Kristi Lopez

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When the cage locks behind Kristi Lopez at Bellator 182, and aggressive Arkansas native Jessica Sotack stands across the cage from her this Friday night, you can bet it won’t just be her home state of California cheering her on – the island nation of Puerto Rico, similarly, will be fully behind this exciting new talent in women’s MMA. And, as Kristi pointed out in an exclusive interview with The MMA Vanguard, Puerto Rico have some of the most passionate fight fans in the world!

“They love their fighters like I’ve never seen anybody love fighters before, they’re very, very supportive of all their fighters!” Kristi told us, “When [professional boxer Miguel] Cotto would fight, it was not a matter of if you were watching it, but where you were watching it. There’s a lot of warrior spirit in Puerto Rico, that was a really cool place for me to start, [and] to feel what runs in my blood, you know, that warrior spirit, it’s a part of who I am.”

As alluded to in that statement, Kristi did indeed start her MMA journey in the Caribbean nation – and it’s something she’s extremely proud of. “Training in Puerto Rico was by far the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” Kristi told us. “I actually started training MMA in Puerto Rico eight years ago I believe, [or] seven years ago. I was in Puerto Rico going to school for nursing and I found an MMA gym there and just started training. When I moved back to the States I pursued it, got my first fight, and I’ve just been scrapping ever since!”

Perhaps it was fated; for while Kristi seemed to have found a career path that suited her, the fight game has been a part of her life the whole time. She explained to us how it all began, giving a serious nod to her family: “I had all brothers growing up, so that pretty much was the start of my mixed martial arts career! I was always fighting with them and stuff, my dad was a professional boxer, my brothers boxed, I always loved it, but I played other sports, I swam, I played water polo, I thought about boxing and then I saw MMA on TV. I was like “Damn!”, I was like “They can do whatever they want, they’re in a cage, that’s exactly what I want to do!”

And that’s exactly what she did do. Pursuing her new dream, and loving every moment of it, Kristi tested the waters of the amateur MMA scene for the Tuff-N-Uff promotion out of Nevada, before turning pro for Gladiator Challenge back in 2014. Her first opponent, a six fight veteran in Tyra Parker, pushed Kristi into deep waters. When the two could not be separated by virtue of a finish, the judges were asked to render a verdict. Though split in their opinions, two of the three panel members sided with Lopez, and that win would give the momentum to run through debutant Katie Castro in her very next fight. It lasted just 26 seconds, and was far from the kind of challenge Lopez was probably ready for.

Still, a record of 2-0 by July 2014 suggested Lopez had something to offer the fight community, but fate would not be so kind. After a pair of cancellations on a MAXX FC card in December of that year, a fight with debuting starlet Aspen Ladd in Invicta FC was lined up for February the following year. Unfortunately that fight did not take place either, and it would be a full eleven months before Lopez would taste action again.

The Ultimate Fighter Season 23: Team Joanna vs Team Claudia would see Lopez pitted against current UFC stand out JJ Aldrich with a place in the house and stake, and unfortunately for Kristi, Aldrich would go on to pick up a unanimous decision victory after two rounds of action. It was back to the drawing board for the Kings MMA exponent, and while three full years of setbacks could have seen off a fighter with inferior fortitude, Lopez’ dedication was eventually rewarded with a contract with Bellator.

“I’m incredibly excited and grateful, any time you have an absence from something you either miss it, or respect it, or a combination of things,” Kristi told us. “For me, I’ve become so grateful for this opportunity. I’m very excited to perform, to get back in there and show what I’m made of and capable of. There’s nothing like being humbled and being able to come back, for me that’s what makes a true fighter – I’m just ready to show everybody I’m a true fighter, no matter how many times I get knocked down, I’m ready to come back.”

So was her time spent out of action for so long a frustrating period for her? “Yeah, it definitely was frustrating because when you’re training you want to be able to show what you’re doing and working on,” she explains, before adding: “For me, part of being a martial artist is coping with when things aren’t going your way. It’s really easy to be happy when things are going good and to work towards a goal when things are going great, but a true fighter and having a true tough spirit is when you’re trying to push forward when things are bad and no one believes in you. That’s how you know you’re really a fighter is when no matter how many injuries you have, you just keep pushing forward and that’s what I’ve done.”

