One early morning in February, as Russia invaded Ukraine, Olena Kolesnyk had 15 minutes to pack her things and leave her home in Kyiv. She ran to safety underground early in the morning when it was still dark outside, with Russian forces entering the city.
Six months after the war began, while heavyweight boxer Oleksandr Usyk defends his world titles against Anthony Joshua in Saudi Arabia, Kolesnyk will be fighting for Ukraine at London’s Copper Box Arena.
The 32-year-old will face Brazil’s Larisa Pacheco at the season’s ninth Professional Fighters League mixed martial arts event.
“There’s pressure because [Ukrainian soldiers] in the war saw the PFL post my photo and sent me photos from the war. They were near the broken Russian tanks,” she told BBC Sport.
“So for them, I’m like a rocket from the Ukraine in a woman’s appearance.”
‘I need to represent my country with pride’
On Saturday, the PFL makes its debut in London as Kolesnyk takes on Pacheco in the women’s lightweight division, in a rematch of their 2021 fight, which the Ukrainian lost by knockout.
But this time, she says, there’s much more at stake, with so many people back home sending her messages of support.
“They all believe in me and they all hope that I’ll win so for me it’s like, in one way, it helps. Good energy, good vibes,” she said.
“In another way, I need to represent my country with pride.”
After escaping Ukraine, Kolesnyk had to make the hardest decision of her life and choose whether to go back and fight for her country in the war, or to fight for her country in a different way – by continuing her MMA journey and having a platform to speak about what is going on in her home.
She chose the MMA cage.
And the decision has paid off; the lightweight, who lost her two 2021 fights, says she has no choice but to win for the people watching back home and has won both of her 2022 fights, against Abby Montes and Vanessa Melo.
She puts her successes this year down to how much her life has changed and says she has been more focused and motivated to win, saying she is “more cold and less emotional” which she believes has affected her style of fighting.
“I have a responsibility not only for myself, not only to fight to have fun, now I have a responsibility for my people,” she said. “So it’s a huge motivation to improve myself from fight to fight.”
‘A responsibility I have for other people’
The PFL brands 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 progressing to the knockout stages.
Prize money of $1m (£850,000) makes the league hugely attractive to fighters.
Kolesnyk wants to put that money to good use back home. The 32-year-old says her hometown, Odessa, was attacked by a rocket this week, so she wants to use the money back to help people there.
“When you grow up in a poor family and especially nowadays with what’s going on in my country, one million dollars can save lives,” she said.
“I appreciate that a lot of Ukrainians now are saving our lives.
“To be in the PFL and to have the opportunity to fight for $1m is not just what I dream about for myself, but a responsibility I have for other people.”
Kolesnyk, who hopes Ukrainians in London will come to watch her fight this weekend, says the PFL is “something huge and big, like a Chinese dragon which will attack the MMA world”.
“[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 at two weeks’ notice. This time, she says has been preparing for much longer, that she 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 go on a tour of the Warner Brothers studios in Hertfordshire where the films were shot, and would love to meet one of the actors from the series.
“It was a childhood dream to visit London,” she said.