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Kunitskaya cherishes the opportunity to fight champion Cyborg

Like many of the fighters who train in Albuquerque at Jackson-Wink MMA, Yana Kunitskaya does not live here. She’s a proud resident of St. Petersburg, Russia.

But when Kunitskaya is in town, she’s all in.

On Saturday in Las Vegas, Nev., Kunitskaya (10-3) will face Cris “Cyborg” Justino in a fight for Cyborg’s UFC women’s featherweight title. Cyborg, whose most recent fight was a victory by unanimous decision over Albuquerque’s Holly Holm on Dec. 30, is a prohibitive favorite.

This doesn’t seem to bother Kunitskaya.

“This is an opportunity for me and a good chance to show myself,” she said in a phone interview. “I’m psyched for this fight.”

Kunitskaya is a native of Murmansk, a city of some 300,000 within the Arctic Circle near Russia’s borders with Norway and Finland. She moved as a teenager to St. Petersburg, the country’s second-largest city, to pursue a martial-arts career.

That career brought her to the United States in 2016 and to Jackson-Wink last year.

And what has she come to like about Albuquerque?


“I’m in the gym from morning until night,” she said. “I don’t have time to do anything (else).”

In truth, she’s in the gym from morning until night until morning. Kunitskaya lives in the dormitories at Jackson-Wink.

Some of the fighters who train at the Albuquerque gym, in particular the foreign fighters, have primary coaches whom they bring with them from home.

They train at Jackson-Wink for the plentiful sparring partners, the physical therapy available to them from Dr. Beau Hightower, and Albuquerque’s mile-high elevation. They work with J-W co-founders Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn to varying degrees, if at all.

Again, Kunitskaya is all in. “My head coach is Wink,” she said. She does have other coaches, but said Winkeljohn and Jackson will be in her corner Saturday night.

In her corner as well, at least figuratively, is Holm. The only fighter to have gone the five-round championship distance with Cyborg, she has worked closely with Kunitskaya in preparation for Saturday’s fight.

“Holly’s helped me a lot,” Kunitskaya said. “She’s always helped me in other (training) camps, too. She’s a very good teammate.”

Kunitskaya is 1-1 thus far as a Jackson-Wink fighter. She first came to Albuquerque after a victory by first-round submission (arm bar) over Tonya Evinger in November 2016 for the Invicta FC bantamweight title. That fight later was declared no contest because of a referee’s error.

Evinger won a rematch via second-round submission (rear naked choke) in March of last year, but Kunitskaya won the same Invicta title last August with a victory by dominant unanimous decision over Raquel Pa’aluhi.

Next for Kunitskaya was to be a UFC debut against Sara McMann. But then came the offer to face Cyborg for the featherweight title.

Kunitskaya could be excused were she to develop a case of nerves going into a fight with Cyborg (19-1), the most feared fighter in women’s MMA if not the entire sport.

No excuse needed, she said.

“Just like any other fight, I’m a little bit nervous,” she said. “Everyone’s a little nervous before each fight. (But) this fight is just like the other ones.”

Win or lose, she’ll then return to St. Petersburg and reunite with her young son, Adam. But in preparation for any fight to come, she said, she’ll be all in at Jackson-Wink.

“It’s a really good team and a really good atmosphere,” she said. “We all help each other. The greatest people in the world are coming here.

“I’m just happy that I found my gym, found my place.”

DODSON, TOO: Albuquerque bantamweight John Dodson, Kunitskaya’s Jackson-Wink teammate, is scheduled to face Brazil’s Pedro Munhoz on Saturday’s card. That’s provided Munhoz (15-2) makes weight, something he didn’t do when he and Dodson (19-0) were supposed to fight on Feb. 4.

Dodson opted not to take a fight against an overweight opponent, and the matchup was rescheduled for Saturday.