Bellator 161: "Kongo vs. Johnson" takes place this Friday night (Sept. 16, 2016) at H-E-B Center in Cedar Park, Texas, featuring a main event between two Heavyweight contenders, Cheick Kongo and Tony Johnson, who are looking to move closer to the currently vacant title.
At the other end of the weight spectrum is a fight that's likely to draw interest because of a fighter well known for her Internet fandom. Anastasia Yankova is young (25), talented (3-0), and wants to be an inspiration to men and women alike. The budding star of the Flyweight division in Bellator will be tested in her United States debut by Veta Arteaga, who is just a little bit older (28), but also holds a perfect record to date (2-0) in mixed martial arts (MMA).
So what does this latest challenge mean to Yankova? For a starters, it means coming to San Jose, Calif., before the fight to train with and learn from the fighters at American Kickboxing Academy.
"Actually (it's been) really good. I like San Jose and I like AKA. I'm really happy to finish my training camp here. I'm happy that my coach can come with me here. Everything's okay. The hard work is done now -- it's just only two days (more) hard work and after that it's just cut(ting) weight. I feel that I'm ready now and I'm so excited. I'm really happy now. It's a really great time I think."
Given the reception she's received from overly enthusiastic fans in the past it would be natural to wonder how MMA fans in the United States would treat her, but with a laugh Yankova said it's been nothing but positive so far.
"I'm really surprised that a lot of people know me in San Jose ... in America. Before it's normal for Russia (to be known) and not surprising to me when I'm walking up the street in Moscow and go to (the) mall in Moscow, but here it really surprises me. I don't feel like I'm a big star, you know? But, sometimes I'm really surprised and really happy that guys come to AKA that ask me for a photo and an autograph, or come with a big photo -- print my photo -- and I'm like WOWWW. I feel that I inspire people in America too now."
That much attention could be a distraction for a fighter preparing for a tough opponent like Veta Arteaga. If she's concerned about it though it doesn't come across that way -- for her the attention is validation of her hard work.
"No, it's good for me. You go out from (the) gym after really hard sparring and you feel yourself like 'Oh my God' you know? You cut weight and you finish your training camp and you feel not really healthy, but it's normal. In one week, you will be okay, but now you feel like you're so tired. So people come to the gym only for (a) photo with you, you think like 'Oh my God yes - I do everything right. I go to my goal and people see it and understand it.'"
Right now her goal is to continue to show off the same submission skills she displayed at Bellator 152. Yankova is aware people will compare her belt rank to Arteaga's, but is still confident she can prevail.
"(She's) a good opponent, a really dangerous opponent. If you fight with girl who have really good jiu-jitsu game, be careful. Purple belt is not won here in gym, it's not through here in gym, it (takes) a really long time. Yes, I don't have purple belt, I have just only white belt, and I don't train jiu-jitsu (a) long time, but I have best coach and best gym in the world. I think I'm ready. I'm not afraid or scared. It's a challenge for me. I think I can and I will (do it)."
That single-minded determination to show off her jiu-jitsu might leave fans wondering if she'll ever improve as a striker. Yankova doesn't plan on being a predictable opponent for anybody.
"I like surprising people, and um, first time second time third time everybody everyone (is) waiting on the stand up. I like surprising people (though) and if I can, if I feel that I can finish it, for sure I will. For now for sure my plan is jiu-jitsu, I think it's not a secret."
I asked Yankova if she has any favorite training partners at AKA. She was reluctant to cite anybody specifically but given their respective backgrounds one name she mentions won't surprise you.
"You train with real stars and really legend(ary) fighters. It's not an easy question because there are a lot of guys bigger than me but a lot of guys really help me. It's not sparring because I'm little and I'm girl and it's (a) big difference. I'm like a kid you know? I understand that. We train with Khabib (Nurmagomedov), Khabib every time say 'C'mon work! Work! C'mon, c'mon!' It's good. It's not sparring partner for sure."
Considering what Nurmagomedov did to Darrell Horcher I wouldn't be anxious to spar with him either (nor any bears he previously sparred with). Finally I asked Yankova if she still feels any nerves before a big fight.
"For sure I am excited. For sure I am not super calm. It's not bad. It's (a) good feeling. I like this feeling. Now it's..."
At this point she called on her translator to help her finish the thought.
"The week of the fight, once I get to the hotel and to the city, then I really start to feel like 'Okay what about the fight?' Not anxiety but that anticipation and that anxiousness comes on - but I like it. I think it's a great feeling."
"Anticipation" is definitely how fight fans are feeling too about seeing her U.S. debut at Bellator 161 on Sept. 16 in Cedar Park, Texas.
Complete audio of our interview is below and complete Bellator MMA coverage can be found right here on fight night.