UFC 215: Valentina Shevchenko's plan for redemption

Kevin IoleCombat columnist

It is meant as a compliment, but Valentina Shevchenko doesn’t see it that way.

The 29-year-old Soviet-born fighter who now lives in Peru submitted Julianna Pena at 4:29 of the second round in January to earn a shot at Amanda Nunes’ women’s bantamweight title.

A win over a gifted fighter like Pena is a big deal. But a win by armbar against one of the UFC’s best fighters was a massive deal. It showed growth in her game.

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Shevchenko quickly became known for her striking from the moment she debuted in the UFC on Dec. 19, 2015, with a win over Sarah Kaufman.

The win over Pena was something altogether different. Shevchenko showed a full MMA game, with the ability to fight at all distances and in all positions. When she got to the floor with Pena, an elite grappler, Shevchenko flawlessly and easily moved into position for the fight-finishing armbar.

Congratulated on her improvement, Shevchenko seemed to recoil a bit. She appeared to see it not as a compliment but as an indictment of her game.

“I’m a complete martial artist,” she said. “If you look at my career, you will see that I have won several fights by submission, several fights by TKO. Lately, I’ve been fighting Muay Thai stand-up, but in this sport, you have to be able to do everything to succeed.”

Shevchenko will get her shot at the title two months later than she thought when she faces Nunes on Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 215 at Edmonton’s Rogers Place. They were supposed to fight at UFC 213 in July, but Nunes pulled out on the morning of the fight with a sinus infection.

Shevchenko was none too happy at the time, but she moved on quickly, because that’s who she is.

If anyone were, she was born to be a fighter. Her mother is the president of the Taekwondo federation in her native Kyrgyzstan. Her older sister, Antonina, is a Muay Thai fighter with a 39-1 record who will take an MMA fight later this month.

Amanda Nunes, left, and Valentina Shevchenko pose during the UFC 213 ceremonial weigh-in. (AP)
Amanda Nunes, left, and Valentina Shevchenko pose during the UFC 213 ceremonial weigh-in. (AP)

Antonina is nearly four years older than Valentina and provided a blueprint on what it takes to be a fighter: effort, discipline and an agile mind.

“I was young and little when I started in martial arts, and she was already a good fighter,” Valentina said of her sister. “She was already champion of our country and it is why me and all girls of our generation we would look at her as our example of what we wanted to be in the future. She was always an example for me and there was never a rivalry between us because I was looking up to her.”

Antonina’s message way back when resonated with her sister: Work hard. Never slack. Don’t give 50 percent.

It’s why the rescheduling of the fight hasn’t impacted Shevchenko much. It’s difficult for fighters who build to a peak on fight night to have a late postponement and quick rescheduling. In those cases, it’s hard to get their training back in order.

But Shevchenko’s routine is always to take a week off after a fight and get back into the gym. She did that after the UFC 213 cancellation and said she believes she’ll perform better on Saturday than she would have had the fight gone forward in July.

She was able to use the time to improve her technique and fine-tune her game plan, she said.

Nunes is on a five-fight winning streak, having beaten Shayna Baszler, Sara McMann, Shevchenko, Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey. Nunes squeaked past Shevchenko at UFC 196, but routed both Tate at UFC 200 and Rousey at UFC 207.

Shevchenko said it would not be wise to read too much into those fights when it comes to breaking down Saturday’s bout. Nunes was able to use her striking to dominate Tate and Rousey and set up the finishes, but it will be a different type of match, Shevchenko said.

“It’s one thing when you’re fighting a grappler,” Shevchenko said. “It’s another thing when you’re fighting against a stand-up fighter who is also a grappler. To manage this distance so as not to reach a hard punch, a big kick or whatever, you have to feel it and have a sense for it. When you are born, or almost born, and when you’ve grown up with this ability, not receiving a punch like a stand-up fighter, it’s totally different.

“This fight will be entirely different than those fights. I am not the same fighter as they were and so there will be different approaches and different techniques that must be used.”

Don’t be surprised, though, by whatever Shevchenko may do. Whether it’s a punch, a kick or a submission, she has the ability to adapt to whatever is called for in the ring.

“This fight game, there are so many good athletes and so many good fighters out there, if you stay standing everyone will pass you by,” she said. “It’s always evolving and always learning to improve the techniques and improve the transitions between them. My sister taught me that a long, long time ago and it’s how I’ve always approached my job.”

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