In the hypercompetitive world of sports, much of an athlete’s character is revealed in how they react to a loss -- especially their first loss. By that measure, Kristina Williams is eager to show what she’s made of.
“Warhorse” (2-1) squares off against Bruna Ellen at Bellator 210 this weekend, seeking to get back on track after a unanimous decision loss to Valerie Letourneau at Bellator 201 in June. The Letourneau fight was not only the first blemish on Williams’ mixed martial arts record, it was the first loss in any combat sport for the former kickboxer and boxer.
As the 29 year-old Oklahoma native prepares for the first “bounceback” fight of her career, she gives the impression of being at peace with the loss. Letourneau, who earned a title shot against Bellator MMA flyweight champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane with the win, represented a significant step up in competition for a woman going into only her third professional fight. In having given the veteran contender a competitive, back-and-forth battle, Williams finds positive motivation as well as lessons.
“I actually took a lot away from that fight,” Williams told Sherdog.com. “I kind of felt validated after that fight even though I lost, because I felt like I hung in there very well with her. There were just a couple of things I could have [done differently]. She fought the smarter fight, but I feel like I could have won that fight, and that gives me confidence about my place in the division.”
That rising confidence is bolstered by changes in her training environment. In preparing for the Letourneau fight earlier this year, Williams had been splitting time between her home gym, American Elite MMA near Oklahoma City, and Dallas/Ft. Worth institutions such as War Room MMA and Genesis Jiu-Jitsu, citing difficulty finding female training partners in Oklahoma. A half-year later, Williams now finds herself with a wealth of homegrown talent with which to work, and is enjoying spending less time away from home.
“This camp, I’ve been down there [in Ft. Worth] about once a week, where I was staying down there for about four days a week for my last camp,” Williams said. “This camp has been really good because I have a new training partner, Sarah Alpar, who is fighting for the Legacy Fighting Alliance 135-pound title the same night I’m fighting. She’s a wrestler, and it’s been really good -- I’ve never had a female training partner at home that could push me. It’s been amazing.”
One recent high-profile visitor to Williams’ gym was the champ herself. MacFarlane, in town for Invicta FC 32, dropped in at American Elite. Williams maintains the experience was all positive, even if MacFarlane represents the pinnacle of their shared division and a possible future opponent.
“It was awesome,” Williams said. “She’s so cool and really humble. We had a great time doing some light training together; she came to one of my training sessions.”
That Invicta card featured two more women, Stephanie Geltmacher and Julia Avila, who train locally and have given Williams yet more training options close to home. Combined with the fact that Bellator 210 takes place in Thackerville, Oklahoma, just two hours down the road from Oklahoma City, it makes for a welcome change.
“[My] last fight, I had so much traveling, back and forth from Dallas. This fight I’ve been able to stay close to home and it’s been nice. Less stressful. Usually I don’t mind traveling, but for this fight it’s been really nice.”
In this weekend’s opponent, Williams sees someone who is likely to accommodate her preference for a standup fight. However, she is prepared for anything that comes her way.
“[Ellen] is smart,” Williams said. “I know she comes from a karate, kung fu background and was a champion in that before, but she’s actually a very well-rounded fighter. She uses her striking strategically and to [set up] her takedowns, and she likes to pressure her opponents for the full three rounds.”
Williams is clear about what she needs to do to counteract the Brazilian’s game. It is another lesson drawn from the Letourneau fight, where Williams landed hard strikes but ultimately spent too much time being controlled on the ground. “Movement,” she said. “Takedown defense, which [I’ve gotten] much better at. I’ve been doing a lot of work on the ground as well, so I’m not worried if it goes there, but my movement is the key.”
When asked if she craves the opportunity to show those improved ground skills, Williams sounds neutral. “Part of me thinks it would be amazing to get a submission and show everyone that I do have grappling [skills],” she said.
“But yeah, I just have so much fun striking with people that I don’t really care that much,” she added, laughing. Normally thoughtful and soft-spoken in the extreme, Williams’ demeanor tends to change just a bit when she talks about striking, and she inevitably laughs when she does. It is one of the only times the aggressive “Warhorse” persona shows outside the cage; clearly, she has a deep love for the punching and kicking aspects of the sport.
One of the recurring stories in MMA this year is the rise in high-profile weight cut failures in the women’s divisions; the nascent Ultimate Fighting Championship flyweight division has been completely stymied by weight misses from would-be champs Nicco Montano and Sijara Eubanks, while strawweight star Mackenzie Dern drew scorn for missing her contracted limit by almost seven pounds earlier this year. Williams sees what is going on around her, but does not seem inclined to join the arms race of extreme weight cutting.
“Last fight was the hardest cut I’ve ever had to do, and that was mostly due to all the stress of traveling,” Williams said. “And even then, I’ve only ever had to cut about five pounds of water, when I even do. I’m really never more than about 10 pounds above [the 125-pound flyweight limit].”
Kristina Williams understands that her young career will be defined by how she comes back from her first loss. Asked for a prediction, or at least her ideal outcome, for her fight with Ellen, the “Warhorse” shows herself again, and there’s another soft laugh. “My dream outcome would be a finish. First or second round. Striking.”