On Feb. 24, after months of wondering if it would get to that point, Russia began its launch of a devastating assault on Ukraine, which had declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. After decades of percolation, things had officially boiled over to the worst-case scenario. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians have since died and several thousand more have been wounded in what has turned out to be a nightmare for the country.
While many Ukrainians believed this could happen, others stayed positive with their hopes. One of those individuals was PFL lightweight Olena Kolesnyk, a competitor preparing to begin her 2022 season for the promotion, who had her world turned upside down in an instant.
“I feel like I took part in a horror movie, and it can’t stop because I can’t predict the end of the movie,” Kolesnyk says.
Kolesnyk, with the help of friends, coaches, and teammates, was able to travel from Ukraine to Las Vegas to continue training for her chance at a PFL title, and $1 million — money that could change her life, not only for Kolesnyk, but for her family.
The 32-year-old went to bed on Feb. 23 like any other night, with thoughts of getting ready for the next morning: Wake up, prepare for the day, train, etc.
That didn’t happen.
“When the war came, I was in Kyiv, the capital,” Kolesnyk says. “I heard the alarms and I couldn’t believe it, and people started to call me at 5:00 a.m. — my parents, my friends, [people] from my hometown — saying, ‘Helen, war has started.’ How? With whom? With who is war [starting]? Which war? What are you talking about? Maybe soldiers were studying. I didn’t believe it. They said, ‘No, it’s f****** real.’
“[I thought] this was impossible, but I think it was my [mind] trying to protect me from reality. Then I looked out the window at 6:00 a.m., and people are taking their kids, running with suitcases. They ran everywhere. They were running. I live in a house with 22 floors and everyone was running out of the house, and [that’s when I thought] something was definitely wrong. When I heard the bombs coming in Kyiv, I said, ‘Whoa, it’s true. It’s real. It’s not just rumors.’ My friends told me, ‘You need to get out of there,’ but everyone was running on the streets and I just didn’t understand what I needed to do.”
As Kolesnyk was confused and borderline panicking, she received a phone call from a friend who had a better grasp with what was going on. Hearing his voice on the other end of the line turned things up a notch. The distance between maybe and definite was closing in.
“He called me and said, ‘Helen, get your documents. You have 10 minutes. Run near the underground. I will put you in the car and take you out of the city.’ I said, ‘Is this real?’ He said, ‘Run! Just take your documents and run,’” Kolesnyk says.
“I’m so lucky, because when we were driving from Kyiv to my hometown, I saw a lot of things. I saw tanks, I heard bombs, and now I can’t even listen to loud music, or watch movies, because I saw a movie in my life, but it wasn’t a movie. Now, I wake up and go to sleep with the news because I’m scared. I’m scared that one more of my friends will die.”
According to Kolesnyk, around an hour after she fled, a house two doors down from where she lived was destroyed, which served as even more of a realization that she made the right choice — although she wasn’t fully there just yet.
With just one bag and her documents in hand, Kolesnyk began her journey. A three-and-a-half hour drive through smoke, rubble, and soldier-filled roads led to her first stop: Moldova. During that drive, and the day she spent where tanks were prevalent, Kolesnyk began to think she needed to head back to her country and join the army like professional fighters such as Bellator welterweight champion Yaroslav Amosov, boxers Vasiliy Lomachenko and Oleksandr Usyk, and others.
A conversation with her family — more specifically, her mother — changed her viewpoint for good. Kolesnyk knew she couldn’t go back.
“My mom, my dad, my sister, they all told me, ‘Helen don’t do it. We will not forgive you if you come back. Now, you are our hope. Even if the war stops, the economy will fall down so much and we don’t know how long it will take for it to come back,’” says Kolesnyk.
“So now I will be the one person to go out and support my family. It’s now all on my shoulders. I have the responsibility, not just for myself, but for all of my family. But there have been no days where I don’t cry and not think, ‘Did I make the right choice?’”
Thanks to the helpful nature of the Moldovan people, Kolesnyk hopped on a bus to Romania, then to Bulgaria, then Istanbul. From there, she hopped on an airplane to Qatar before connecting on another flight to Los Angeles and finally finding her new home away from home in Las Vegas.
Xtreme Couture head coach Eric Nicksick had been made aware of what was going on by one of his fighters, Invicta FC’s Serena DeJesus, and didn’t hesitate to offer a helping hand.
“She wrote me this super long text message explaining the situation and I just wrote back, ‘Done. Whatever you need, we got her. That’s it. No problem,’” Nicksick says. “She was like, ‘Well, what does she need to pay? What about this?’ Nothing. Bring her here, we’ll take care of her.
“She literally left with nothing — she has no clothes, no gear, no nothing. Thankfully I have a bunch of stuff from Hayabusa and some other things, I think Serena hooked her up and she came to the gym, and she’s been in the room [almost every day since she’s been here].”
