Marloes Coenen watched with great interest as Cristiane Justino made her UFC debut last Saturday at a catch-weight of 140 pounds.
“Cyborg” was successful in her initial Octagon foray, dispatching Leslie Smith in a mere 81 seconds in a featured UFC 198 bout. Still, despite the UFC’s wishes, it appears that Justino prefers to defend her featherweight title in Invicta rather than make another cut to 140 pounds to compete in the Octagon. And understandably so: Coenen, who fought Justino for 145-pound gold in Invicta in 2013, says that the Brazilian has to “go through hell” just to make the featherweight limit.
Such issues are par for the course in women’s MMA. While the bantamweight and strawweight divisions have taken off in recent years, athletes who ply their trade a class or more above 135 pounds have struggled to find a foothold.
Coenen will have a marquee featherweight stage on Friday night when she faces two-time UFC vet Alexis Dufresne in a featured bout at Bellator 155 at CenturyLink Arena in Boise, Idaho. The evening’s main card will air on Spike TV beginning at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT.
Still, the veteran Dutch fighter believes that major promotions should add more heavier-weight female divisions and give them a chance to grow. However, she also recognizes why progress in this area is slow.
“There should be 145-pound divisions for women all over the world. With more competition the level will rise as well. I don’t see why there are not even more divisions,” Coenen said. “You don’t see 155 or higher.
“I think that also has to do with the fact that women are judged different than men and you have to be a pretty woman and be sexy and also fighting. You have to have the whole package. I feel like the heavier girls that are taller at 155, they don’t get a chance, and I don’t feel that’s fair.”
While Coenen would like to see continued growth and expansion in women’s MMA as a whole, she is currently more concerned with her own progress toward a championship. Intially “Rumina” was to face Julia Budd for Bellator’s inaugural featherweight belt on Friday, but her fight with Dufresne became a non-title affair when Budd was forced to withdraw.
Bellator President Scott Coker said during a recent conference call that the Coenen-Dufresne winner will likely face Budd for the 145-pound championship at a future event. Even though it’s a risky fight, Coenen was willing to face Dufresne in the name of staying active: she has only fought once a year for the last three years.
“I was fighting in Invicta also one time a year, and it wasn’t my choice, but the thing is, I always want to fight,” she said. “I’m always training. I don’t take vacations. So when I’m on holiday I’m still working out. I just like to move and keep my body in shape. If it were up to me I would fight every four months.”
Dufresne is getting a fresh start with Bellator after a brief stint in the Octagon saw her struggle with the cut to 135 pounds and drop back-to-back fights against Marion Reneau and Sarah Moras. Coenen expects that her opponent will be better suited for the featherweight division. (Note: The interview was conducted before Dufresne badly missed weight).
“When I look at her I can see she is built the same way I am built, so I know she’s strong,” Coenen said. “I can tell by the way she moves. She has my height. I feel like I’m looking into the mirror. I saw she didn’t make the weight at 135 twice, and probably didn’t because she’s built [the way she is]. I’m not built like a fragile girl; she’s not built like a fragile girl.”
After working with Coker in Strikeforce, Coenen is excited to break new ground on the featherweight division with her old boss at the helm in Bellator MMA. He doesn’t always get the credit he should, but Coker was promoting the likes of Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate before it became trendy to do so. Bellator had a women’s division before Coker arrived, but it was eventually dismantled.
“I’m really happy that they [the current regime] signed me as the first woman to fight for them. I was really, really honored. I’m happy that they want to reinstall the female 145 title,” Coenen said. “I’m focusing on that. I’ve been working with Scott in Strikeforce and I know he’s a big fan of women in MMA. He’s the first big promoter to put women on the card. It feels good to be in an organization where he’s in charge.”
It is going to take a little longer than originally planned to get there, but winning that belt is what drives Coenen, even after competing for more than 15 years in multiple organizations. In fact, that gold incentive is what helps to keep her around.
“I’ve been doing this for such a long time. You can only do it for a really long time if you feel love for the game,” she said. “But even then you need to set goals. A title is an amazing goal..I want the belt and I only want the belt. I’m not focused on anything else. There’s a belt and it should be mine.”