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In light of her age -- she doesn’t turn 21 until July -- and her background as a traditional martial arts prodigy, it would be easy to hang some clichéd headlines and tag lines on Valerie Loureda. However, in talking with the Bellator MMA flyweight prospect, who is set to make her professional debut this weekend at Bellator 216, it quickly becomes obvious that Loureda aspires to be much more than the next karate kid.
For example, despite growing up in a dojo -- she began training in taekwondo as soon as she could walk, under the tutelage of her father, Frank, and aspired to the U.S. Olympic team as a teenager -- Loureda has attempted and landed more takedowns than her opponents across her three amateur bouts, and sounds pragmatic when discussing the application of her traditional striking to mixed martial arts.
“I know how people in combat sports sometimes view taekwondo, and I understand,” Loureda said. “But I have the mentality of a mixed martial artist. In MMA, I use what works [from taekwondo] and what doesn’t work, I don’t use. I’m a very well-rounded MMA fighter. I throw a lot of knees, I have my clinches [and] I have my takedowns. I have a well-rounded game, and I do whatever I feel in the moment will help me win. It’s all about winning.”
In spite of her insistence on presenting herself as a complete mixed martial artist, Loureda recognizes that a lifetime spent in taekwondo is an asset not to be disregarded. She claims to admire Stephen Thompson and Lyoto Machida as two traditional karate fighters -- both trained by their fathers from childhood, like Loureda -- who have modeled how to adapt their striking arts for the MMA cage.
Loureda’s Olympic dreams were derailed by family issues; her mother, Mily, was diagnosed with acute leukemia when Valerie was 14, and prescribed immediate courses of aggressive chemotherapy. In an instant, Valerie was the woman of the house and caretaker to her two younger sisters, as her mother suffered the debilitating effects of chemo. The Olympic dream was over.
What could have been a tragic turn for Valerie and her family has instead become an alternate route to triumph: Mily underwent a successful bone marrow transplant in June of 2016, and continues to fight and improve under treatment. Meanwhile, taekwondo’s loss is MMA’s gain, as Loureda has transitioned seamlessly from one of point fighting’s next big things to one of cage fighting’s hottest prospects.
One change was needed, however: In the wake of her lone amateur loss, Loureda decided she needed to diversify her training. The Miami native made the move 40 miles north to Coconut Creek and left the only training environment she had ever known -- Master Frank’s -- for American Top Team. There, under the watchful eye of her coach, Steve Bruno, she says she trains every day with top-notch wrestlers and grapplers in order to continue the rounding-out of her game.
Loureda bounced back from that amateur loss with another win, and with a 2-1 amateur record, accepted the invitation from Bellator to turn pro under their banner. Loureda was drawn to Bellator in part due to president Scott Coker’s similar background; he is a taekwondo black belt himself, and his first promotion, Strikeforce, put on kickboxing shows before crossing over to MMA. However, she claims that more than anything, the timing was perfect, as she was itching to start her professional fight career. Her reasoning touches on the general as well as the specific:
“I had been wanting to turn pro since my first fight,” she said. “Fighting is who I am. Combat is in my blood. And without those shin guards, I’m going to be even more dangerous.”
Once the Bellator contract was signed, there remained the question of an opponent. Things hit a snag there, as the Mohegan Tribal Commission declined to license a fight between Loureda and prospective opponent Anastasia Bruce, due to Loureda’s considerable credentials and Bruce’s 0-12 amateur record. The promotion dipped back into the bag and came up with Colby Fletcher, who has not fought since 2015 but with a 1-2 professional record, presents a more legitimate test for the debuting Loureda. Loureda was aware of the headlines and snickering that accompanied the search for her opponent, but claims that she had not been asked to approve or decline Bruce or Fletcher as an opponent.
“No, that had nothing to do with me,” Loureda said. “They match me, and I just fight who they put in front of me.”
Now that the question of her debut opponent has been settled, Loureda is preparing for the task at hand, and maintains she is leaving the strategy to her team.
“I watched a little bit of one [of Fletcher’s fights],” Loureda said. “I just watch a few seconds to get the feel for their style, but as far as the game plan, my coaches are really in charge of that.”
In taekwondo, where weight classes are significantly fewer and looser than in mixed martial arts, Loureda competed primarily in the under-68 kilogram (149.6 pound) division. However, she has been competing at flyweight since making her move to MMA and plans to stay there, claiming it feels like home.
“Yeah, it feels like the perfect weight to me,” Loureda said. “I’m in my best shape. I’m in fight shape at 125 pounds.”
However, that is not to say that Loureda doesn’t have a pre-fight water cut. Asked whether the flyweight limit is close to her walking weight, she laughed out loud, then hastened to dispel the notion.
“No, I wish! I do cut weight. I cut a good 15 to 18 pounds depending on how much I’ve been eating. I’m Hispanic,” she said, in a tone that implied that last detail should explain all.
Fair enough. In that case, it seemed logical to ask Loureda if there was a particular dish that helped determine the difficulty of her weight cut. The daughter of Cuban immigrants -- with a dash of Peruvian on one side -- immediately came back with a classic Miami-Cuban breakfast: thick, strong Cuban-style coffee with cream and sugar, served with slightly sweet, toasted bread slathered with butter. Delicious, but probably not Dolce Diet-approved.
“Café con leche y pan tostado,” Loureda said.