Did Bellator Find Its Own Paige VanZant in Russian Flyweight Anastasia Yankova?

Scott HarrisMMA Lead WriterSeptember 13, 2016

Anastasia Yankova
Anastasia YankovaBellator MMA

Anastasia Yankova is very pretty. It feels disingenuous to start anywhere else.

It's always been a part of her story, even back to her amateur days at a tournament where no one would cheer for her. She still remembers that.

Wrapping it in euphemisms doesn't change anything, either. Looks play a role in women's MMA, and conventional beauty is enormously beneficial at this level. Yankova isn't here to take advantage of that. But if an advantage should happen to come her way, well, who is she to blow against the wind?

"As I progressed, it didn't hurt," Yankova said through a translator in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. "If you look good, people are more inclined to be nicer to you. It's just the way it is. It's the fight business. If it helps, great. There's nothing I can do about it, so I might as well use it to my advantage."

As most people know, life is more complicated than that, and Yankova has several thoughts on the whole spectrum of it. She is proud but realistic about the modest but unblemished 3-0 record—all three wins by submission—she has racked up in pro MMA, preceded by substantial success on kickboxing and muay thai circuits.

Now she's landed with Bellator, and on Friday she fights for the second time under that banner—and the first time on U.S. soil. If the 25-year-old Moscow native continues to succeed, she could be the linchpin of a critical business move for Bellator as it continues its quest to compete with the big, bad UFC.

"We immediately liked what we saw after watching some of her kickboxing fights online and heard that she was trying to make a jump into MMA," said Bellator President Scott Coker. "With her background, it was evident that she already had the striking part of her game down and now that she's been focusing heavily on the ground portion of her skills, it seems like it's really coming together for her. She's a fantastic asset to our 125-pound division, which I feel is one of our most intriguing weight classes."

The media rounds are part of Yankova's preparation for Veta Arteaga (2-0) at Bellator 161. The questions she receives are familiar to her and probably to anyone else who has ever consumed any media coverage of a beautiful, blonde—oh, and female—celebrity. What kind of guys does she like? What's her guilty pleasure? Can she handle all this media? A lot of the ostensibly altruistic coverage drives at the notion that she's more than a pretty face, because as everyone just assumes, pretty faces are less likely to have something behind them.

Those lighter questions tell more of the story than they intend. They awkwardly skirt the matter as much as patronize to it, tracing the shape of the issue with their wake. They give Yankova a pedestal while placing her in a box. That duality is nothing new to her.

"It's almost like a double-edged sword," she said. "I didn't start out thinking about my looks or how far they could take me. I just started fighting."

Even Yankova's origin story extends into the world of the semi-intentionally glamorous. A childhood fascination with Xena: Warrior Princess catalyzed her interest in martial arts. Karate as a girl led to muay thai, then to grappling, then increasingly higher levels of competition. She kept showing out, capturing plenty of hardware in the process.

"I started out as a kid in karate, so the kicking part stuck with me. I like to kick a lot," Yankova said. "Then I started doing muay thai, so I incorporated elbows and that kind of striking. Then I incorporated takedowns and submissions. I'm very aggressive. I always come forward, and I like to finish."

She continues to hone those skills. For this fight, for the first time she spent a full training camp with AKA Thailand, the Phuket field office of California's American Kickboxing Academy gym, housing Daniel Cormier, Cain Velasquez and Luke Rockhold, among others.

As a follower of women's MMA, Yankova appreciates the AKA suite for its breadth of talent. Yankova comes across as an MMA fan, with knowledgeable takes on a range of fighters.

When discussing her greatest personal influence, one might suspect a certain other marketable blonde— Ronda Rousey, perhaps?—to be high on her list. Not the case.

Interestingly, Yankova name-checks another fighter as her biggest influence.

Gina Carano
Gina CaranoVivien Killilea/Getty Images

"Definitely Gina Carano," she said. "When I saw her fight, that's when I realized what I wanted to do. I could do this and be successful. She was the one who caught my eye mainly because she was really the first women's MMA fighter to break the stereotype that pretty girls can't fight. She's ferocious in the cage but feminine outside it."

