Few fighters put the “world” in world champion like Valentina Shevchenko.
It’s easy to forget that before emerging as an elite UFC fighter, Shevchenko had been training and competing in combat sports all over the world since 2003. Born in Kyrgyzstan (known as the Socialist Republic of Kirghizia until 1991), she currently resides in Las Vegas, though it was anything but a straight line from her home country to her adopted one.
Shevchenko spoke to MMA Fighting ahead of her first flyweight title defense against Jessica Eye in the co-main event of UFC 238 this Saturday in Chicago, and it was abundantly clear that the 31-year-old takes pride in embracing every region she’s planted roots in, just as they’ve embraced her.
“Living in Texas I adopted the Western culture, cowboy culture, it became my favorite outfit during the day,” Shevchenko said of the first American state she called home. “Spending time in nature, going fishing, and also the big part of the culture. I really like it, I feel it’s my own, and I never had difficulties, from the first time it was very close to me.”
It can’t have been hard for Shevchenko to endear herself to the people of Texas, given her status as a UFC fighter, her love of the local style, and her affinity for firearms. After two-and-a-half years there, Shevchenko made the move to Las Vegas in 2017, putting her closer to the UFC’s headquarters and allowing her to make full use of the promotion’s Performance Institute.
For Shevchenko, moving and constantly adapting are key to her success inside and outside of the Octagon.
“It’s not just important, our lifestyle, we travel a lot and I think it’s very nice and very beautiful for any person to travel to meet different persons,” Shevchenko said. “To spar with different kinds of athletes. To know different cultures. I’m very happy that I have this kind of lifestyle and I would never change it.”
It all started in Kyrgyzstan for Shevchenko, who has been involved in some form of martial arts since she was a child. As legend has it, she was 12 years old when she knocked out a 22-year-old opponent in a kickboxing match. She made her pro MMA debut at the age of 15 and won her first seven fights before focusing on kickboxing again starting in 2006, competing primarily in Thailand, South Korea, and China.
But even as she hunted for new challenges, home stayed close to her heart.
“It’s a huge part because I grew up there. I was born there. I start martial arts there,” Shevchenko said of Kyrgyzstan. “The old places that I was training, it’s very close to me. Of course, I’m very happy that I could come all the way from there to the position where I am right now.”
Shevchenko flies the flag of her native country when she makes the walk to the cage, but it’s not the only standard she bears. She also brings with her El Pendón Bicolor, the flag of Peru, a country that she lived in for eight years.
When not teaching Muay Thai and continuing her MMA career (Shevchenko’s last two fights before heading to the U.S. took place in Lima), Shevchenko was falling in love with the lifestyle and the cuisine (Shevchenko cites chicha morada and Inca Kola as one of her favorite Peruvian beverages, and ceviche de pescado, chicharron de mariscos o jalea mixta, arroz con mariscos, and lomo saltado among the best Peruvian delicacies).
Given the amount of time she spent traversing South America, it’s only fitting that she carries a symbol of that continent with her on fight night.
“I spent a lot of time living in Peru and the culture I adopted it, Latin American culture, it’s so nice,” Shevchenko said. “I really enjoyed all the years traveling through all of South America, like Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Paraguay, this is a part of the world that’s totally different and it’s amazing because it’s so unique and really I’m happy that I am part of this culture as well. I can speak Spanish and easily communicate with all these people.
“For me, these countries mean a lot. Like Kyrgyzstan, home country, and not only Peru, but South America in general. I’m happy that I spent time in all these places.”
Shevchenko, who actually studied to be a film director when she was in university, also got her first taste of what it was like to be a television star as a cast member on Peru’s Combate reality show.
The program allowed Shevchenko to showcase her lively personality, a trait that has carried over to the biggest stages of MMA.
“When I was participating in this reality show in Peru, Combate, it wasn’t that it taught me something,” Shevchenko said. “It’s just I could perform all my knowledge that I received at a younger age. It was like practicing something, and of course it was nice, I have good emotions about what I did over there, but my favorite was dance competitions.
“I would say that all the experiences that I had left me with good, positive emotions.”
Shevchenko stopped short of adding Thailand to the list of countries that she officially represents, though she spent much of her formative years sharpening her Muay Thai skills there and forging a successful pro kickboxing career. It was in Bangkok that Shevchenko twice defeated future UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk in amateur competition, a feat that Shevchenko would repeat over a decade later at UFC 231 in Toronto to capture a vacant flyweight championship.
“It’s difficult to say for me that I represent [Thailand], because there are a lot of people who represent that country more, but doing Muay Thai for so many years, of course I represent Muay Thai,” Shevchenko said. “Muay Thai is a sport and it had a huge effect on me. I really love all about Thailand. The culture, the language, the food, everything.”
It’s a long list of places that Shevchenko has touched down in and she continues to conduct parts of her fight camps in Kyrgyzstan and Thailand even as she establishes her base in Las Vegas and her following in the United States. Shevchenko is in the middle of writing her legacy, which could include a lengthy run of title defenses starting with Eye this Saturday or perhaps another shot at the bantamweight title she challenged Amanda Nunes for two years ago.
Either way, the path ahead for Shevchenko promises to be as intriguing as the one that led her here.
“For now, I’m focused on defending my belt as many times as I can,” Shevchenko said. “Whatever happens in the future, we never know. Everything that’s in my way, I’ll take it.”