DeJesus says she constantly kept in contact with Koleznyk as the invasion was going on. DeJesus could sense that her friend didn’t initially believe things were as dire as they became, but knew that Koleznyk needed to get out of there. As much as she could, DeJesus got the ball rolling, and continues to make sure Koleznyk has everything she needs.
“Me and Olena had been friends for about a year,” DeJesus says. “Nobody would train with her because she’s so big, and then there’s me who was like, ‘Come here you big, beautiful b****,’ and we kicked each other’s asses.
“I was watching the news and seeing everything happening and was wondering if she was going to be OK. Even though I’m on the other side of the world, there has to be some sort of responsibility to your friend, and people in crisis. She came here, was a little bit of a mess, but she has to deal with the fact that she still has family in the Ukraine, trying to win fights and win money so she can provide for her family — who are all in the middle of a war zone.”
With a couple of boxes checked in terms of a landing spot and a place to train, Koleznyk was moving forward towards making sure the wishes of her family were met. But there was still one more hurdle to clear, the most important one of all: How was she going to book her flights to get from Ukraine to the U.S. in the middle of a war zone?
Enter the PFL, most notably the promotion’s president, Ray Sefo — a man who Koleznyk can’t thank enough.
“I, like everybody else, saw on the news what was going on over there, so I contacted her and a few others and said, ‘So, I’m hearing that this war is about to happen, so I wanted to make sure everyone is OK,’” Sefo says. “When it started, and bombs started flying, I reached out again and she was in tears, literally trying to get out. I talked to our team and said, ‘We have to help her and get her out of there,’ and we did.”
Now that Koleznyk has safely arrived in Las Vegas, and has the support of teammates, coaches, and even a former opponent in Taylor Guardado — with whom Nicksick reached out to in order to make sure there wouldn’t be a conflict of interest at the gym — she has begun to turn things up a notch.
According to Nicksick and DeJesus, there’s a different look in Kolesnyk’s eyes.
“You see a lot more of her intentions. You see that she’s carrying something more right now,“ Nicksick says.
“She’s been amazing in the room. I’m super glad that she’s here because she just really makes the room a lot better. But it [also] puts a lot of perspective amongst the rest of us as far as coaches and fighters go. We just get to wake up, come to this gym, love life and everything we’re doing, and this poor woman has been uprooted from her family and from her country and really is fighting for something bigger.”
“Last year, she still hit like a f****** truck, but now she’s a bit more zeroed in,” DeJesus says. “We still have our moments of comedy, but I can tell that tone has changed for her. I don’t want to see whatever girl is front of her [next], because she’s probably going to tear that poor girl apart.”
The gym has been an escape in a lot of ways for Koleznyk, but there isn’t a moment that goes by that she’s not thinking about her family, friends, and fellow countrymen and women who are in Ukraine trying to stay alive.
“My mind will never be the same as it was before. I’m not motivated 100 percent, but now 1,000 percent for my family, all of my people,” Kolesnyk says.
“It’s hard to say this situation can give you power, but it does motivate you every minute, every second inside the gym. You think about your people, your family. Every minute, every second, you are in Ukraine — even if you’re not there, you feel it, you think about it.”
For Nicksick, it’s his hope that Xtreme Couture can give her an outlet she can be proud of, one that will keep her fired up and motivated, and a way in which she can communicate to the broader world about what is going on in her country.
On the flip side, DeJesus wants all of those things for Kolesnyk, but also the glory that could come with it: Make the PFL playoffs, make it to the finals, win the $1 million — and somewhere along the way, put the first ‘L’ on multi-time PFL champion Kayla Harrison.
If that does happen, Sefo, who has seen it all in the world of mixed martial arts, believes it would not only be an amazing accomplishment, but Koleznyk would take her place in the history books.
“I would have to say that it would be the top story [in MMA history],” Sefo says. “Not only to be in the midst of war, then being able to get out, have to travel four, five days to get to somewhere where she can actually fly out, then make it to the States, then to put all that together, put herself through camp, I mean, that is just an amazing story in itself,” Sefo said.
“All I know is that Helena is a tough SOB. I’ve seen it in the cage, but sitting across her a couple of days ago and just listening to her, she showed that she’s so motivated right now — although she is very sad with the situation at hand. I really hope for the best for her, because I think it could be one of those amazing Cinderella stories.”
There are two films that have stood the test of time in terms of motivation for Kolesnyk: The original Rocky movie, and The Fighter, which documents the life of boxer Mickey Ward.
While those two films have made a big impact on the combat sports storytelling landscape, Koleznyk is ready to let her mind, heart, and spirit create the happiest of endings — and put a bow on a tale that began with pandemonium but could end in triumph.
“Now I’m Rocky: One bag with documents and [cell phone]. My favorite movie could become a reality,” Koleznyk says.
“You know what’s crazy? Can you imagine what I’ll be able to tell my grandchild? Your grandmother got through a pandemic, then a war. What a life your grandma had.”
Koleznyk will make her season debut against an opponent yet to be announced at the PFL’s May 6 event in Arlington, Texas.