Alexa Grasso on Strickland similarities, UFC 5 cover and Shevchenko rematch at Noche UFC

When Alexa Grasso shocked the MMA world by upsetting Valentina Shevchenko to become the UFC women’s flyweight champion in March, she became the first Mexican UFC women’s champion in the promotion’s history. At the time, she joined Yair Rodriguez and Brandon Moreno as one of three Mexican UFC champions.

But as she prepares to defend her title in a rematch with Shevchenko on Mexican Independence Day weekend at the promotion’s first event celebrating Mexican fighters, coined as Noche UFC, she finds herself in the unenviable position of being the last line of defense for Mexican champions in the promotion. 

On Wednesday at media day, Grasso was presented with a custom “Tribe Belt No.1″ UFC championship strap that was designed with elements of Mexican culture in mind. This could be the last time she can call herself a champion as she will enter the rematch as the underdog according to oddsmakers.

Headlining a card on Mexican Independence Day for her first title defense against an all-time great — who has made it clear that she wants to rectify her “mistake” in the most violent way possible — sounds like a massive amount of pressure for the 30-year-old. 

WATCH: Noche UFC: Alexa Grasso vs. Valentina Shevchenko 2 on ESPN+

“I don’t call it pressure, I call it motivation,” Grasso said when asked if being the last Mexican champion standing adds pressure to her title defense. “We have done so much in the sport and this keeps me with tons of motivation to keep the belt in Mexico.”

It will certainly be an uphill battle for Grasso. When her and Shevchenko met in March, few gave her a chance at upsetting the long standing champion. But the fight was competitive for the first three rounds, with all three judges scoring it in favor of Shevchenko two rounds to one.

However, the way the fight was playing out raised eyebrows as Grasso refused to wilt until the pressure of the champion and marked her face up with a strong jab. 

With a minute to go in the fourth round, Shevchenko attempted a spinning back kick, which opened the door for Grasso to take her back. Within a matter of seconds, Grasso’s right bicep was wrapped around the champion’s face as the crowd at T-Mobile erupted in excitement.

Grasso’s grip tightened and Shevchenko’s face began to turn purple from the pressure for the neck crank. With nowhere to go, Shevchecnko tapped out and a new champion was crowned. 

Since then, her victory has been downplayed by both fans and Shevchenko, who have chalked up the loss to an “accident.” Grasso pushed back on that idea.  

“It just kind of surprised me because someone with such big experience and competing at such high level, we know that there are no accidents,” Grasso said.

“I trained for that moment. You can see the video that I have before the fight. I was training that exact same position. It was something that I trained to win that fight.”

If her win was truly an accident, how would you explain the fact that the UFC has seen 12 new champions crowned in the past 12 months with plenty of underdogs defying the odds to win?

MORE: Everything you need to know about Noche UFC

Of them all, the biggest title fight upset took place just a week ago when Sean Strickland dominated Israel Adesanya to become the UFC middleweight champion. Strickland’s wins served as validation for Grasso because she saw a lot of herself in Strickland heading into that fight. 

“Well, it’s a tricky moment. When you have all the doubts, everything against you. I think that motivates you,” Grasso told The Sporting News. “At that stage you’re like, why are all these people thinking that I’m not capable if they don’t know me. I’m pretty sure that he did that. When you have a lot of doubts, it gives you motivation to do your best and show, hey, I’m capable. I’m here and I will earn it.”

Heading into her title fight with Shevchenko, Grasso was riding a four-fight winning streak. However, losses to Carla Esparza and Tatiana Suarez made people hesitant to crown her as the next champion — especially considering that Shevchenko had dominated the flyweight division since her arrival, going 9-0 with five finishes and holding the championship for over four years. 

But it was a case of preparation meeting opportunity and Grasso took advantage of a Shevchenko misstep to hand her the first submission loss of her career. Shevchenko is laser focused heading into the rematch but that hasn’t rattled Grasso one bit.

MORE: How to bet on Grasso vs. Shevchenko 2

“Making history is never easy,” Grasso said. “I’ve been working so hard every single day of my life to get to this moment. This camp was no different but I’m training more and everything that has to be done to win the fight again.”

Few expect Grasso to retain. EA Sports’ fifth instalment for the UFC series recently revealed the cover athletes and it was none other than Shevchenko landing the coveted spot on the art. You’d think that Grasso would feel slighted considering that she had just dethroned “Bullet” but that is not the case. 

“No, I don’t think they made a mistake,” Grasso said when asked if she wanted to prove that EA made an error by not putting her on the box. “We can’t forget about everything she has done for the sport. She’s a big star. It’s not like just a win gets you all the credit you have done.” 

As they say, getting to the top of the mountain is hard, but staying there is a lot more difficult. And that’s what Grasso takes to heart so there will be no reason to toot her own horn until her accomplishments rival her opponent on Saturday. And it all starts by proving the first win wasn’t a fluke.

“Right now, I have to earn [the cover]. I have to have a lot of title defenses and then, after, I would hope that I could have my face on the cover of the game.” 

WATCH: Noche UFC: Alexa Grasso vs. Valentina Shevchenko 2 on ESPN+

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