While UFC women’s featherweight champion Cris Cyborg was in Portugal, taking part in seminars and enjoying some down time when Saturday’s UFC 222 championship main event came together, her opponent, Yana Kunitskaya was already in the gym.
“I was supposed to fight on this same card, so I was getting ready for another girl,” said Kunitskaya, who was already preparing to make her promotional debut against Leah Letson when word came down that she would be challenging for championship gold in her first Octagon appearance.
“I was just training hard and when I found out it was going to be Cris Cyborg, I was so excited for this fight.”
Though Kunitskaya only began preparing to face the dominant Brazilian champion herself a couple weeks ago, she’s also been working with a coaching staff and training partners that have spent a great deal of time trying to figure out the multitude of problems Cyborg presents inside the cage for a number of months.
Stationed at Jackson Wink MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the 28-year-old Russian standout served as one of Holly Holm’s chief sparring partners when the former bantamweight queen prepared for her showdown with Cyborg at UFC 219.
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While the champion retained her title, Holm became the first opponent to go the distance with the feared finisher in nearly a decade and was the first to extend her to five rounds. Along the way, “The Preacher’s Daughter” had far more positive moments and found much more success than anyone else that has recently shared the cage with Cyborg, and entered the final round in a dead heat with the champion on two of the three judges’ scorecards.
Now two months later, Kunitskaya is the one preparing to face Cyborg with Holm as the training partner, and the elite coaching staff at the world-class facility has 25 minutes of practical experience to draw from heading into Saturday night’s main event.
“I’m so happy that I’m training at this camp,” said Kunitskaya, who has spent the last 18 months in the hardscrabble New Mexico city that has a long history of producing and developing elite talent. “Holly Holm has helped me a lot before and now; she’s my size, she’s very strong.
“The time that she fought Cris Cyborg, she went five rounds, we saw a lot of things – what Holly did good, what she did bad – and she’s been helping me in this camp and I’m so appreciative for sure.”
This weekend might be Kunitskaya’s UFC debut and her introduction to those who only have eyes for what happens inside the Octagon, but the featherweight title challenger is far from a neophyte when it comes to competing in MMA.
A life-long martial artist, she made her professional MMA debut in 2009 and amassed an 8-1 record with seven of those wins coming by way of stoppage before taking a three-year hiatus from competing.
Three fights into her return, Kunitskaya challenged Tonya Evinger in back-to-back bantamweight title fights under the Invicta FC banner before defeating Raquel Pa’aluhi in August to claim the vacant title Evinger left behind when she received the call to matriculate to the UFC and challenge Cyborg for the featherweight scrap.
A talented striker with an underrated grappling game, Kunitskaya is a legitimate talent and while she enters Saturday’s contest as a considerable underdog, she’s looking to prove she belongs on the biggest stage in the sport and is the type of fighter fans can get behind going forward.
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“For me, every fight is important,” she said. “It’s not like there are some girls you can lose to (and it does not matter); every fight is important.
“Cris is a great fighter and this is a big step for me, but I’m so happy that I get the chance to show myself as a fighter. I want to show that I am a good fighter and not someone who is going to be running away.
“I’m here to fight and I think we’ll show a great fight with Cris Cyborg.”
And she’s confident she has what it takes to bring the champion’s 12-year unbeaten streak to an end this weekend.
“I can finish the fight by knockout, by submission or maybe it will be all five rounds,” said Kunitskaya. “I’m ready for everything. We trained to wrestle and grapple and I’m sure she’ll be getting ready for everything too, so who knows what will happen.”