Ten months after it was first scheduled, Marloes Coenen and Julia Budd will square off Friday night for the right to become the first Bellator women's featherweight champion. For Coenen, the wait has done nothing to change her idea of how the fight will go.
"Anyone who looks at Julia will see those holes," Coenen told ESPN.com. "I'm very well aware of what she wants to do but I need to bring my game and I have to force my game upon her."
The main event of Bellator 174 at WinStar World Casino in Thackerville, Oklahoma, marks new ground for the promotion, with it being the first card headlined by women. Coenen, a veteran of MMA since 2000 with 17 career submission victories, isn't going to force the contest to the ground based on numbers. She's confident wherever the contest goes, just as long as it doesn't go to the judges' scorecards.
"I don't care where the fight will end up. The only thing that I want is, I want to win on submission or KO," said Coenen. "I know I'm the better stand-up fighter. I know I'm the better ground fighter. We have to see how it goes with wrestling but I'm ready for whatever."
For Coenen (23-7), being under the bright lights of a main event with gold on the line isn't anything new for her. To the 35-year-old, a "fight is a fight." However, getting back to this particular fight has seen a recent string of bad luck with opponents.
Budd (9-2) originally withdrew from Bellator 155 in May due to an undisclosed injury. She was replaced by Alexis Dufresne, and it was turned into a non-title fight. Dufresne then missed weight by almost five pounds. Coenen still took the fighter who was coming off a two-fight skid in the UFC, but was submitted with a triangle armbar in the first round. Next up, the Dutch fighter was set to return at Bellator 163 in November against Talita Nogueira. The matchup was scrapped when Nogueira weighed in nearly six pounds over the limit.
Despite the setbacks, Coenen was confident that whenever the title bout happened, she'd be a part of it.
"I'm honored, I've trained hard. It was a fight long in the making," said Coenen. "I knew it would come. I've been working with Scott [Coker] and Rich [Chou] since the Strikeforce days so I know them since 2009, so I knew it would come. I had no doubt about it but it just takes so long."
Coker, Bellator's president, and matchmaker Chou have a deep history with women's MMA. They were some of the first to champion women in the sport, having promoted fights with Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate, Gina Carano, Cris "Cyborg" Justino and Amanda Nunes. During Strikeforce's heyday, Coenen held their 135-pound title before dropping it to Tate, who then dropped it to Rousey.
Both Budd and Coenen were with the promotion during the same timeframe of 2009-2011, but their paths never crossed. Budd went 2-2 with the organization with a KO loss to Nunes and submission loss to Rousey, each in the first minute. She also beat current UFC featherweight champion Germaine de Randamie by decision.
Coenen says "The Jewel" first popped up on her radar in 2013 when the two were both competing with Invicta FC. Budd is now on a seven-fight win streak, including the last three by decision with Bellator. She most recently bounced back from the injury that derailed the original title bout to defeat Arlene Blencowe via majority decision at Bellator 162 in October.
As of three weeks ago, there was just one major U.S.-based organization that had a women's 145-pound champion. Megan Anderson won the Invicta FC interim title with Justino, the full champion, now in the UFC. After Friday night, the numbers of titles will have tripled. On Feb. 11, de Randamie defeated Holly Holm to capture UFC gold. Now, Coenen and Budd will battle for the Bellator crown.
Regarding the depth of talent to support three divisions, Coenen buys into the "Field of Dreams" model: If you build it, the fighters will come. She says she knows kickboxers and Thai boxers that are beginning to see the potential profits or putting on the four ounce gloves, but it will take a little bit of time.
"There's a whole new breed coming," said Coenen. "Just wait one or two years and you will see the shift in the landscape."