Julianna Peña was in top position in Valentina Shevchenko’s guard, landing punches from the top.
This was the position that conventional wisdom said Shevchenko did not want to be in during this key bantamweight fight in Denver on Jan. 28, 2017. Shevchenko is one of the elite strikers in the world, and in her previous fight, she used her quickness and accuracy to punch her way to a clear victory over Holly Holm, just nine months after Holm had obliterated Ronda Rousey.
That lifted Shevchenko into the fight with Peña, with the winner getting a shot at bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes.
As the second round wound down, Peña seemed to be in command by landing some ground-and-pound. Quickly, Shevchenko rolled her hips and suddenly had Peña in an armbar that forced a quick submission.
It was a shock to many, not that she won but in the manner she achieved it.
It was not, however, a shock to Antonina Shevchenko. Antonina is Valentina’s older sister, and the two have trained together for nearly all of their lives. She knew better than anyone what her sister was capable of doing.
“The thing about Valentina is she is never satisfied and she always wants to find ways to improve,” Antonina said. “Whatever it is: People say her striking is great, but she wants to make it better. If she has the condition to go seven rounds, she wants to push it and be able to go 10. So I knew she could do something like that. She wrestled guys in training — good guys — and I saw her.
“Valentina knows about MMA, and it’s not just striking. It’s everything. You can’t be great if you’re just good at one thing. So Valentina, she did what she needed to do to be better.”
On Saturday, Valentina will meet an old rival at the Scotiabank Centre in Toronto in the co-main event of UFC 231 when she faces Joanna Jedrzejczyk for the women’s flyweight championship.
Valentina and Jedrzejczyk have a history and have fought three times in Muay Thai fights, with Shevchenko winning each. Jedrzejczyk is uber-competitive and eager to avenge those defeats by winning the UFC title, but Antonina said Jedrzejczyk probably isn’t aware of what she got herself into.
“Joanna is a very good fighter and she has a lot of ambition,” Antonina said. “She wants to be the best. She is better than she was [when they fought in Muay Thai]. But you know what? Valentina is better, too. Totally different fighter in a totally different kind of fight.”
It’s been a frustrating last year-plus for Valentina. Nunes pulled out of a fight with her at UFC 213 last year, then beat Valentina in an agonizingly close decision at UFC 215.
Valentina still is miffed when she thinks about that call.
“Watch that fight and you will see, they gave it to her because of that last takedown,” Valentina said. “But if you watch, you will see that I clearly won that fight.”
She moved to flyweight when the UFC opened that class, and expected to fight for the title last month, but champion Nicco Montaño failed to make weight and was yanked from the card.
Shevchenko was angry, but said she didn’t carry that anger with her and said she hasn’t had a difficult time dealing with her bad luck.
“I’m a professional and I understand this very well: No matter what life brings you, you need to learn how to deal with it and how to manage your emotions going forward,” she said. “Life is not easy. There are obstacles and difficult situations that arise all the time. You don’t give up because of a frustration or because you see a major obstacle. You find a way to get around it.”
She’s three-and-a-half years younger than her sister, who was a star early when she began to fight. Antonina was winning amateur titles and starring on the Kyrgyzstan national team, and Valentina wanted nothing more than to follow in her footsteps.
When Valentina was old enough, she began to fight, too, and hasn’t wanted to do anything else ever since.
“She’s always been an example to me and an inspiration for me,” Shevchenko said of her older sister. “I always wanted to be like her. She’s my best friend and we have trained together and traveled together and done everything together our whole lives.
“This is what we love to do and it makes me confident that I have her by my side. And she knows that I will always be at her side.”
Antonina made her UFC debut a successful one last week, but both said watching the other fight is the hardest thing for them to do.
For Valentina, the pressure is off now that her sister won.
“When I am fighting, I am in control and I know what I need to do,” Valentina said. “I don’t have time to have emotions and feelings in the fight, you know? You can’t be nervous once that bell rings. But when my sister is fighting, oh, it’s so different. It’s tough, because you want to help her but you can’t. But she is so strong and she has motivated me so much. I’m better because I have her.”
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