LAS VEGAS (AP) — Valentina Shevchenko has no idea how many countries she has visited or how many millions of miles she has covered in her lifelong pursuit of insight, enlightenment and new martial arts skills.
Fighting is her profession, but the quest for knowledge is another great passion for a Kyrgyzstan native from a fighting family. She now calls Peru home, but trains for her fights largely in Thailand and the U.S.
Shevchenko might spend her life roaming the globe, but her travels culminate Saturday in Las Vegas when she fights bantamweight champ Amanda Nunes in the main event of UFC 213.
“My opinion, for a sportsman, it’s very important to travel,” Shevchenko said. “To travel for training in different gyms with different people, each country, each gym, it’s like its own school. And to have the opportunity to fight and to train with many different opponents, it gives more experience. … I have visited so many beautiful countries (and met) so many good spirits around the world. I would like to travel all the time.”
Nunes and Shevchenko meet in the main event of International Fight Week, the UFC’s annual weeklong celebration of its sport in its hometown. The fights start Friday night with a full card at T-Mobile Arena, highlighted by Justin Gaethje’s much-anticipated UFC debut against veteran Michael Johnson and the final fight of the UFC’s long-running competition reality show, “The Ultimate Fighter.”
Shevchenko, who speaks three languages fluently, holds an incredibly broad base of fighting knowledge, even by MMA standards. Already a muay thai world champion and an accomplished boxer and kickboxer, she also could become a UFC champion in her rematch with Nunes, who narrowly beat her by decision last year.
Shevchenko is also an accomplished dancer and teacher who even won a dance competition on a Peruvian reality show. She’s an amateur marksman in her free time — oh, and she recently survived a restaurant shooting in Peru.
Fighting is the driving force in her life, but it doesn’t define her. She delights in treating her Kyrgyz friends to Peruvian seafood cooking, and she shows off her belly dancing skills to impress her South American friends.
“Whenever I visit a place, I try to take all the best from this place,” she said. “I try to understand the culture, try to understand how people live, and see how the country is from inside. Not only like a tourist, when you are going to tourist places and taking a picture and going (home). I try to live like people live.”
Born in the Soviet Union, Shevchenko made her pro MMA debut as a 15-year-old in Kyrgyzstan. In 2007, she traveled to South America with her older sister — fellow muay thai fighter Antonina — and their longtime coach, Pavel Fedotov. They found financial success as martial arts teachers in Peru, and Fedotov decided to relocate his team permanently to Lima.
Shevchenko immediately felt at home in Peru, and she now fights under the nation’s flag after gaining citizenship. She already spoke English from her schooling in Russia, but swiftly picked up Spanish through immersion: “When no one you meet speaks English and no one speaks Russian, it’s very easy to learn Spanish.”
The group has taught martial arts throughout Latin America, and Shevchenko relishes her new experiences. She even took a 20-day cruise on the Amazon, sleeping in hammocks while traveling from Belem, Brazil, to Iquitos, Peru.
Not everything about Peru has been great, however: Fedotov was wounded last year in a gunfight with three armed robbers at a chicken restaurant in Lima while Shevchenko was a few feet away. Shevchenko ran to her coach’s side during the shootout, a surreal moment captured on surveillance cameras .
For this title shot, Shevchenko began her training in Thailand before moving to Houston and on to Denver, where she worked with strawweight title contender Rose Namajunas.
Shevchenko lost a three-round decision in her first bout with Nunes at UFC 196 in March 2016, but it was close. Nunes dominated the second round but then struggled, and Shevchenko pressed forward before running out of time to finish the Brazilian star.
“If the last fight had one minute more, it would maybe be a different result,” Shevchenko said. “My goal is always to be the champion. This has been a little bit delayed, but this time, this fight will be totally different.”
Nunes got the ensuing title shot and won the belt by beating Miesha Tate, followed by a big-money domination of Ronda Rousey in December.
Shevchenko missed out on that fame and wealth, but pushed forward with persuasive wins over former champ Holly Holm and Julianna Pena to earn the rematch — and this one will be five rounds.
“There’s nothing to talk about with that fight,” said Nunes, whose rivalry with Shevchenko got even more personal when they exchanged contact at a promotional faceoff in May. “After that fight, I became a champion, and I will make Valentina understand I’m the best in the world.”