KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Valentina Shevchenko would normally be glued to her television to watch UFC 224 on Saturday night, when bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes was set to defend her belt against Raquel Pennington.
Turns out she won't be paying much attention at all.
Instead, the top-ranked flyweight contender will be watching her first NASCAR race under the lights at Kansas Speedway. Shevchenko has been intrigued by the quintessentially American sport for years, and through her manager got hooked up with the speedway for a behind-the-scenes look at motorsports.
"I've always been interested, seeing it on TV. So I'm excited," Shevchenko said.
She took a ride in the pace car and look at the garages about six hours before the green flag dropped on the Monster Energy Cup Series race on Saturday.
Shevchenko was born into a Ukrainian family in the former Soviet Union, and began learning martial arts when she was 5. Her mother was an expert in taekwondo, and from there Shevchenko began to dabble in Muay Thai kickboxing and freestyle fighting as she grew into her teens.
She eventually immigrated to Peru, where her fighting career took off. She won 56 professional kickboxing fights and a couple traditional boxing matches, earning enough title belts to fill a rather large wardrobe. But it wasn't until she began to dedicate herself to MMA, which has increased during the past decade in popularity, that the fighter nicknamed "Bullet" reached the mainstream.
Shevchenko won 12 of her first 13 fights before facing Nunes at UFC 196, losing by unanimous decision. Shevchenko rebounded to beat highly regarded Holly Holm and Juliana Pena, then lost a brutal and narrow split-decision to Nunes for the bantamweight title last September.
In other words, that gives her some unique insight into Saturday night's main event.
"Oh, I think Amanda is going to win. First, maybe second round," Shevchenko said of the 135-pound title fight between Nunes and Pennington, which headlines UFC 224 from Rio de Janeiro.
Shevchenko dropped down to 125 pounds to easily submit Priscila Cachoeira in February, setting off rumblings about a flyweight title fight. The current champion, Nicco Montano, is targeting July for her next defense and many believe it will be against Shevchenko on July 28 in Calgary.
Meanwhile, Shevchenko admitted she might keep tabs on the fight in Brazil on Saturday night, but she plans to be fully engaged with the NASCAR race. For one thing, she's a self-described thrill-seeker. For another, she has some official duties as an honorary race official.
"It's going to be interesting to see the drivers even before the race," she said. "As a fighter, I know what to expect before a fight. I know what to do. I'm interested in seeing how they act, and what they do. I think it's probably the same kind of focus. It's going to be neat to see."