LOS ANGELES — Valentina Shevchenko trained at the same gym in Thailand as Joanna Jedrzejczyk, by chance, as they were both preparing for the Muay Thai world championships in 2007.
Shevchenko beat Jedrzejczyk in the 2006 tournament. The two didn’t train or spar with one another while at the gym together, Shevchenko said. But it was the same facility.
When the championships arrived, both were in the 125-pound division. There was a lottery to determine the first-round matchups and brackets.
“The funniest story is that you come to the world championships, it’s maybe like 15 or 20 girls from all countries, all around,” Shevchenko said at a media lunch Tuesday. “They have a draw. The organizations choose who you face up in your first fight. And you know the first fight, who was my opponent? It was Joanna.”
Shevchenko beat Jedrzejczyk in 2007 and then again one year later at the world championships. After 2008, Shevchenko moved up a weight division, leaving the door open for Jedrzejczyk to win titles.
About a decade later, Shevchenko and Jedrzejczyk are two of the top female MMA fighters in the world. They will fight for the vacant UFC women’s flyweight title in the co-main event of UFC 231 on Dec. 8 in Toronto. Though Jedrzejczyk has said those three past losses won’t matter next week, Shevchenko believes it will make a difference.
“She can say that it’s not affecting her, but yes — it’s affecting her,” Shevchenko said. “We are saying sometimes that fighters can say whatever, but what they are feeling inside is totally different. And it’s affecting everything. It’s affecting everyone, for sure.”
Jedrzejczyk, 31, has had a more decorated MMA career to this point. She is the former UFC women’s strawweight champion, having defended that belt five times. The Poland native will move up to 125 — which she says is her more natural weight — for the first time in her UFC run in this bout.
Shevchenko, 30, fought for the UFC women’s bantamweight title, falling to Amanda Nunes last year. When the UFC started a women’s flyweight division, Shevchenko moved to it immediately and she defeated Priscila Cachoeira by second-round submission back in February.
“Bullet” was supposed to fight inaugural 125-pound champion Nicco Montaño at UFC 228 in September, but Montaño fell ill cutting weight and the bout was called off. Montaño was subsequently stripped of the title, leading to Shevchenko vs. Jedrzejczyk for the vacant gold.
Shevchenko said more than anything she’s just happy to fight, especially someone like Jedrzejczyk, who she is sure will make it to the Octagon next week.
“I’m glad to fight someone who is really professional,” Shevchenko said. “Because I’m tired about these opponents who are not professionals, cannot make the weight, they are all trouble — bring me all trouble. It’s bringing suffering not only to me, but all fans, all organization and it’s totally unprofessional. And I would like to have more really responsible fighters inside the organization.”
Shevchenko, a Kyrgyzstan native, said she and Jedrzejczyk were “never enemies” and always civil with each other, which is unlike Shevchenko’s experience in her two fights with Nunes. Jedrzejczyk might be more motivated to get her first win in four tries against Shevchenko and will be fighting in a healthier weight class, but Shevchenko does not believe that will matter.
“I don’t think that it will be much different,” Shevchenko said. “Of course, she is going to feel healthier, because she doesn’t have to cut. But I don’t think it’s gonna be much different for me in the face of Joanna. Of course, she will have more energy, but it doesn’t matter for me. I was fighting with bigger, stronger opponents [at bantamweight]. I never was fighting with someone who was weaker than me and who have less skills than me. Every time I was trying to face someone better and stronger. This is the difference, that I’m ready for everything. It doesn’t matter how Joanna will feel in this fight, how strong or how fresh. It won’t affect me anyway. No.”
And no matter what Jedrzeczyk might say, Shevchenko is confident that those three victories 10 years ago will play a part at UFC 231.
“Of course it was years ago,” Shevchenko said. “Of course she changed, she improved as a fighter, same as me. I’ve improved as a mixed martial arts fighter. But at the end of the day, in the final it doesn’t matter. All experience, it will help. And each experience I get from that fight, it will help me to win this fight.”