Canadian Julia (The Jewel) Budd makes her Professional Fighters League debut on Wednesday when she takes on American Kaitlin (The Striking Viking) Young on the promotion's high-profile final card of the season.
The 38-year-old from Port Moody, B.C., a former Bellator champion, says she made the switch to PFL for a new challenge and more consistency in her fight schedule.
Unlike other MMA promotions, the PFL offers fighters a regular season with the most successful advancing to the playoffs and ultimately a championship bout. So fighters can plan their year.
"My whole life, whether I was fighting in Muay Thai or MMA, I always looked forward to having fights and having a goal to look forward to. Having that set (PFL) schedule is super-exciting," Budd said in an interview. "And I'm welcoming and looking forward to the challenge of that."
Given Budd only signed with PFL in late September, she won't take part in a full season or contest the title until 2022. But the PFL, which cancelled its 2020 season due to the pandemic, is showcasing her on its biggest card of the year.
There are six titles up for grabs on the card at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Fla., with each winner set to receive U$1 million along with the championship belt.
Kayla Harrison (11-0-0), a two-time Olympic judo champion, defends her lightweight title against Taylor Guardado (3-1-0) in the main event. Ray (Bradda Boy) Cooper III (22-8-1) takes on Russian Magomed Magomedkerimov (28-5-0) for the welterweight championship in the co-main event.
Brazil's Raush Manfio (14-3-0) meets Tajikistan's Loik (Jaguar Paw) Radzhabov (15-3-1) for the lightweight crown, Antonio (Cara de Sapato) Carlos Jr. (2-0-0 with one no contest) tackles Norway's Marthin Hamlet (2-1-0) for the light-heavyweight title and Brazil's Bruno Cappelozza (13-5-0) faces Croatia's Ante (Walking Trouble) Delija (19-4-0) to decide heavyweight honours.
Featherweights Chris (The Long Island Killer) Wade (20-6-0) and Russia's Movlid (Killer) Khaybulaev (18-0-1 with one no contest) open the main card.
Also on the card, two-time Olympic boxing champion Claressa (T-Rex) Shields (1-0-0) contests her second MMA fight against Abigail (Brave) Montes (2-0-0) in a non-title tilt.
Budd (15-3-0) has won her last two fights and 13 of her last 14 with a title loss to Cris Cyborg at Bellator 258 in January 2020. Her only other losses were also to elite opposition: (Rowdy) Ronda Rousey and Amanda Nunes, both in 2011 in the Strikeforce promotion.
Budd made her Bellator debut in February 2015 and won nine of 10 bouts there. After the loss to Cyborg, which ended an 11-fight win streak, Budd remained the No. 1 contender at 145 pounds in Bellator and was looking for another title shot.
"I was ready for a change," she said. "I've been with Bellator for seven years. I'm grateful for all the opportunities that I had with them. I was able to become a world champion and defend that belt."
But Cyborg didn't seem interested in a rematch.
"So I didn't feel like sitting back this year, getting more wins under my belt for Bellator and waiting and not getting that potential title shot. This (move to PFL) guarantees me a clear direction, a clear trajectory straight to the top. And as a bonus is I get to go out there do what love, perform and have a showcase fight (Wednesday)."
In the PFL, Budd will be moving up in weight to fight as a lightweight (155 pounds). The promotion does not have a featherweight division (145 pounds).
While she has not fought at lightweight in MMA before, she has in kick-boxing. Budd says it has made for a far more comfortable weight cut this time.
"Just a couple of pounds off. It's kind of nice because I'm able to just focus 100 percent on my training … and not be cutting weight right now. That's definitely a perk."
Budd's stepson (Fearless) Lance Gibson Jr. continues to fight under the Bellator flag, with a 5-0-0 record as a lightweight. Lance Gibson Sr., a former SuperBrawl, Shooto and UFC fighter, coaches both.
The younger Gibson (5-0-0) is coming off a second-round TKO win over Raymond Pina at Bellator 268 on Oct. 16 in Phoenix.
Like Budd, Young (12-11-1) is another pioneer of the sport. The 36-year-old from Minnesota is coming off a split decision loss to Brazil's Mariana (Razor) Morais in June. She has won two of her last three and five of her last seven.
Between the two, they have 25 years as a pro fighter. Like Budd, Young comes from a kickboxing background.
Budd joins fellow Canadians Rory (Red King) MacDonald, a former Bellator welterweight champion, and Olivier (The Canadian Gangster) Aubin-Mercier in the PFL ranks.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 26, 2021.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press