Femininity comes up a lot with Yankova. Perhaps it's her own euphemism for beauty, perhaps not, but it's a common theme nonetheless.

"Besides being a fighter, I'm also a woman," she said. "Just because I'm fighting, it doesn't mean I have to turn into a man. I like that people find me attractive. All women like that. That didn't change because I'm a fighter."

Although Yankova is quick to express respect for various fighters, including Rousey, she also offers the same thoughtful and unvarnished opinions on other fighters that she does on herself.

That is certainly the case for yet another blonde female fighter, this one seemingly using her appearance to help carve out a name for herself: UFC strawweight and Dancing with the Stars runner-up Paige VanZant.

Are VanZant and her meteoric rise a blueprint for Yankova and her own career path? Uh, no.

"I know who she is, and she's been doing really well. She's almost turned into America's sweetheart," Yankova said. "She's got that girl-next-door personality, contrary to Ronda Rousey, who was always kind of the bad guy. For me personally, I'm more a fan of people that have their own personality, people who are not trying to be something that conforms to what people want them to be. You shouldn't be what people think you should be in order for you to get ahead."

A few years ago, Yankova attained a bachelor's degree in art, with a goal of one day becoming a fashion designer. She did modeling and television work. She has given that up for the moment, although followers of her Instagram account could be forgiven for believing she hasn't. But when she "got sucked back into MMA," as she put it, she found a real calling.

At the same time, it wasn't a natural fit, if you believed what those around her believed. Surely, went the line of thinking, someone who looks like this can't get it done in the ring or the cage.

That brings Yankova to a certain tournament years ago. Among her friends and training partners, concerns over Yankova's success were superseded by concerns over Yankova's face. It was hard to convince people she was legitimate.

"At a tournament, my teammates and my friends said I was too pretty," she said. "They worried I would break my nose. They said, 'You're a Barbie doll, you can't fight.' People didn't have any confidence in me. My opponents would have people cheering for them, but not for me."

Looks may be a booster rocket, but the real engine is winning. Yankova's undefeated, if thin, record in the 125-pound flyweight division is and will increasingly continue to be a key part of her status. But to hear Coker tell it, it's all part of a whole.

"Male or female, you must have the complete package in MMA to be successful, and even when you do, sometimes it really doesn't resonate with the audience," Coker said. "That 'x-factor' is something you can't really put your finger on." 

Almost as important as the winning: where she's doing said winning.

Why is that important? Because the UFC currently has no women's flyweight division and no apparent intention to change that. Absent the UFC's all-consuming presence, Bellator, Invicta FC and others might just have their best hope of hosting the premiere division for a given weight class.

And it's a pretty good weight class, too. Women's flyweight is rife with dynamic fighters, including Bellator show-woman Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, who has made it her recent business to send not-overly-subtle overtures—of the fighting variety and otherwise—in Yankova's direction.

Other intriguing women's flyweights include Jennifer Maia, DeAnna Bennett and Vanessa Porto of Invicta FC, Sarah D'Alelio of Super Fight League and Rin Nakai of Pancrase. What's more, several fighters in the UFC—Joanne Calderwood, Valerie Letourneau and Veronica Macedo come to mind—are natural flyweights competing out of division in order to make it in the sport’s biggest show.

That's part of the reason why Yankova feels so ensconced where she is, right at the vanguard of a relatively new and burgeoning division. (Bellator set up its women's flyweight contingent just this year). So don't expect any Yankova-VanZant grudge match any time soon.

"I've fought lighter weights before, but the more I train, I've always hovered around 125 in kickboxing and now in MMA," she said. "It's where I feel the most comfortable. Most people cut down to 135 after being bulkier. And I couldn't make 115, so that's out of the question. I'm very happy where I'm at and how I'm being treated."

Against Arteaga on Friday, Yankova promises to come forward, and based on her track record and persona, it's not very hard to take her at her word.

By the way, what happened to all those people who didn't cheer for her during that competition all those years ago?

"I won the whole tournament just to show them."

Yankova takes on Arteaga Friday night at Bellator 161, which airs on Spike TV.

    

Scott Harris writes about MMA for Bleacher Report. For more, follow Scott on Twitter. All quotes obtained firsthand.