Mara Romero Borella became the first Italian woman to compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship at UFC 216 on Oct. 7. She won the first women’s flyweight match in the promotion’s history by submitting Kalindra Faria with a rear-naked choke at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
With the appearance, Borella joined Ivan Serati, Alessio Sakara, Marvin Vettori and Alessio Di Chirico and on the short list of Italian mixed martial artists who have set foot inside the Octagon. The daughter of a Honduran mother and Italian father, she likes to say she has the heart of an Italian and the blood of a Honduran. Borella accepted the UFC 216 bout against Faria as a short-notice replacement for Andrea Lee.
“The call arrived like this -- at the very last moment,” she told Sherdog.com. “To tell the truth, I did not expect it. I still don’t believe it. It’s a great goal. Getting in the UFC is a huge opportunity, [and] I still cannot believe it. I am living moment by moment. It is a great opportunity, and I want to live it. The first goal was to bring home the match against Faria. I am very realistic. One step at a time, but you want to know my ambitions? Well, the [flyweight] belt, of course.”
Borella’s road to the UFC is nothing if not extraordinary, as she remains a relative MMA novice despite her background in judo -- a discipline in which she holds the rank of black belt.
“I took on MMA just six years ago in the gym owned by my friend, Sasha Vukelic,” said Borella, who sports a 1-1 mark in the UFC. “I started when I was 26 years old. Before that, I did judo for a lifetime. One day, I met Sasha during a local show of amateur MMA fights, and he asked me, ‘Why don’t you try and see how it is?’ I tried that day, and I never stopped since. I moved to Brescia to train with Gianluigi Tedoldi, my former head coach, and I also started Brazilian jiu-jitsu lessons with Stefano Meneghel. Omar Vergallo helped me with my striking. That was until April of last year, when I became a part of American Top Team, under the watchful eye of Marcos ‘Parrumpinha’ da Matta.”
Support from a variety of sources cleared the way for her move to Coconut Creek, Florida, where Borella now trains at one of the top gyms in the world.
“The plane ticket and the opportunity were offered to me by my gym mates with the Mixed Martial Pro Team and Ludus Magnum, together with my family,” she said. “They made a money collection, and they told me that there was a sponsor who paid for this opportunity. This is how it started. Then when I arrived at ATT, I worked my ass off to show them who Mara really is. I would never have made it on my own. It was an economic expense that I would not have been able to pay. It was a beautiful gift. Everyone collected money without telling me anything until the last second. I still do not know how they did it; it’s difficult to hide things from me.
“I arrived in the United States with nothing,” Borella added. “Everyone believed in me. It was a good opportunity, and I had to catch it. I had to go to the States to get to where I am now.”
Once she settled in America, Borella was afforded the opportunity to train with top-level athletes, including current UFC women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes and former UFC women’s strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk. In Italy, women’s MMA remains something of an oddity -- a reality she hopes to help change.
“I have always trained with boys; in Italy, there are not many girls to train with,” Borella said. “I hope that with my stint in the UFC things will improve and that this will give an extra boost for women’s MMA in Italy. At ATT, I learned so much, because I am always in the gym and I train under the eyes of everyone. Training with some of the best in the world, fighters like Amanda and Joanna, is a great challenge every day. You can learn so much from them and also give back a lot. I am always keen to push more and more. My training partners want the same, and this is a great opportunity for me to grow as an athlete and a person.”