Julia Budd won the Bellator MMA women’s featherweight title two years, four months, and eight days ago, registering a fourth-round stoppage victory over pioneering veteran Marloes Coenen.
She’s fought just twice since then and by the time she steps into the cage on Friday night to defend her title against unbeaten challenger Olga Rubin, it will have been one year less a day since she turned back the last undefeated women to rise through the ranks in an attempt to wrestle the gold away from the powerhouse from British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast.
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Over the years, the lack of fights and clear direction for the women’s 145-pound weight class has been a source of frustration for the talented 36-year-old, who carries a 10-fight winning streak into Friday’s main event in Thackerville, Oklahoma, but after finally sitting down with Scott Coker and the rest of the Bellator MMA brass in March, Budd feels like this week’s return to the cage marks the start of what will be an active and fruitful 16-month run for both her and the division she currently rules.
“Actually sitting down and having a conversation about how we want this division to look and what we’re planning on doing, having a game plan for the next 16 months or so is huge for me,” said Budd, who has suffered from a lack of challengers and operating under the radar during the initial two-plus years of her title reign. “It’s a big motivation, especially at this time in my life, this time in my career.
“I think it has been good and I’m really excited for this next one,” she said of the fight with Rubin. “I’m excited with how training camp has gone for this and overall, I feel like there is this renewed sense of excitement for the 145-pound division and where we’re headed with that for Bellator.”
Part of that excitement with the direction of the division stems from the signing of former Strikeforce, Invicta FC and UFC standout Leslie Smith, who officially inked a deal with Bellator in April and arrives on a two-fight winning streak, and the fact that Friday’s fight card features two other bouts in the women’s 145-pound weight class, as Smith makes her promotional debut opposite Irish hopeful Sinead Kavanagh, while recent title challenger Arlene Blencowe squares off with Amanda Bell in a battle of fighters coming off stoppage wins over Amber Leibrock.
Another piece of it is simply getting to return to work.
Earlier in her career, the life-long martial artist struggled with injuries and had stretches where not only was she incapable of competing, but had to wrestle with the possibility that she may not ever be able to fight again.
But she made it back and came out of the Nogueira fight without anything more than the natural bumps and bruises that accumulate during a training camp and professional mixed martial arts fight and was ready to keep the momentum rolling, only to end up spending five, six, seven months on the sidelines, waiting to find out what’s next.
She’s been chomping at the bit for both the opportunity to get back into the cage and to be one of the cornerstones for the promotion, and now Budd is finally on the cusp of getting to tackle both.
“To get me and Bellator on the same page – to both say that want the same things – felt fantastic,” she said. “I’m comfortable being the face of the 145-pound division, being the champion and showcasing my skills in four fights over 16 months. That’s really what I want to do and I’m excited.
“I’m so excited to get in there,” she added. “It’s been just under a year by one day and I’m excited to get in there and show what we’ve been working on. We’ve been working on really specific things for this fight camp and I can’t wait to get in there and execute everything.”
That is one of the benefits of having an extensive amount of time on the sidelines and being healthy enough to make proper use of it – you get a ton of time to focus on sharpening your weaponry and preparing for whatever may come your way.
So in addition to teaching classes, taking long hikes with her dogs and helping her teammates at Gibson’s MMA hone their skills, the former Muay Thai practitioner has been in the gym, improving.
“I think it’s really important and I’m really grateful for it,” she said of the time to work on her craft. “Over the last year, I feel like I’ve really grown a lot and I’m super-excited with what (comes next).
“I feel like it’s almost a new beginning. Even though I’ve been the champ for two years, I feel like this next fight is the first fight in a new deal with Bellator. It’s a 16-month contract and we’re planning to have me fight four times, God willing, and that’s really exciting to me.”
She’s also used the time away to pay attention to Rubin, who has registered decision wins over Cindy Dandois and Iony Razafiarison in the time since Budd faced Nogueira to earn a shot at the featherweight title on Friday.
“I think that she’s a hungry challenger,” she said of the unbeaten 29-year-old. “She’s got power in her hands and she likes to wrestle, so she likes the clinch game up against the cage.”
But for Budd, like so many other competitors, her focus is on figuring out a way to implement her game plan and crafting a strategy that will maximize her strengths, not what Rubin brings to the table.
“Coming up with a good game plan and strategy to defeat the people in front of me is exciting for me, but I also like to figure out what I’ve been doing really well, what I need to work on and sharpening all my skills so that I can go in there and be the complete mixed martial artist that I am.
“I think my Muay Thai has been the biggest thing we’ve been working on for this training camp,” she added. “I think my striking is something that people can look forward to seeing – it’s what I started in and I plan on showcasing it on July 12.”
If she emerges victorious as planned, it will be Budd’s third consecutive successful title defense, bringing her into a tie for second-most all-time in Bellator MMA history with reigning flyweight queen Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, one behind current record-holder Ben Askren, who successfully defended the welterweight title four times before departing the promotion.
While it’s not a benchmark Budd was aware of, she admits it’s an added piece of motivation, not that she had any plans of relinquishing the title – not this Friday and not any time before she opts to hang up her gloves and call it a career.
“I had no idea, but yeah – for sure (it motivates me),” she said when informed of her proximity to the record. “I plan on staying the champion and retiring the champion, so yes, it’s extra motivation for sure, but the main thing is getting the job done and doing it well on July 12.”
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