallow in a Fight of the Night contest on home soil, but she’s kept improving since moving up a weight class and passed every test thus far.
In an ideal world, you’d feel more confident in her chances of a competitive title challenge against Shevchenko with another five-round main event matchup against one more top-ranked contender, but women’s flyweight is constantly changing.
To put things into perspective, this is how the 125lb rankings looked, before the Mexican’s main event win last October:
October 15: Grasso bt. Araujo via unanimous decision (50-45, 49-46, 49-46)
This was billed as a clash of styles: how would Grasso deal with Araujo’s powerful, purposeful pressure? Armed with the division’s second-best takedown accuracy (54.6%) and staunch defence (90.5%), the Brazilian was bullish about her chances.
Grasso’s boxing is probably the best among her peers, while she’s also good in the clinch and her jiu-jitsu remains underrated.
Wrestling isn’t something she has taken to like a duck to water, though she showed against Joanne Wood last year that too is developing.
She stuffed eight of Araujo’s ten takedown attempts during a competitive, but ultimately comfortable decision victory.
It was one where Grasso’s stiff jab and one-two combos were present from the early exchanges as they largely fought in the pocket.
Having outstruck Araujo for large periods, R1 saw her defend a level change and reverse a takedown late in the round, allowing her an opportunity to land knees in the clinch.
Not telegraphing her kicks, whether low or high, was another important tactic she utilised frequently. That will be an interesting x-factor this weekend too.
Often firing first and counterpunching with success, she had to fend off some adversity in R2 after a frenzied start to the round.
The 36-year-old landed a two-punch body combination and swiftly shot for a takedown, logging 1:38 worth of control time before Grasso’s explosive get up.
Paul Felder and Dominick Cruz both criticised the Brazilian for failing to capitalise on a good position on the ground, given Grasso’s perceived weaknesses there.
She could’ve stolen round two late, after landing a series of stinging one-twos to finish assertively.
Striking totals – significant:
R1: 33-30 Grasso – 32-27
R2: 57-26 Grasso – 38-20
R3: 34-30 Grasso – same
R4: 36-30 Grasso – 25-24 Araujo
R5: 33-32 Grasso – 25-24
Cruz said neither wanted to be taken down by the other, hence their low stances and a focus on balance in R3 – though Grasso was again catching her with more significant strikes.
Araujo couldn’t mask her big reactions to being hit clean in R4, despite forcing the issue and throwing more strikes as they entered the championship rounds.
Grasso again displayed good takedown defence and landed more clinch strikes, defending a swarming attack against the fence in the final minute.
Then in the fifth, Vivi didn’t show much urgency to maintain that pressure. Another stuffed takedown came, before they clinched briefly and Grasso managed distance well enough on the back foot, connecting on flurries and dirty boxing to the horn.
“I trained really hard for this, knew she’d try take me down to the ground. If you get on the ground, gotta stand up as fast as you can so your opponent will be tired. She’s a tough warrior, I’ve upgraded myself to five rounds – you need these challenges to grow.”
She made sure to praise matchmaker Mick Maynard post-fight for always knowing which challenges to present her, and Shevchenko isn’t unbeatable.
The 34-year-old has been a long-reigning champion for a reason though, and it’ll be interesting to see how the challenger approaches the biggest fight of her career – one many deem just another title defence for Bullet before bigger tests later this year.
UFC 285 card, is as follows
Main card (Sunday, 3am BST)
Vacant heavyweight championship: Jon Jones vs. Ciryl Gane 
Women’s flyweight championship: Valentina Shevchenko (c) vs. Alexa Grasso 
Catchweight (175lbs): Geoff Neal  vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov 
Lightweight: Mateusz Gamrot  vs. Jalin Turner 
Middleweight: Bo Nickal vs. Jamie Pickett
Prelims (Sunday, 1am BST)
Bantamweight: Cody Garbrandt vs. Trevin Jones
Middleweight: Derek Brunson  vs. Dricus du Plessis 
Women’s flyweight: Viviane Araujo  vs. Amanda Ribas [9 at strawweight]
Middleweight: Julian Marquez vs. Marc-Andre Barriault
Early prelims (Saturday, 11pm BST)
Welterweight: Ian Garry vs. Song Kenan
Catchweight (137lbs): Cameron Saaiman vs. Leomana Martinez
Women’s Strawweight: Jessica Penne vs. Tabatha Ricci
Bantamweight: Da’Mon Blackshear vs. Farid Basharat
Lightweight: Esteban Ribovics vs. Loik Radzhabov
Picture source: Getty Images, fighter quotes hyperlinked