“Things can always be worse in life, and there’s so many people so much worse off than us, so I just keep reminding myself how grateful I am that this is my life, this is my opportunity, I’m very excited and grateful to get to this point in the journey and finally get ready to show it.”

It’s no surprise, then, given Lopez’ dedication to pursuing her dreams in MMA, that the Bellator deal emerged when it did. With her name already associated with promotions like Invicta and UFC, Kristi has hardly an unknown quantity; in addition, Kristi’s management team were able to push her forwards, and ensure excellent opportunities continued to present themselves.

Kristi’s story is not all about others, however. A talented striker with a penchant for exciting bouts, we asked Kristi to define herself ahead of her with Jessica Sotack, and what fans might be able to expect: “I think I’m a pretty good, well-rounded fighter, I’m capable wherever the fight goes. I like to hit hard, the fans can expect and hope for that. I think it’s going to be a really good scrap, [Jessica] is a good fighter, she’s tough, she likes to fight too, you know. I think fans have a lot to look forward to, and [they can] expect that from this fight definitely.”

So does Kristi rate Sotack as a tough opponent? “Absolutely, we both have a couple of TKO’s on our record, we both like to fight and finish it. I’m expecting a lot from her and I think we’re really going to push each other; it’s going to be a really good fight.”

As for how her training has gone ahead of the bout, Kristi told The MMA Vanguard that: “It’s been the best training camp I’ve ever had. I train with Kings MMA in Huntington Beach under master Rafael Cordeiro, I also have a head coach from Kings in Adrian who’s been helping me work on all my specifics. I train with Tenth Planet Jiu Jitsu in Pasadena with Eric Cruz, black belt, [and my] strength and conditioning with Nick Curson, I’ve had the most phenomenal training camp, training two or three times a day, this is the best I’ve ever felt, so I’m really excited to unleash the beast when I get in there!”

What, then, were the focusses of this camp? How big a factor was Jessica, for example, given some fighters tend to focus purely on their own abilities, and enforcing their own game plans? “Obviously you focus on your opponent that you’re going to fight, always,” Kristi told us. “But a lot of it has been focussing on what I’m good at, and what I’m capable of. That’s what you want, you want to focus on being prepared for your opponent, but then preparing your strengths and coming up with a good game plan and putting it all together.”

On Sotack herself, Kristi gave us a low-down on what she’s expecting: “She really likes to fight, she likes to come forward, I know she’s going to bring it. I’m open to and ready for all the possibilities of where [the fight is] going to go, but I know she likes to throw. I’m ready for that, I like to throw too. I think it’s going to be a very explosive fight, we’re both going to look for finishes and it’s going to be exciting. I’m excited to watch it and feel it unfold as it does.”

If the fight does go to plan then, and Lopez is able to pull of the victory in a well-matched, entertaining bout, there’s question she’s in the right place at the right time regards being on the Bellator roster. We asked her what she thought of how Bellator are promoting women’s MMA in particular:

“Incredible,” she told us. “This card is going to be a ground-breaking card because it has five female MMA fights on it, I think that’s the most ever [in promotional history]. That for itself is cool, and there seems to be a lot of promotion for the female fighters [too]. For me it’s like, what a cool time to be a female fighter. You’re respected, you’re promoted, [Bellator] are giving us such a cool platform not only as fighters but as people and personalities. It’s a really cool time to be a female fighter, and I think Bellator has done one of the best jobs of showing the female fighters’ personalities as well.”

“I’m so excited for the future, I think there’s a lot of amazing opportunities in Bellator. They just signed so many good flyweights, high level flyweights, and I’m going to do this until the wheels fall off. I’m going to keep going and going until I accomplish what I want to accomplish, and follow my dreams. I would love to fight for the belt, I think that’s a great goal and dream to have, and Bellator’s making that happen with this division!”

But for The MMA Vanguard, there was just one other thing we were wondering… given the excellence of Bellator’s promotion of women’s MMA, and what a great platform Kristi and her fellow fighters had under the Scott Coker-led regime, what did she think about the possibility of Bellator perhaps debuting in Puerto Rico?

“Oh my God that would be amazing!” Kristi exclaimed. “I think they would love it, Bellator and Puerto Rico, there’s a lot of fight fans over there, they love fighting over there, in the street, in the cage, in the ring, they love fighting! I think that would be so rad, that’s one of my dreams to fight in Puerto Rico! So let’s push for that! I love that idea!”

