SHERIDAN — After sparring with her coach Paul Valdez for a few minutes, Nekah Dmitriyeva stopped, smiled and simply said, “I wasn’t so good at basketball.”
A quick jab followed by a swift kick showed a prowess and talent in another sport, a sport in which Dmitriyeva has won numerous titles — mixed martial arts.
Everything she has and every accomplishment she holds, Dmitriyeva has fought for it. Whether it involved battling for scraps of food in a Russian orphanage or respect during her meteoric rise in MMA, Dmitriyeva is a fighter that has met every challenge with courage and an unquestioned drive.
“Fighting has pretty much been my whole life,” Dmitriyeva said. “It’s not exactly a huge surprise that I’m in (MMA). But it’s not exactly a life choice I ever wanted.”
Dmitriyeva doesn’t have many fond memories of her time in Russia. The first seven years of her life she bounced from orphanage to orphanage with her sister, Nadia, representing the only constant in an otherwise difficult upbringing.
No matter the home or orphanage, living conditions remained horrible wherever Dmitriyeva went — so much so that she had to resort to violence early and often for things as simple as a plate of food.
“They fed the older kids and when they’re done eating, if there was anything left over, the younger ones ate,” Dmitriyeva said. “If there was nothing, then you don’t eat. You fight a lot there.”
Dmitriyeva hardened up quick and learned to survive. Things took a turn for the better in 1994 when, at the age of 7, Dmitriyeva and her sister got adopted for a second time and made their way to the United States.
Mike Mindham and Denise Real embraced Nekah and Nadia. Both parties learned one another’s language all while Dmitriyeva adapted to life in America, which came with its fair share of hurdles.
Dmitriyeva didn’t hit her growth spurt until well into her adolescent years. This made her quite a bit smaller than many of her classmates and made her an easy target for bullying.
Dmitriyeva shook it off, pushed past it and soon discovered her skill in the fighting world at the Montana State Games. With her father in the stands, Dmitriyeva won first in form in taekwondo, and this planted an idea in her head.
“After she won, she comes into the stands and says, ‘I want to spar, compete in sparring,’ Mindham recalled. “I said, ‘Really? You’ve never done this before.’ She said she wanted to do it.”
Much to Mindham’s surprise, his daughter brought home more hardware, winning first in sparring.
After high school, Dmitriyeva joined the military and following her armed forces stint moved to Pennsylvania to live with her boyfriend at the time. The relationship soured and the fallout pushed Dmitriyeva even closer to MMA. During her time in Pennsylvania, she enrolled in self-defense classes. She always knew how to handle physical confrontation but wanted to learn more practical skills to help with specific situations like the one in Pennsylvania. This blossomed into an interest in MMA.
It was at that time when she found her current coach, Paul Valdez.
“I had friends in the service and they knew this girl,” Valdez said. “They told me she’d just got out of the military and moved back here from Pennsylvania, and she’d be perfect. They told me that she’s been through some tough times in her life, and she’s a fighter at heart. I said, ‘All right, that sounds great.’ So I met her and she’s probably one of the most dedicated, hard-working people I’ve ever met. She’s super, super tough.”
Prior to moving to Sheridan, Valdez and his father ran an MMA school in Colorado, and Valdez wanted to spread his wings and start his own school and tried to do so in Sheridan. Whether it was a lack of resources or a low interest in a small population, Valdez’s company struggled, initially.
When Dmitryeva came on board, the two worked out of Vacutech’s metal shop. Not a school, not a gym, but a tiny back room of a vacuum cleaning supplier. Dmitriyeva carried steel plates and made due with what Valdez could find.
The confined training space actually proved beneficial.
“It was small so you had to learn to keep everything close and tight, so that’s how I got so good,” Dmitriyeva said. “With a bigger space you’ve got the more room and think, ‘Well I don’t have to approach my opponent ever.’ In those small confines, you have to fight.”
“It teaches you footwork and how to slip punches because you have no where to run,” Valdez added. “You have to stay in the pocket and fight.”
The Vacutech makeshift gym — like one out of a Hollywood rags to riches movie — bred a couple championships and a few title belts, and soon the two moved into a more official setting with but one issue still festering.
“I’d like more people,” Valdez said. “Her and I spar a lot and it’s good because I’m still a little bit slicker and I’m definitely heavier and stronger. But she’s starting to learn my behavior and patterns, and that’s not good for sparring. She needs to have diversity and mix it up.”
Gaining members has proven difficult. Whether it’s the physical nature of the sport, the grueling practice regimen or the fact that no one wants to take a punch from a decorated MMA fighter, many days it’s just Dmitriyeva and Valdez jabbing, kicking and fighting one another.
But the two manage. The dynamic duo will soon head to Colorado to train for the Sparta Combat League Championship June 30 at the Pepsi Center in Denver.
This will mark the end of Dmitriyeva’s amateur career in MMA; the only place left to go is professional, and it’s safe to say that’s the plan.
“I’ve been thinking for about five years now that I want to go pro and win a world championship,” Dmitriyeva said. “And if I can do it, I want to do it without any losses.”
Many things in life Dmitriyeva could have chalked up as losses; many others would have. But that’s not in her DNA. She’s a fighter, a scrapper who has and will battle for every inch in and out of the ring.
“She’s driven, she’s tenacious and she’s dead serious about (MMA),” Mindham said. “There’s no measure for how proud I am of her. I couldn’t be any more proud of her — bottom line.”