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Yana Kunitskaya faces Cris Cyborg at UFC 222.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

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Who is Yana Kunitskaya, UFC 222’s mystery headliner?

LAS VEGAS — When the call came that UFC 222 would live on, that Cris Cyborg would defend her women’s featherweight title against Invicta FC’s bantamweight champion in the short-notice main event for March 3, it may have taken the MMA world aback, but it wasn’t a surprise to Yana Kunitskaya. No, she’s been expecting that call for years. Maybe the exact scenario never played out like this in her mind, maybe these circumstances are more fantastic than she could have ever predicted, but even still, she always knew a day would come when she and Cyborg would dance the crimson dance inside an eight-sided cage.

On Saturday night, Kunitskaya will become the 23rd fighter to vie for a UFC title in her promotional debut. She will be among the biggest underdogs on that list, and she will also be among the most unknown. But same as any man or woman who competes in this mercurial sport, her moment of eternal glory is only one punch away.

And if nothing else, Kunitskaya has spent a lifetime perfecting that punch.

“All the years, [I would think of] Cris Cyborg,” Kunitskaya says. “I was trying to make this fight, starting from Strikeforce then Invicta. Every time, I think almost every fight, I asked for the fight with her. For a long time, I thought it was going to happen.

“I’m happy it’s here.”

Born in the frigid city of Murmansk, a port settlement off the northwest coast of Russia, Kunitskaya was brought into the world to be an athlete.

Her mother, Olga, was a professional gymnast, and her father, Joseph, was a professional skier. From the young age of four, her parents thrust her into combat sports, indoctrinating their young daughter in the fistic arts. Striking became Kunitskaya’s childhood. She began in taekwondo at a time most children enroll in preschool, then progressed outward to other disciplines, competing in various forms of hand-to-hand combat from the time she was 12.

At age 19, Kunitskaya made her mixed martial arts debut at a K-1 tournament in Poland. By then, three years had passed since her move to the Russian metropolis of St. Petersburg first propelled her toward MMA. Kunitskaya found rapid success, seizing eight victories over her first four years in the sport. Many of those early matches ended inside the first round, and Kunitskaya often double-dipped in kickboxing on the side. At that time, women’s MMA was a niche within a niche, and opportunities were seldom, so Kunitskaya competed as high as 155 pounds if it meant a chance to test herself in the ring.

“When I started doing martial arts in Europe, there were not a lot of girls, so you never could choose,” Kunitskaya remembers. “I was just fighting any weight class where I could fight. Sometimes it was heavyweight. Sometimes I’d fight girls who I’d spar. Or sometimes featherweights or bantamweights. It wasn’t like something I could choose. I just wanted somebody to fight.”

By 2012, the 22-year-old striker was on a genuine tear, having established herself as one of the top female prospects in all of Europe.

Opportunities for greater exposure beckoned overseas, where Cyborg had dominated all who crossed her path stateside as Strikeforce’s 145-pound champion. The notion of a Cyborg bout had long materialized in Kunitskaya’s head by that point. The Brazilian destroyer was the unquestioned best female fighter in the world, and Kunitskaya was accustomed to handling larger opponents. She believed that it was only a matter of time until the two faced off, but repeated visa issues prevented the Strikeforce fight from ever happening.

So, frustrated by the lack of opportunities in WMMA, and her inability to take the next step of her career, Kunitskaya walked away from the sport entirely. She didn’t train. She didn’t compete. She focused only on her family.

Kunitskaya ultimately spent four years out of the game, caring for her first child, her newborn son Adam, and watching from afar as Ronda Rousey led an unprecedented revolution that exploded women’s MMA from a sideshow to the show across the globe.

The turnaround was incredible, something Kunitskaya never expected to see in her lifetime. Suddenly the UFC was headlining events of all nature with women — events on mainstream FOX, events on pay-per-view — and shattering attendance records. Suddenly the opportunities that had for so long been absent were there for the taking.

So Kunitskaya jumped back into the fray with a fervor unlike any she had felt before.

Within 18 months of beginning her second MMA life, she was crowned the Invicta FC bantamweight champion on a live UFC Fight Pass broadcast.

A surreal run, and one she once believed impossible.

“I decided to give it try,” Kunitskaya says simply, smiling. “And it’s been amazing.”

Cris Cyborg and Yana Kunitskaya Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The first time Kunitskaya met Mike Winklejohn was in early 2017.

The Russian striker had ventured to the barrens of Albuquerque in search of sparring partners for her Invicta FC rematch against Tonya Evinger, and instantly, the renowned JacksonWink coach was struck by the ferocity this newcomer was bringing to his gym.

“She was going hard, all the time,” Winklejohn remembers. “God bless her, it’s a tough situation. It wasn’t like normal for her, because before, she always went 100 percent [with her team]. But you could see the drive in her, and her talent.”

