Valentina Shevchenko is a patient woman.
If nothing else, she spent nearly all of 2018 proving that point.
By all rights, this should have been a breakout year for Shevchenko. The introduction of the UFC's women's flyweight division—an ideal forum for her innate physicality and pinpoint-accurate, technical striking—should have finally allowed Shevchenko to take her rightful place, become widely known as one of the fight company's biggest badasses and prove the hype she's been getting since age 12 was justified.
Instead, she sat idle much of this year, waiting for the UFC to untangle the mess that almost immediately enveloped the 125-pound class. Shevchenko fought just once during the last 15 months—a layup over the outmatched Priscila Cachoeira in February—but has been cooling her heels on the organization's ridiculously deep bench since.
Not for lack of trying, mind you.
After Shevchenko waited for flyweight champ Nicco Montano to return from a protracted injury delay, the pair was booked for September's UFC 228. The day before that event, their fight was scratched after Montano had to be hospitalized during her weight cut.
The silver lining for Shevchenko was that the UFC stripped Montano of the title and pre-emptively announced that the 5'4", 30-year-old kickboxer from Kyrgyzstan would get the next available championship opportunity.
But then even that turned into pain in the neck.
Shevchenko shuffled through a handful of potential dates and at least two opponents before settling on Saturday's UFC 231 bout against Joanna Jedrzejczyk for the vacant flyweight crown.
Knock on wood.
A more temperamental fighter might cop to being frustrated—or even a bit ruffled—by the many false starts and dead ends of this year.
"I would be frustrated. I would be very frustrated," says former lightweight contender Kenny Florian, now a Fox UFC analyst. "I think it can be very disheartening when you put in a ton of work, you put in camp after camp and you don't even get a chance to compete. That can really take the wind out of your sails as a fighter. I don't imagine that happening to someone like Valentina Shevchenko, who I think is very mentally tough. You have to be, if you're going to deal with [a year] like that."
Florian seems right about Shevchenko, who shrugs off any notion she's had a disappointing 2018 in the most stoic way.
Fighting is all she knows, she tells Bleacher Report, so if she has to wait a few extra months to get her second shot at UFC gold, so be it.
"Martial arts for me is not just some kind of job to gain some money or whatever," Shevchenko says. "No, martial arts for me is my lifestyle, my religion, my philosophy. ... Martial arts are everything for me."
Championship fight or no championship fight, Shevchenko will spend her days training with her older sister, Antonina, longtime coach Pavel Fedotov and a grab bag of her normal sparring partners from all over the world. It's all she's really ever done since she was five years old.
Shevchenko's mother, Elena, is a black belt in taekwondo and the president of Kyrgyzstan's national muay thai association. She started taking her two daughters to Fedotov's gym when they were barely elementary school-aged.
The sisters disagree about who showed the most early promise. They each insist the other was best. However, their coach says one thing was clear about Valentina almost right away: She had heart.
Shevchenko put that quality—along with her natural speed—on display in one of her early muay thai fights, famously knocking out a 22-year-old opponent when she was just 12.
"Valentina was a brave little girl," Fedotov told UFC.com's Thomas Gerbasi in 2017. "She could fight without fear with girls and boys who were heavier and more experienced. Sometimes, a strong punch could stop her, but she would stand up and start to fight again. Sometimes, she was crying but still fighting again and again with the same intensity."
Fast-forward more than two decades, and Fedotov and the Shevchenkos have become borderline inseparable. He remained a constant presence in their lives as both sisters developed into globe-trotting martial arts stars.
Antonina and Valentina have each won titles in muay thai. Starting in 2003, Valentina used that success to springboard into a professional MMA career. During the last three years, she's gone 4-2 in the UFC's bantamweight division. Both of her losses came to current 135-pound queen Amanda Nunes, most recently via split decision in a five-round championship fight at UFC 215.
With the flyweight class a reality and the skies clearing for her 125-pound title shot, Shevchenko might finally get the chance to show she's a force to be reckoned with, both in and out of the cage.
"I think [flyweight] is a huge help to Valentina Shevchenko, who really was in between weight classes at 115 or 135 pounds," Florian says. "I think for her it's the absolute perfect weight class."
Since Ronda Rousey's departure from women's MMA in 2016, the UFC has floundered at finding a replacement. Fighters such as Holly Holm, Cris "Cyborg" Justino, Rose Namajunas, Nunes and Jedrzejczyk have become champions and found niche success, but not one has proved worthy of mimicking Rousey's crossover appeal.
Completely filling that void might be impossible, but the fight company appears to have taken a promotional shine to Shevchenko in Rousey's absence. It has bent over backward to get her into this title opportunity, after all, seemingly eager to cash in on the burgeoning personal brand she's building.
"I think her look is a big part of [the UFC's interest in her]," says MMA analyst Patrick Wyman. "She's also good for the occasional sound bite, which doesn't hurt. She's also really into guns, which is another thing that allows her to connect with a large segment of the UFC's audience."
