LAS VEGAS — Noche UFC was a great idea executed perfectly Saturday. In their wildest dreams, UFC officials couldn’t have hoped to script a better show: The promotion’s first card on Mexican Independence Day weekend was sensational from start to finish, and the rematch for the women’s flyweight title between champion Alexa Grasso and former champion Valentina Shevchenko was one for the ages.
It was a close, competitive fight and one could make a case for either side winning, but it ended in a split draw. Junichiro Kamijo had it 48-47 for Grasso, the same as Yahoo Sports. Sal D’Amato scored it 48-47 for Shevchenko.
Both scores were reasonable, acceptable and defensible.
Then were was the 47-47 score turned in by Mike Bell. It left both fighters as well as the 18,766 fans at T-Mobile Arena unhappy and sucked a lot of the life out of a very loud and energetic crowd.
Bell gave Shevchenko Rounds 1, 3 and 4, putting her up 39-37 heading to the final round. Shevchenko came out intent on taking the fifth to regain her title. And for the first roughly three minutes of the last, she was in command.
She tried for a headlock takedown, but Grasso wound up on top when they landed. She had Shevchenko’s back and put her in a body triangle. Grasso was pummeling Shevchenko with hammer fists and threatened submissions.
Though Grasso was clearly trailing midway through the fifth, nearly everyone who watched, including the most diehard Shevchenko fan, would have to admit that Grasso did enough to win the final round.
Bell, though, inexplicably gave Grasso an extra point that made his fifth-round card 10-8, leading to his final 47-47 score. Since Shevchenko was clearly ahead in the fifth before the takedown, that meant that Bell gave Grasso a three-point swing for her work in the waning moments. And there’s no way she came close to a three-point swing in the final seconds.
That score, though, turned a great night into an ugh night. As the champion, Grasso retained her title, but she didn’t win. She gave her blood in the pursuit of victory, but didn’t get it.
Shevchenko poured her heart and soul into the rematch and gave everything she had. She fought on after breaking her thumb in the first round. She didn’t complain after Grasso kneed her in the head multiple times in the third when her hand was touching the mat. Given Shevchenko’s hand was on the mat, the knees were illegal, but referee Herb Dean didn’t call it.
By the narrowest of margins, 8-7, Shevchenko won more rounds but didn’t get either the win or the belt.
“I think I did everything to secure the victory but unfortunately, this event was Mexican Independence Day and it’s why it affected the decision of the judge to give 10-8 in the fifth round,” Shevchenko said. “In my experience, [the judge should give] a 10-8 when one fighter completely has nothing.”
That obviously wasn’t the case here.
Bell is a good judge and has been among the better ones who are frequently used in the UFC. But missing that fifth round for an MMA judge in a championship fight is like an umpire missing a strike down the middle on a 3-2 count with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series.
The bout may have been the best women’s fight of the year, and one of the best women’s championship bouts in recent memory. There were knockdowns, plenty of submission attempts, momentum shifts and drama throughout.
Shevchenko added, “I left everything, including my heart, in the Octagon.”
Grasso did the same. But after the fourth, it was clear the fight hung in the balance. Shevchenko led on two cards after four, but she benefitted by questionable calls in the fourth. Grasso seemed to win the fourth, but Bell and D’Amato gave the fourth to Shevchenko.
Neither side knew how it stood, but both knew it was close.
“My coaches said, ‘Hey, let’s do this,’” Grasso said. “This is the fifth and go out and make a statement. And that’s what I did.”
Shevchenko made the statement in the early part of the round, and Grasso did it in the final 90 seconds or so.
But at the end of the day, it wasn’t the fighters who dictated the result. It was a judge who made a questionable choice to score the round a 10-8.
That’s why a potentially celebratory night left a sour taste in so many mouths.