At The MMA Vanguard, we feel that! First, however, is the small task of Lopez establishing herself as one of Bellator’s most promising prospects. A win over Sotack this Friday will go some way to achieving that ambition, and maybe, just maybe, drawing the sport one step closer to the Caribbean island…

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Martina Mokhnatkina

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Crowned Sambo World Champion for a fourth time in Sofia, Bulgaria in 2016, one member of the Russian National Sambo team has, nevertheless, seemingly flown under the radar of MMA fans the world over prior to a pro debut in June last year. Despite dominating the opposition and becoming renowned by Sambo insiders for quick, decisive, often violent submission finishes, as well as having family ties to the sport of mixed martial arts, it was only when a 25-second armbar submission in a debut fight on a Fight Nights Global card occurred that heads were turned.

This was, clearly, an elite fighter with a elite-level skillset. Being wed to another Sambo World Champion and a member of the Russian National Sambo team only underlined their legitimacy. Her name? Marina Mokhnatkina.

The wife of Fight Night Global’s Mikhail Mokhnatkin, and mother to their son, one particular anecdote involving Marina sheds light on her true character – having won her fourth and most recent Sambo World title, Mokhnatkina burst into tears; not of joy, but of longing. Missing her son, who she had not seen for three weeks, Marina’s emotional response made her priorities in life clear. Family comes first; her otherworldly talent in the Sambo stakes a distant second.

Yet Marina Mokhnatkina could well find herself one of the most marketable female commodities in the world. In an age where some of the biggest stars in the sport are seemingly-superhuman females drawn largely from the United States, Brazil and Europe, there is an astonishing lack of participation from Russian nationals. Fight Nights Global, and Marina Mokhnatkina in particular, could put an end to that surprising dearth of notable superstars.

Her aforementioned blitz of kickboxer Ekaterina Torbeeva in 25 seconds was as perfect a start to her MMA career as could have been hoped for. Immediately taking the centre of the age, Mokhnatkina closed the distance, took hold of her opponent, and scored a takedown straight into mount. Two punches gave Torbeeva food for thought, as Mokhnatkina calmly manufactured a perfect set up for a devastating armbar submission.

It was as easy as that, and all in a division desperately seeking competition for the undeniable lead-Amazon, Cristiano ‘Cyborg’ Justino. While the 145 lb division may not have a future at present in the UFC, there will be plenty of organisations willing to pair up two world class female fighters at featherweight. This could be big news for anyone willing to offer the right kind of financial incentives to the right people.

Mokhnatkina’s sophomore outing, which took place in October of last year, saw her pitted against Karina Vasilenko. Vasilenko, a Judoka representing the Russian police force, looked to use movement to nullify the obvious threats from her elite Samboka opponent. Avoiding a front kick in the opening seconds, Vasilenko was able to use punches to keep distance, and even succeeded in unbalancing Mokhnatkina at around the 40 second mark. While Marina’s striking defence looked somewhat raw, she succeeded in landing a takedown at the first opportunity, only to find Vasilenko’s guillotine choke attempt a barrier to further success.

Riding out the storm, Mokhnatkina ate a couple of body shots, before a kneebar attempt had her opponent reeling. While Vasilenko was able to defend that particular hold, Mokhnatkina quickly adjusted to a heel hook attempt, and when even that failed, a straight leglock would prove sufficient.

Once on the ground, there was no doubt about Mokhnatkina’s superiority, the fight lasting a total of just 2:51. While Mokhnatkina displayed a couple of holes in her all-round game, this remained an impressive outing in only her second professional MMA bout. With work to do on her striking defence, Marina has some way to go before she can challenge the very best in the world, but with the right kind of guidance from her husband and their fight team at Sambo-Piter from St Petersburg, the world could yet be her oyster.

With grappling skills even elite NCAA Division I wrestlers would be proud of, this is one Russian who could prove an immeasurable trailblazer for Russian females trying to shine in a patriarchal national hierarchy. While WMMA and indeed women’s combat sports don’t yet garner enough recognition in Russia, that tide could yet turn.

The MMA Vanguard encourages fight fans to keep an eye out for this outstanding talent.