Long before Gina Carano, Cris “Cyborg” Justino or Ronda Rousey, there was Marloes Coenen.
Easily one of the most decorated female fighters in the history of mixed martial arts, the Netherlands native steps into the Bellator cage Friday against Arlene Blencowe.
It’ll serve as just her third appearance since December 2012, the latest outing for the woman widely considered the second-best featherweight on the planet—one spot away from the gold medal that belongs to Cyborg, Invicta FC’s 145-pound champion and longtime wrecking machine.
She held the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight title about a year before Rousey made her MMA debut. She headlined Invicta’s first-ever card about a year before it became the Cyborg show that it is now.
Running past her first eight opponents between 2000-04, some consider the 34-year-old featherweight as MMA’s first true female champion.
“I just did it because I was a martial artist and I enjoyed the chance to see the world and compete,” said Coenen to MMAFighting. “I didn’t think of it as something that would be a career, I thought by age 30 I’d be married and working an office job somewhere.”
Yet here she is, 15 years into her cage-fighting career competing as one of few pioneers left standing. Because, like most pioneers, Coenen was forced out of the spotlight, making room for the next generation of talented female fighters. Contemporary headlines are often catered to the Rouseys, Cyborgs, Holly Holms and Miesha Tates of the MMA world.
Like six other women, Coenen couldn’t defeat Cyborg. Twice, in fact. She also lost that Strikeforce title to Tate in a fourth-round submission in 2011.
But that doesn’t mean she isn’t happy.
“I love every minute of this,” Coenen said. “I’m happy for everyone. I’m not going to begrudge anybody of their success, or their stardom. I’m living my own life and doing my own thing, why would I want to waste my energy with stuff like that?”
Coenen now stands as one of the few remaining pieces in Bellator’s female MMA roster—one of 11 female featherweights, to be exact. It’s a new age of women’s mixed martial arts in Bellator now that her former Strikeforce employer Steve Coker is at the helm of MMA’s second-biggest promotion.
But with that new age comes uncertainty. Despite being the best of Bellator’s crop of 145-pound women, she isn’t crowned like one. She told MMAFighting:
“No one’s told me either way on whether there’s going to be a title. If they make one, that would be great. I would love to earn another world championship before I call it a career. But if they don’t, that’s okay, too. I love what I do. I love competing today as much as I did 15 years ago. I’m going to do this as long as I’m able to go there and still be good at this.”
While Coenen is satisfied simply competing inside the cage, Bellator figureheads need to recognize that having talented fighters is not a surefire path to success. For as great of a formality as it may appear to crown your best female fighter when most of the world already recognizes her as such, Coenen cannot become a force without a belt around her waist.
With three of the sport’s top five female featherweights competing under the Bellator banner alongside her, a gold belt is all Coenen needs to re-establish herself as a recognizable name among casual MMA fans.
|1.||Cris “Cyborg” Justino||14-1||Invicta FC|
Unified Women’s MMA Rankings via MMARising.com
Title or not, Coenen goes down in the annals of history as one of the very best.
“It’s funny because at the time, you’re not thinking ‘we’re making history,'” Coenen said. “But when you look back at it, you can appreciate what you built. Yes, it’s true that the people who are just tuning in to watch Ronda now, maybe they don’t know what went into building the sport. But some of them will learn, and some of them will understand, and it’s nice to know that you were a part of that looking back.”