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Wednesday November 25th, 2020 8:15AM

Figueiredo, Shevchenko defend flyweight belts at UFC 255

By The Associated Press
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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Not so long ago, the UFC men's flyweight division was so thin and so boring that Dana White considered dropping the whole weight class.

A brilliant Brazilian champion nicknamed the “God of War” has changed everything for the smallest men on the UFC roster.

Deiveson Figueiredo stopped Alex Perez with a guillotine choke in the first round at UFC 255 on Saturday night, defending his men's 125-pound belt for the first time with another impressive stoppage.

Valentina Shevchenko defended the women's flyweight title with a surprisingly challenging unanimous decision over Jennifer Maia at the UFC Apex gym on the promotion’s corporate campus in its hometown.

Figueiredo (20-1) earned his record-tying seventh stoppage victory in the 125-pound division by clamping onto Perez's neck out of a scramble at 1:57 in the opening round.

Perez (24-6) had nearly taken Figueiredo's back an instant before the champ finished the entertaining fight with the flair and skill that have made him a rising mixed martial arts star in the UFC's least popular weight class.

“I came in here with no pressure,” Figueiredo said. “I know this is my belt. I know I’m going to be the champion for a long time. I came here to do what I told everybody I’m going to do. I said to everybody, ‘I’m going to finish this fight in the first round.’ And I finished the fight in the first round.”

Figueiredo claimed his title earlier this year with his second consecutive victory over Joseph Benavidez, finally ascending to the peak of a UFC division with only two previous champions. Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson dominated the flyweight ranks for six years before Henry Cejudo dethroned him in 2018.

“I came here to knock out, to submit everybody,” Figueiredo said. “I want to dominate this division. I want to give a good show for the people.”

Figueiredo's exciting victory fits the plan for the UFC, which would love to spark public interest in the quiet flyweight division with a dominant title reign by Figueiredo, a former sushi chef and hairdresser’s assistant from the mouth of the Amazon.

With 17 stoppages in his first 20 career victories, Figueiredo’s ability to finish his fights is unusual in the flyweight division — and exactly what it needs to attract fans.

“He looked incredible tonight,” White said. “He’s fun to watch. He can knock you out. He can submit you. He’s got that meanness to him. If you don’t like this guy, stop watching fights. You need to find a new hobby if you don’t like watching him.”

Mindful of building a star while he's on the rise, White even said he wants Figueiredo to return to the cage next month against contender Brandon Moreno, likely at UFC 256 on Dec. 12. Figueiredo sounded open to the possibility for the right price.

“I think I'm going to destroy Brandon Moreno, but I want the boss to show the desire to see this fight," Figueiredo said.

Earlier, Shevchenko (20-3) earned her sixth consecutive victory as a UFC flyweight and her fourth title defense, but the dominant champ had to work much harder than almost everyone expected.

Maia (18-7-1), one of the biggest underdogs in UFC title fight history, stretched Shevchenko to the limit and even won the second round on all three cards against a champion who had barely been tested during her nearly three-year run at 125 pounds.

“She has a lot of natural power, but it doesn’t mean that it was hard for me,” said Shevchenko, who won 49-46 on all three cards. “It was just holding. There is no damage. There is no nothing. Just hold. I was like, ‘OK, you want to hold? Whatever. I will strike you.’”

For most of the show's penultimate bout, Shevchenko eschewed her dominant kickboxing and counterpunching in favor of takedowns and ground fighting with Maia.

After Shevchenko dominated the first round on the ground, Maia largely controlled the second round, also on the ground — no small feat against Shevchenko, who had lost only one round on the judges' scorecards in her entire UFC career as a flyweight.

Shevchenko didn't feel she was in trouble, but she had entered the cage with extra motivation: Her older sister, Antonia, stopped Ariane Lipski with punches on the undercard.

“She did so amazing that my thought was, I have to do the same,” Valentina said after they became the first sisters to compete on the same UFC card. “When I saw her victory, it was, OK, we have 1-0. Now we have to have 2-0. I didn’t want to come back and feel bad because of me.”

Shevchenko took down Maia twice in the third, and the champion picked apart Maia on their feet and on the ground in the fourth. Shevchenko bloodied Maia's face in the fifth round with strikes, but Maia survived to the final horn.

The 32-year-old Shevchenko has dominated the 125-pound division since December 2018, one year after the UFC created the belt. She hopes to fight four times in 2021.

Scotland's Paul Craig opened the pay-per-view portion of the show with a second-round stoppage of former light heavyweight champion Maurício “Shogun” Rua. White said afterward that he hopes Rua will retire.

Earlier, Moreno put himself in line for the next shot at the men's flyweight belt with a first-round stoppage of fellow top contender Brandon Royval.

___

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