The woman Valentina Shevchenko chased from the beginning of her martial arts career won’t be standing across from her in the octagon in the main event of UFC 213 Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena.
She will be directly behind Shevchenko, serving in the corner for the women’s bantamweight top contender when she challenges champion Amanda Nunes. Long before Valentina Shevchenko dreamed of becoming a UFC champion and holding the most prestigious belt in female’s mixed martial arts, she just wanted to top her older sister, Antonina Shevchenko.
“When I was very young, she was the best of all girls in competition,” Valentina said. “She was No. 1. Me and the girls who were the same age as me that started to train looked at her like, ‘Wow. This is our example and how we want to be.’”
Both Valentina and Antonina began training as children in their native Krgyzstan under their mother’s tutelage. Elena Shevchenko holds a black belt in taekwondo and works as president of a Muay Thai association, so she started her daughters in the two disciplines.
Antonina, who is three years older, had no recollection of Valentina idolizing her. Antonia said she instead was awed from the moment her younger sister started training at 5 years old.
“She was very persistent," Antonina said. "Me and our mother thought she would be our best martial artist, that Valentina would be a great fighter.”
They both turned out great fighters in their own right, just in different sports. The 32-year-old Antonina, who’s three inches taller and brunette to Valentina’s blonde, won a kickboxing championship in Lion Fight earlier this year.
The sisters have been alongside each other every step of the way, continuing to train together all across the world from their current home in Lima, Peru to the headquarters of their team Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, Thailand.
Valentina’s UFC 213 training camp started in Phuket before shifting a couple weeks ago to Denver in order to log high-altitude training. Antonina stayed in Thailand, not rejoining Valentina until she arrived in Las Vegas earlier this week.
“These days before the fight are very emotional days, very nervous days,” Antonina said. “To have people close to you is important.”
Antonina has done everything from help manage Valentina’s weight cut to 135 pounds to post content to her social media from obligations throughout fight week. But they both agreed Antonina’s most valuable role is offering mental and emotional support.
“Every time when I have any kind of difficulties or happiness, she’s with me,” Valentina said. “I’m very thankful for everything, to have that kind of person near, next to me.”
UFC 213 will be the third time in Valentina’s five fights in the octagon that Antonia has worked her corner, which includes a unanimous-decision loss to Nunes at UFC 196 in March 2016. Antonina has never been more nervous — not even in her own fights — than when Nunes successfully took Valentina down in the second round and bashed her with ground and pound.
But Antonina was proud of the way Valentina came back, and still hasn’t accepted the outcome of the bout.
“I didn’t see that as a loss,” Antonina said. “The first round, I think (Valentina) won. Maybe the judges took the victory from her to Amanda because of the takedowns. Second round was for Amanda, and third round was for Valentina. It was at least an equal fight.”
Nothing has annoyed Nunes more in the build-up to the rematch than what she sees as revisionist history of her win. Valentina has repeatedly referenced her surge at the end of the fight as proof that she would have beaten Nunes in a five-round bout.
“If she can’t beat me in three rounds, it’s not my fault,” Nunes said. “I’m better than her and this time I’m going to finish the fight.”
Valentina questioned how much Nunes could have improved since the victory considering she’s had less than a round of total fight time in blowout first-round finishes of Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey. Valentina, on the other hand, said she had improved immensely and came too far to squander her opportunity.
She’s worked nearly 25 years for this moment, dating all the way back to when she only sought to catch up with her older sister.
“It’s very much motivation for me because Antonina is with me,” Valentina said. “She’s helped me a lot.”