Shevchenko's love of shooting sports is perhaps the most surprising aspect of her salability. She and Antonina have both won titles in defensive shooting competitions in Peru, their home since relocating there from Kyrgyzstan in 2008. Firearms are a near constant feature of Shevchenko's robust social media presence. She has done interviews about her passion for shooting and has appeared on the cover of Gun Cult magazine.
Whenever she gets time away from training, Shevchenko likes to get in some target practice with her team. What likely started as a way to blow off steam has grown into a full-fledged love affair with firearms and tactical culture. Shevchenko says even her nickname is a nod to her status as a crack shot.
"My ring name is 'Bullet,' which was given to me by Pavel," she says. "It's like tradition for your coach to give you your fight name. There's a superstition that says if your fight name matches who you are as a person, it will give you a lot of success in your fighting career."
Shevchenko's hobbies also include collecting historical firearms. She owns several guns that date to World War II, including a Russian Mosin rifle she recently purchased. For Shevchenko, the connection to these weapons is more than just recreation. She says they help her relate to the past.
"When you touch it, it's like you are touching history," she says of the Mosin. "It's like a monument. You just can't explain it. I have different guns all from the old times, and for me it means a lot."
This affinity for weaponry has also proved useful in the real world for Shevchenko and her team, albeit in ways they never anticipated and would likely just as soon forget.
In 2016, while living in Lima, Peru, Shevchenko was out at dinner with her team when armed gunmen stormed in and tried to rob the restaurant where they were eating. The gunmen took money from the restaurant's owner and then started going from table to table, shaking down diners for their valuables.
Fedotov, who was with Shevchenko, drew a pistol, and a shootout ensued. While it is unclear who fired the first shot, Shevchenko credits Fedotov with protecting the other patrons in the restaurant.
"Pavel's reaction was very fast," Shevchenko says. "He knew he had to protect everyone because he was armed. It was like bullets everywhere, [flying] around."
Fedotov succeeded in getting the robbers to flee the restaurant but was shot in the stomach during the exchange. Once the firefight was over, Shevchenko helped him outside and into a taxi, which took them to a local hospital.
The harrowing robbery occurred just a month before Shevchenko was set to fight Holly Holm at UFC on Fox 20. Fedotov made a full recovery but couldn't be present during some of the final preparations for that fight. Still, Shevchenko says he stayed involved during his rehab, and she ended up defeating Holm via unanimous decision.
It stands as her biggest UFC win.
Comparatively speaking, the team's prep for Jedrzejczyk has been far less eventful, though this will likely go down as the longest fight camp of Shevchenko's career.
Immediately after her bout with Montano fell apart, it was announced Shevchenko would face Jedrzejczyk for the vacant title at UFC 231. In October, however, reports surfaced that she would actually take on Sijara Eubanks at UFC 230.
After the UFC settled on a short-notice main event between Daniel Cormier and Derrick Lewis for UFC 230, that plan was scrapped and the fight company reverted to its original blueprint: Shevchenko vs. Jedrzejczyk on Dec. 8.
Shevchenko's training camps were already transient affairs, as she routinely split time between Peru and Thailand while also occasionally making pit stops at the camps of UFC champions such as Namajunas and Justino.
Her UFC 230/231 camp was no exception. Shevchenko started her preparations in Texas, made two junkets to the UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas and even touched down in Maine. Matters were complicated—in the best possible way—because Antonina finally got her shot at a spot in the UFC when she beat Ji Yeon Kim at The Ultimate Fighter Season 28 live finale in Las Vegas last Friday.
Immediately after that bout, Shevchenko flew to Toronto to begin UFC 231 fight-week festivities. It sounds hectic, but Shevchenko seemed to take it all in characteristic stride.
"For me, it's the same camp, just in different locations," she says. "This kind of experience, where you have the option to train with different types of opponents and different sparring partners who every time use different techniques, I think it's very helpful. You know what to expect and how to react to different situations."
Now she turns her attention squarely to Jedrzejczyk and the flyweight title. The pair fought three times previously in muay thai, and Shevchenko won all three bouts. In MMA, Shevchenko vs. Jedrzejczyk shapes up as a hyper-competitive matchup that will pit Jedrzejczyk's volume attack against Shevchenko's more deliberate approach.
To win the fight, Shevchenko, who is roughly a 3-1 favorite, according to OddsShark, will likely have to control the distance and pace, relying on her counterpunches and assumed power advantage to win the day. It's something she appears more than capable of doing.
"I think she's exceptionally skilled at what she does," Wyman says. "She's maybe the most skilled counterpuncher in MMA. She's one of the most skilled kickboxers in general. Her technique and her fundamentals are just rock-solid. Everything she does is just exactly the way you draw it up in a textbook."
A victory would make Shevchenko the UFC women's flyweight champion, but it could also establish her as a company favorite and perhaps the female fighter most likely to score crossover success.
Viewed that way, you might be tempted to say a lot is on the line for Shevchenko. But chances are she merely views this as another night at the office in the family business she loves.
The business that she says defines her as a human being.
"[Martial arts] made me the person I am. It formed me into a good person," Shevchenko says. "My understanding of the world is all through the prism of martial arts. It's affected every aspect of my life. I can't imagine my life without martial arts. I would be a different person."