Marloes Coenen: Survival of the Fittest

(Props to Esther Lin.)

Marloes Coenen rarely gets asked about fighting.

In fact, for the last few weeks, media attention surrounding the Dutch 145-pound fighter has centered on appearances. And Coenen is fine with that. After all, would you get tired of being called beautiful?

“In every sport and in society, women are always judged by their appearance,” Coenen said. “MMA is a sport, but it is also entertainment. You can have your philosophy, but you have to be realistic. In the end, bills have to be paid.”

On Jan. 30, Coenen (17-3) will fight Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos at Strikeforce: Miami for the lightweight women’s title. It is the most prestigious women’s title in the world and the winner is the face of female MMA, or, as Coenen prefers, “MMA for women.”

“It will be a tough fight,” Coenen said. “I want to win and do my best. It’s a big challenge, but I like big challenges. The harder, the better. It feels like there’s a bigger reward.”

There is no bigger challenge than Cyborg (8-1), a fierce, intimidating physical specimen that has easily destroyed her last eight opponents. Her five-minute demolition of Gina Carano last August did more than change the face of women’s MMA (literally), it also illustrated the gap between Santos and the rest of the top challengers.

But while Cyborg may be the best female fighter on the planet, the Portuguese-speaking Brazilian does not intrigue Madison Avenue ad firms in the same way Carano has. With a victory, the well-spoken Coenen could follow Carano’s lead to become the Next Big Thing.

“MMA for women needed a girl that looked as good as Gina to get people interested,” Coenen said. “She became famous. A lot of other fighters were talking trash about her and saying (her success was) just because of her looks. But she opened doors for the rest of us. If the other women would have had what she had, they would have used it too.”

A virtual unknown to most American fans, Coenen has been among the top female fighters in the world for a decade. Yet her route to the top was as much by circumstance as design. Like many of her peers, Coenen grew up playing tennis and volleyball. And also like many in Holland, Coenen rode her bike to school, but hers was a long ride through some sketchy areas.

“You’d hear all these stories of scary men,” she said. “I thought I should learn to defend myself.”

The Netherlands is right place to learn how to fight. The country is about the size of Maryland, but has produced a disproportionate number of top fighters and has a disproportionate number of top gyms. At 14, Coenen began taking Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu classes and excelled almost immediately.

“Fighting is so much in my heart I don’t know another option,” she said. “I like testing myself. If you are in a cage, you are on your own. If you mess it up, you mess it up yourself. It really is survival of the fittest.”

By 18, she turned pro. But in the moments before her first fight, Coenen wondered if she had made the right decision.

“I doo-doo’d in my pants,” she said, jokingly. “I was in a ring, I shook hands, went back to my corner and thought, ‘OK, now she’s going to beat me up.’” Instead Coenen broke her opponents’ nose and won via armbar in 2:37. She immediately quit school and declared herself a fighter.

“In the beginning, I was almost hysterical before each fight,” she said. “Now I’ve worked and have more experience. I feel tension and I need that tension. If I come in calm and relaxed, I don’t always deliver a good fight.”

In her second fight, Coenen entered a Japanese tournament. A few hours and three wins later, the 18-year-old was the World ReMix champion. But it would take another ten years and another pretty girl to make MMA for women lucrative.

Coenen, who recently quit her day job to train full time, said she hopes her days in the office are over. And if she pulls off the upset, they may be. But if she wins Coenen will be lauded for her looks as much as her performance. And she is fine with that.

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