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'I fight as if it's my last fight': Meet Daria Nirkova - the unlikely face of Siberian MMA

'I fight as if it's my last fight': Meet Daria Nirkova - the unlikely face of Siberian MMA
Faces of MMA are normally defined by bloody noses, broken bones and swollen eyes - but not in Kiselyovsk, Siberia. That's the hometown of Daria Nirkova, Russia's stunning MMA and hand-to-hand combat champion.

MMA in Russia is most closely associated with UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, who hails from the country's Republic of Dagestan in the North Caucasus region. 

Khabib became his home nation's poster boy when he defeated UFC superstar and golden goose Conor McGregor in October, and his popularity subsequently reached stratospheric levels.

But in Siberia, perhaps Russia's most iconic region and synonymous with icy rivers, sub-zero temperatures and the occasional bear, Russian MMA champion Daria Nirkova could just become the sport's poster girl.

Nirkova hails from Kiselyovsk, Kemerovo region located where the West Siberian Plain meets the South Siberian mountains, and is known locally as 'Kuzbass'.

In May, she became Russia's first MMA champion in the 105lbs and below category, which would be under the UFC's current strawwieght limit of 106lbs, getting her hands on the Russian MMA Union belt.

The tournament was held from May 2-6 in Moscow, a mere 2,288 miles from the fighter's hometown, and took place under the watchful eye of MMA legend Fedor Emilianenko and former heavyweight world boxing titleholder Nikolai Valuev.

“It’s just frenetic energy, a buzz, lots of emotions, everything that I needed. I loved it.” the fighter told a local news channel after her victory. “It’s just super - Kuzbass rules!” she added.

She later took to Instagram to reveal her fight during the tournament: “Every day of the championships, I went into the cage, fought as if it was my last fight, they were all worthy opponents, but the belt is coming to Kiselyovsk," she wrote.

Nirkova has a wealth of martial arts experience, mostly training in Russia's national hand-to-hand combat discipline, known in the country as 'rukopashnii boi', and her expertise is such that she trains local youths.

As if ruling one weight division wasn't enough, in October 2018 she became a double champion when she competed in the 45kg and 55kg categories in the Siberian hand-to-hand combat (rukopashnii boi) championships - coming first in both divisions.

In July, Nirkova added yet another title to her trophy collection when she became Asian hand-to-hand combat champion, becoming ruler of the continent as well as her nation.

Russian MMA stars have gained attention worldwide for their lives inside and outside the cage; whether it be on merit like the aforementioned Emilianenko or controversy like his brother Alexander.

Khabib has certainly been one to take his cage success overseas and make a name for himself Stateside, where he is not only the UFC champ, but has become something of a cult hero with his catchphrases, charming Russian accent and straight-faced humor.

Other stars, such as the UFC's Yana Kunitskaya, hit the headlines when she sold her bloody fight jersey online for charity after it had become soaked from a UFC match in which her nose was grotesquely broken

Bellator fighter Anastasia Yankova has also been widely featured for her good looks, and posting selfies of her badly swollen face following a fight, which she said stopped her from feeling "hypocritical."

Nirkova, who is racking up the silverware already in Russia, could become the new face of Russian MMA - that's if she avoids shipping enough punishment in the cage to make her face become famous for all the wrong reasons.