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UFC's Valentina Shevchenko on the brink of a belt and the temptation to double down

UFC's Valentina Shevchenko on the brink of a belt and the temptation to double down
Valentina Shevchenko is bloodied during a battle with Amanda Nunes in UFC 196 women's bantamweight bout on March 5, 2016, in Las Vegas. Nunes won by unanimous decision. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Timing a fighter’s elevation to champion is elusive, but now that Valentina Shevchenko has reached Saturday’s UFC 228 in Dallas, hers seems perfect.

The 30-year-old former women’s bantamweight title challenger — who first endured champion Amanda Nunes’ fight-day sickness/cancellation, then suffered a loss by split decision later last year -- has moved down to flyweight to stand as a substantial favorite over new 125-pound champion Nicco Montano (5-2).

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Considering that Nunes is now preparing for a December super-fight for fellow Brazilian Cris Cyborg’s featherweight belt, it’s conceivable that Shevchenko could later pursue the bantamweight belt again should she win Saturday.

“It would be very nice, but let’s do it step by step and win the first belt first,” Shevchenko said.

Based on the divide of mixed martial arts and big-fight experience, it seems Shevchenko’s most imposing obstacle for Saturday’s fight is overconfidence.

“I know my strengths. I know what I’m good at,” she said. “At the same time, it goes against my personality to [become overconfident] because I train for every fight as if it’s the best fight possible. I’ve done everything again to show myself [prepared] for a good fight.”

Kyrgyzstan-born Shevchenko (15-3) has been groomed for this moment by distinguished advisors led by her mother, Elena, her longtime coach, Pavel Fedotov, and sister Antonina.

“Martial arts is my life. It’s not something I do for the moment, so this gives me my most motivation,” Shevchenko said. “When I grew up, the idea that I had to be the best at everything I do was put in my head by my mother. This is just how I am. I’m not just here participating. I go to bed dreaming, thinking that I want to be the best in the octagon and be a champion.”

Elena Shevchenko was recently named by Kyrgyzstan as an “honorable coach” for her Muay Thai instruction. That expertise helped Antonina recently land a UFC contract by winning a qualifying bout on Dana White’s Contender Series.

Although Antonina will be a UFC flyweight, Valentina says that — like the former boxing-champion Klitschko brothers — she will never considering fighting her sister.

“No, no, I’m very proud and happy we’re competing together in the same organization like we have our whole life in Muay Thai,” Valentina said. “She trained more than me in Muay Thai as an 11-time world champion. I’m sure she’ll do great in UFC.”

That same assurance is tagged to Valentina, considering the quality of fighting skill that has been displayed in bantamweight victories over former champion Holly Holm and top-10 contender Julianna Peña. In February, Shevchenko’s flyweight debut was completely one-sided as she out-struck opponent Priscila Cachoeira 95-2.

“My coach has taught me since 5 years old, and he stresses not just the quality of training but the mental part. Technique and the mental game have to mesh, balance,” Shevchenko said. “I’m getting closer toward my goal. I will do my best mentally and physically and will do my best to get the belt.”

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