Winklejohn kept his distance for that first camp — Kunitskaya had brought her longtime coach with her to the desert, a gruff Russian with a take-charge attitude — but the second time around, for her Invicta FC 25 title challenge against Raquel Pa’aluhi, Kunitskaya flew out alone. The JacksonWink approach dovetailed with her own style, so she threw herself into the gym’s routine, living within the JacksonWink dorms, asking Winklejohn to be her full-time coach, and sometimes going days without leaving the facilities.

She went all-in, Winklejohn says, “and she’s improved tremendously because of it.” But her confidence, more so than anything, is what’s been the biggest change.

“What I noticed was, Yana, right off the bat, she was very skilled, but it’s just a matter of, she had to start believing in herself a little bit more,” Winklejohn says. “And she’s gotten to that point now where she’s really believing in herself. She’s doing a lot of sparring with Holly (Holm), a lot of sparring with other people, and she’s starting to believe in her techniques; whereas, before, I think she was kind of thrown to the dogs.

“But I knew that we had this little diamond that we could actually start polishing and make it better and better. And you saw with her Invicta performance, she went to the next level with her striking and her understanding of cage control, et cetera. So she’s on her way. Every day, she’s getting better at what she does.”

Winklejohn says 135 pounds was initially the goal for Kunitskaya’s UFC debut, but once the opportunity came to fight Cyborg, Kunitskaya was swift to pounce.

It’s now a familiar position for JacksonWink, the second time in three months the team will stand across the cage from MMA’s version of terror incarnate.

Just last December, at UFC 219, Holly Holm became the first woman in a decade to make the Cyborg look mortal. She was ultimately unsuccessful in her bid at featherweight gold, but Holm has been as helpful as she can for Kunitskaya in the lead-up to Saturday. And though the two teammates are vastly different fighters, Winklejohn is confident that with 25 minutes of footage to pour over and dissect from UFC 219, the team has found areas where Kunitskaya can adapt and improve upon Holm’s formula.

“There’s no doubt, Cyborg is very, very talented, very good at what she does,” Winklejohn says. “She will eat a punch to throw punches. She’s a person that is very, very strong and throws very hard, and she’s gotten a lot better over the years with the coaches she’s had, in that she’s actually not getting over-committed as much, so she’s not off-balance throwing big crazy punches.

“So she’s improved over the years, which says a lot [since she’s already so successful], but we saw a lot of holes in her game. We saw a lot of places that we could hit her. She cracked Holly hard and that changed the game quite a bit. Up to that point in time, Holly was winning the fight and everything was playing out. Against the cage and the clinch, we learned a lot about her. We learned a lot about her in striking. So we want to use that knowledge that we learned to help Yana win this fight.”

Kunitskaya’s belief in herself, once her Achilles heel, is now sky high ahead of UFC 222. Fellow JacksonWink teammate and UFC fighter Siyar Bahadurzada says he’s dubbed the Russian title contender “Drago” in recent months, nicknamed so after the stone-cold antagonist of Rocky IV. “A lot has happened to her [in 2018],” Bahadurzada says, “and only an athlete knows the feeling of getting into a big fight, all the media and obligations that comes with it, but she’s been handling it really well. I think she has the stamina, the toughness, and the technique to upset the fans and beat Cyborg.

“I really think she has it.”

Winklejohn has watched the same evolution in Kunitskaya since she first crossed the threshold at JacksonWink, and he has seen how much she is motivated by the sacrifices she is making to achieve a dream she already once thought was dead.

“I know she has a kid back home, she misses her kid, so she’s sacrificing everything to come over here,” Winklejohn says. “She wants a better life for herself and her son, and that’s huge. That’s huge for a mom to actually leave, to leave her kid because she’s trying to make a better life; it’s something else. That’s just incredibly hard for a young woman to do, and I know it weighs on her. She’s constantly looking at her phone and trying to communicate with her son back home, so it’s heavy, but she wants to succeed and live her dreams, and also provide for her family, take care of her son.”

But inspiring words and big dreams will not sway the odds in her favor.

There is no doubt: A victory for Kunitskaya at UFC 222 would rank among the biggest upsets in promotional history, if not claim the number-one spot. Cyborg is the most accomplished female fighter to ever live, and she continues to improve her world-class skill set even today, well into her fighting prime.

Still, seemingly every year we are reminded that it only takes one slip, one sliver of a half-second, for history to be rewritten in a game as cruel as this one.

So who knows?

The only thing certain with four-ounce gloves is that chaos is only a moment away.

“I’m happy the UFC gave me this chance,” Kunitskaya says. “It’s a very big step for me.

“Either way, I will grow from this fight.”

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