One morning in February, as Russia invaded Ukraine, Olena Kolesnyk had 15 minutes to pack her bags and leave her home in Kyiv. She ran to safety underground early in the morning while it was still dark outside, with Russian forces entering the city.
Six months after the start of the war, when a heavyweight boxer Oleksandr Usyk defends his world titles against Anthony Joshua in Saudi Arabia, Kolesnyk will fight for Ukraine at the Copper Box Arena in London.
The 32-year-old will face Brazilian Larisa Pacheco in the ninth Professional Fighters League mixed martial arts event of the season.
“There is pressure because [Ukrainian soldiers] during the war, I saw the PFL publish my photo and send me pictures of the war. They were near the broken down Russian tanks,” she told BBC Sport.
“So for them, I’m like a rocket from Ukraine in the guise of a woman.”
“I have to represent my country with pride”
Saturday, the PFL make their London debut as Kolesnyk takes on Pacheco in the women’s lightweight division, in a rematch of their 2021 bout, which the Ukrainian lost by knockout.
But this time, she says, there’s a lot more at stake, with so many people at home sending her messages of support.
“They all believe in me and they all hope I win, so for me it’s like, in a way, it helps. Good energy, good vibes,” she said.
“In another way, I have to represent my country with pride.”
After escaping to Ukraine, Kolesnyk had to make the most difficult decision of his life and choose whether to return to fight for his country in the war, or to fight for his country in a different way – continuing his journey. MMA and having a platform to talk about what’s going on back home.
She chose the MMA cage.
And the decision paid off; the lightweight, who has lost both of her 2021 fights, says she has no choice but to win for the people watching at home and has won both of her 2022 fights, against Abby Montes and Vanessa Melo .
She credits her successes this year to how much her life has changed and says she’s been more focused and motivated to win, saying she’s ‘cooler and less emotional’ which she says has affected her style of winning. fight.
“I have a responsibility not just for myself, not just to fight for fun, now I have a responsibility for my people,” she said. “So that’s a huge motivation to improve from fight to fight.”
“A responsibility I have towards others”
The PFL bills itself as one of the fastest growing sports leagues in the world. Unlike the UFC and Bellator, it operates in a sports season format where fighters compete in a league before advancing to the knockout stages.
A $1m (£850,000) prize money makes the league extremely attractive to fighters.
Kolesnyk wants to put this money to good use at home. The 32-year-old says her hometown of Odessa was attacked by a rocket this week, so she wants to use the money collected to help people there.
“When you grow up in a poor family and especially these days with what is happening in my country, a million dollars can save lives,” she said.
“I appreciate that many Ukrainians are now saving our lives.
“Being in the PFL and having the opportunity to fight for $1 million is not just what I dream of for myself, but a responsibility I have for others.”
Kolesnyk, who hopes the Ukrainians in London will come to see his fight this weekend, says the PFL is “something huge and big, like a Chinese dragon that will attack the world of MMA”.
“[The PFL] has a great future and it’s a great opportunity for us as fighters,” she added.
Last time out, Kolesnyk only found out she was fighting Pacheco on two weeks notice. This time, she says she has been preparing for much longer, is focused and wants revenge as she aims to win in her first PFL play-off appearance.
“It will be a much better fight than it was [last year]. It will definitely be interesting,” she said, promising to show how much she has grown as a fighter since the last fight.
Kolesnyk, a huge Harry Potter fan, says if she wins she hopes to take a tour of the Warner Brothers studios in Hertfordshire where the films were filmed, and would like to meet one of the cast from the show.
“It was a childhood dream to visit London,” she said.