Valentina Shevchenko days away from potentially reaching UFC dream

Nicco Montaño, left, will defend her flyweight title against Valentina Shevchenko at UFC 228. Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Valentina "Bullet" Shevchenko always has a gun on her hip. A Glock 19 is etched into her skin in black ink, with three bullets sitting in front of the weapon.

"Three bullets, three letters," she said in a phone interview.

The letters Shevchenko, 30, is referring to, if you haven't guessed, are MMA. On Sept. 8, she will step into the Octagon to challenge Nicco Montaño for the UFC women's flyweight title. At 15-3, Shevchenko is a force in the Octagon, but a title has eluded her. Two of her losses came at the hands of bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes by razor thin margins. Flyweight offers her the opportunity to claim a belt of her own, and the best chance to be a long reigning champion.

Shevchenko is challenging Montaño after just one previous flyweight bout, a second round submission win over Priscila Cachoeira. The women's flyweight division is new. Montaño captured the inaugural belt on Dec. 1, 2017 in the finale of season 26 of "The Ultimate Fighter." The fight at UFC 228 is Montaño's first title defense. If Shevchenko gets her way, it will be an unsuccessful one.

"On Sept. 8, I will explode," Shevchenko said.

Shevchenko has reason to be confident. Other than her two losses to Nunes, the last person to beat her was Liz Carmouche in 2010, five years before Shevchenko's first UFC fight. She is one of the best Muay Thai fighters in the world, and she has proven that she can win in myriad ways, notching seven submission victories, four knockout victories, and four wins by decision.

"My fighting style is mixed martial arts," Shevchenko said. "It's not just stand up, or ground and pound, it's everything together. I have 26 years of a fighting career, and it always works together."

Born in Bishek, Kyrgyzstan, Shevchenko began studying martial arts at 5 years old, at the behest of her mother, who is an accomplished martial artist herself. She started taekwondo classes, along with her older sister Antonina, and developed into a world champion Muay Thai fighter. Antonina earned a UFC contract after her Contender Series victory in June.

"I think [my mother] is proud of us," Shevchenko said.

Shevchenko might have gotten her Glock tattoo in 2014, but earned her nickname much younger. It was after her first Muay Thai fight that her longtime coach Pavel Fedotov dubbed her "Bullet" because of her speed. She knocked out a 22-year-old. Shevchenko was 12. It was at that time that Shevchenko realized that martial arts, fighting, would be her life's focus. Before then, she was just kind of rolling with the punches, as it were.

"I was too young to understand some things," Shevchenko said. "I was just doing what my mom told me."

Honoring where she came from is important to Shevchenko. She walks out to the same Eastern European folk song every fight (by Lezginka), and after each victory, she does a dance from her homeland. She marks her body with ink to honor those who have shaped her, including Fedotov.

"I put a lot of meaning into what will go on my skin and be there for all of my years of life," Shevchenko said.

Shevchenko puts meaning into everything that she deems important. She speaks with reverence of her commitment to martial arts, and her love of the Octagon. Martial arts is not just a past time; it's about family, about discipline. The Glock inked on her hip is infused with those layers as well. On its face, the tattoo makes sense, Shevchenko loves to shoot. She owns a Glock 17 and a Glock 22, and regularly posts photos from the range. She didn't have to make it about MMA, but she did anyway.

"I'm doing what I love to do," Shevchenko said. "Martial Arts is my everything. It's my life, my philosophy, how I think, who I am."

What Shevchenko hopes to be next is a champion. She wants to feel the belt fit around her waist. It's about more than just being the best; a victory on Saturday is about honoring 25 years of hard work.

"I've been in martial arts for so many years," Shevchenko says. "So to hold the belt of UFC and be on top of the biggest organization, it will be represented in this belt."