Uzbekistan’s first female UFC star, Liliya Shakirova, has been championed by Khabib Nurmagomedov and is aiming for the top as she prepares for her debut on Fight Island in a sport that was banned but is now growing in her country.
Having made her professional debut almost five years ago, the trailblazing flyweight takes on Lauren Murphy in Abu Dhabi on a run of three consecutive wins, losing only one of her eight senior scraps.
Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, who will headline Saturday’s bill in his title fight with Justin Gaethje, has been instrumental in bringing Shakirova and other Uzbek fighters to the UFC’s attention, using his considerable influence to drive their deals.
“His team came to the country and led all the negotiations, including with the UFC,” she explained, seizing the chance to take a deserved place in the spotlight.
“They negotiated on my behalf and on behalf of other Uzbek fighters who have something to show but have no platform. Khabib’s team does all the negotiations with the UFC and other promotions.”
Still, Shakirova might not have expected the call-up she subsequently received. The fighter was asleep when her phone rang and her place on the card in Abu Dhabi was first hinted at, stepping in for Cynthia Calvillo against Murphy, who is ten years older than her at 37.
“I wasn’t told right away that I’d be fighting in the UFC,” she revealed. “They asked if I was ready to replace someone. I thought: ‘Yes, I’ve been staying in shape.’
“I said, ‘I’m ready to come out and fight anywhere’. He said he’d call back in 10 minutes.
“I was awake, so I went online and saw that I was being offered to fight a UFC fighter. I took a screenshot and sent it to the guy that called me.
“I asked: ‘Is this true?’ He said yes and I agreed. I didn’t even think twice.”
Shakirova said that a great of her division, Valentina Shevchenko, is already within her sights. “She’s a champion and I tell everyone that I dream of fighting her,” said the ambitious newcomer.
“My main goal is to fight for the title against Shevchenko. There are practically no female fighters in Uzbekistan.
“There were some, but they only had a few fights on small promotions because the sport was forbidden. It became legal recently.”
Makhmud Muradov, the first male UFC fighter from Uzbekistan, and one of his successors, Zarrukh Adashev, have been among those to support Sharikova, who had been aiming to become an Olympic freestyle wrestler before she was disqualified over a fight at a tournament.
That led to the dismay of being banned from the Olympics, although the brutal incident led to Shakirova answering another call from a friend searching for a female MMA fighter.
“There was some provocation,” she explained of the disqualification, partly putting the fracas down to becoming a victim of her own success.
“People who constantly win always get provoked by their opponents. That’s what happened to me
“I couldn’t control myself and I got into a fight. I fought the entire team and I got disqualified.
“It wasn’t a fair fight because I took on an entire team by myself. I won because I didn’t let anyone get close to me.
“I was so caught up in the fight that I couldn’t think straight. I didn’t comprehend how many people were attacking me – they kept going at me one after the other.
“I signed up for wrestling so that I could protect myself. I took boxing lessons at the same time. In turn, I laid out the whole team and I was disqualified.”
Despite that unedifying end to her Olympic hopes, Shakirova is safe in the knowledge that she will be far from outnumbered against Murphy on a seismic evening in her career on the same stage as Nurmagomedov.
“All of Uzbekistan supports me,” she said, looking ahead to being the pride of her nation and those who have backed her throughout her colorful early career. “They know that I’ll win.”