Flying largely under the radar at the upcoming UFC Fight Night 98 is the return of Ultimate Fighter 20 cast member Heather Jo Clark. That low profile is for good reason: Since appearing on the show in late 2014, Clark has fought just twice in the UFC. In December of that year at the TUF 20 Finale, she defeated Bec Rawlings by decision. Flash forward to May 2016, and her second UFC bout ended in a decision loss to current title challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz. That snail’s pace to an MMA career has put Clark in an unenviable position in the tumultuous strawweight division.
More than anything else, inactivity in MMA is a career killer, stalling any momentum a fighter has in its tracks. It’s a case of out of sight, out of mind. Matchmakers in MMA tend to have as short a memory as fans. Clark finishing the feisty Rawlings at the TUF 20 Vinale seemed to indicate she had promise, but the year and a half or so away from the cage between that and her second fight caused her to drop completely off the strawweight division’s radar. To put it in perspective, Rawlings had twice as many fights in the same amount of time. Combining that with the fact that Clark is now 36, and in the twilight of her career with just a 7-5 record as a pro, means it’s now or never to prove she belongs with the best strawweights in the world in the UFC.
That will be no easy task.
Opposite her in the Octagon Saturday, is promotional newcomer Alexa Grasso. Grasso, at 23, is 8-0 as a pro with a number of wins under the Invicta FC banner. In short, she’s a promising prospect, and Clark is likely being positioned as an early litmus test. Grasso, in fact, was expected to take the next strawweight title shot in Invicta FC against champ Angela Hill, but instead made the jump to the big show. As a result, she enters the UFC with a lot of expectations on her.
Clark would no doubt love to play spoiler, and she could. She’s certainly in a precarious position, and that may serve to motivate her. Though a loss would only set her to 1-2, she’s been so inactive that she could be looking at a cut. However, going the distance with Kowalkiewicz, who is fighting for the title at UFC 205, it’s clear there’s still some fight in her.
How much remains to be seen, but if Clark can pull out a win, she could establish herself a nice little niche as a divisional gatekeeper at 115 pounds, something that seems to have fallen to Rawlings at the moment. Strawweight has very few contenders past Kowalkiewicz and Jessica Andrade, who has looked ferocious after dropping down in weight from bantamweight. Yet there’s a wealth of talent in the division within the UFC, and several prospects like Grasso outside it. If Clark can capture her second UFC win Saturday, she will be in excellent position to square off with any number of up and comers at 115.
While a title shot is likely out of reach at this point in her career, there’s certainly a need for fighters like Clark in the UFC, provided she can stay active. And provided she proves she really does belong with the best in the weight class, a process that begins this weekend. If she can’t, Invicta FC might be a more suitable habitat for her. If she does pull off a win over Grasso, then fights with the likes of Paige VanZant and Tecia Torres, or any hot prospect coming in from outside the promotion, would be perfect for a fighter like Clark.