On October 23, 2015, Anastasia Yankova made her promotional debut for the EFN - Fight Nights promotion's St. Petersburg show. Just 1-0 at the time, the Russian Thai boxing champion emerged from behind a cloud of smoke in a circular carriage with the workmanship of Tsarist Russia. She was dressed in a radiant gown designed for the aristocracy, and was locked into a pose of great importance. She played the part of Catherine The Great, one of Russia's finest rulers.
She certainly looked the part.
Out of the carriage emerged a blonde fighter with a stoic presence and an ice cold stare that earned her the nickname 'Burning Ice.' She faced down her opponent, Chommanee Sor Taehiran, and needed exactly 2 minutes and 31 seconds to secure the submission victory. Her second professional mixed martial arts bout was behind her, and it was her last before she embarked on a new adventure with Bellator MMA.
Despite a modest 2-0 MMA record, Yankova has a wealth of experience in various combat sports. She started training karate at age six in Moscow and competed in Kyokushin karate until she turned 14. At that point, she focused on her studies until the age of 19, when she met her Muay Thai instructor at a local fitness club. Through the gym, she competed in endless tournaments and eventually developmed a taste for competition.
Now, Yankova is a professional kickboxer and Muay Thai specialist, and even earned the title of Russian Muay Thai champion because of her earlier achievements. Though the traditional arts will remain Yankova's true love, her transition to MMA was a necessity if she planned on achieving fame.
"I love kickboxing and Muay Thai," Yankova told BloodyElbow. "But now, no one can immediately name the best woman in Thai Boxing at any weight. Just because Thai boxing and K-1 missed the moment for commercialization. Perhaps the birth of Bellator kickboxing will change this situation, and kickboxing will get closer to MMA in terms of development in the industry. But for now, MMA gives a very clear picture of the distribution of forces within the sport and each weight, so it is really interesting to fight here."
Yankova's pragmatic approach to her sporting career pried open new opportunities, though she will have to achieve them in a somewhat foreign sport with an entirely different rule set than the one she is used to.
"MMA for me right now is a new challenge. This is not what I was doing before. That is a different sport," she explained. "Kickboxing is a gentlemen's duel. When the opponent falls, the referee stops the fight. In the MMA when the opponent falls, your task is to make it so that he would not get up until you win. Cage - this is something quite different than the ring- and it is absolutely new emotions for me."
While Yankova's plan is to focus on MMA competition, she did not rule out a potential kickboxing bout under the Bellator banner. She reiterated her faith in Scott Coker's business sense and added that she is simply happy to have multiple options available to her.
"I believe that Bellator has very great future not only in America but also in Europe. Plus, Scott Coker has a very strong eye to sign good fighters. All of the champions in the UFC's 77 kg division were signed by Strikeforce, which was led by Coker."
Yankova, who is scheduled to face Anjela Pink on April 16 in Turin, Italy, actually weighed separate offers from the UFC and others before she decided on Bellator. She did not want to be tied down to a restrictive contract with exclusive terms, which was evident in the UFC's offer. Bellator, on the other hand, will allow her to take fights in Russia if she pleases and compete in other combat sports. In the end, it was simply the more comfortable deal for Yankova.
"I have feeling I am in the right place."
The Russian flyweight even intends to help Bellator host its first event in Russia. Given that the promotion has multiple Russian champions on the roster, Yankova believes it would be a sucessful venture for Bellator.
"I will try to help Bellator overtake the UFC and hold the first tournament in Russia. Andrey Koreshkov, Vitaly Minakov are now champions of the organization and a lot of people will come to a Bellator show in Russia. I would also like to participate in it."
Though Yankova revealed a stark contrast between MMA's popularity in the United States and the Russian Federation, she explained that it is only a matter of time before the Russian market catches up, especially if nurtured correctly.
"In our country, the industry is not as developed as in America, I think it's a matter of time. There are many talented people who develop MMA in Russia and I am sure that after a while a lot more people will watch and love MMA."
The main difference, according to Yankova, is the lack of respect for female fighters in Russia.
"Many people still do not believe that women can do anything on a par with men, including the martial arts."
The misogyny also seeped into Yankova's personal life, as she was forced to regularly deal with male harassers on social media. Some lobbed insults and vulgarities, while others sent over unsolicited nude selfies, and even physical threats.
For Yankova, it is just another day.
"Well, imagine that you have arranged a tour of the hospital. You will leave with a very bad impression of there, right? Approximately sometimes it happens with me when I read private messages in my address. It's like someone showed you a great number of people who have big problems. I feel sorry for them.
"Let's just imagine the guy who texting me, "My dream is to see how your pretty attractive face smashed to pieces in the cage, bitch." Are you ready to believe that this guy is healthy, that he is all right, even if he has such a sense of humour. I do not believe it. Psychologists should pay attention to them, not me."
Given the difficult seas that Yankova will be forced to navigate through in her native land, she considers herself a representative for female athletes, particularly Russian women. She plans to use MMA as an avenue to promote female empowerment and nurture a newfound understanding of women in sports.
"I want to show the strength of Russian women in the martial arts. Now we have Maria Sharapova, Elena Isinbayeva, Adelina Sotnikova, who are known in tennis, athletics and skating, and at the same time, the whole world says that they look great. I want to represent Russian women in MMA.
"I want to promote this sport and save it from the empty stereotypes."