Rising MMA star finally gets fighting chance

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 18, 2014 

Jessica Bakan

JEN OWEN OF JEN MARTIN STUDIOS — Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Forget Whatcom County, Bellingham Mixed Martial Arts instructor Jeremy Saunders is convinced 27-year-old Jessica Bakan is one of the best female fighters in the U.S.

Saunders, who fought for nine years before becoming a referee, witnesses Bakan's potential on a daily basis, but there's one reason most of the county hasn't been fortunate enough to see Bakan compete in the cage: seemingly no one wants to fight her.

Bakan owns a 2-0 record. She won her debut fight last September with a third-round submission and won her second fight via submission strikes in late November. Since Bakan's second win, she's been scheduled for three fights. Each time, her opponents have backed out.

"It honestly feels like a bad breakup," said Bakan in a phone interview of training for six weeks only to learn the fight got canceled a week before. "I usually get really angry and usually cry and usually at some point get pizza and ice cream, talk about it and feel (offended) for a week."

Now nearly seven months since her last fight, Bakan is finally set to get back into the cage barring a last-minute cancelation. She's scheduled to fight Maria Olivera for the vacant 145-pound Cage Wars/Ax Fighting title during Battle at Bellingham 2 on Saturday, June 21, at the Bellingham Sportsplex. Doors open at 7 p.m. and fighting begins at 8 p.m.

Bakan said she's not 100 percent sure why her last three scheduled fights have fallen through. She's heard excuses ranging from opponents not being ready to fight to others suffering injuries. Bakan's sculpted frame and Saunders' high praise suggests opponent's reluctance to fight may stem from a fear of losing more so than random bad luck.

Bakan understands some fighters choose not to compete because they're underprepared, but she also acknowledged that's a convenient excuse.

"One girl felt like she didn't have a great training camp and didn't feel prepared," Bakan said. "It seems like she got scared. Nobody has an awesome training camp. You get a lot of bumps and bruises training hard in a sport of destruction."

Oddly enough, Bakan's frustration led to her fight with Olivera.

Soon after learning one of her fights was cancelled, Bakan vented her anger on Facebook, pondering why no one would honor their commitment to fight.

"She was eyeing me while still pregnant with her new baby," Bakan said of Olivera while laughing. "One of my fights fell through, and I wrote a why-will-nobody-fight-me post. She chimed in, asking 'what weight class are you in?'"

While Bakan's anxiously awaiting her opportunity to get back in the cage, she isn't taking Olivera lightly, calling her a "true fighter."

"Maria will be a good challenge for me," she said.

Bakan has become a more versatile fighter during her hiatus. She's feverishly worked at kickboxing and is gaining confidence standing up, which she can pair with her ground attack.

Besides getting another fight, Bakan, who moved to Bellingham six years ago, is excited for the chance to compete in front of friends and family at the Sportsplex.

"I definitely feel ready," Bakan said. "It's just exciting, that feeling of getting locked into a cage with another person. That thrill is amazing. There's no fear. ... I want to say it's almost like a drug or a high because you are so present in that moment."

Bakan will be looking to improve to 3-0 after this weekend's fight, and although her goal is to someday turn pro, she finds herself in a predicament. She wants to gain more experience before looking to turn pro, but she's already found trouble finding the right competition.

She certainly seems to have the talent to compete outside the amateur level, but the last thing she wants is to get overzealous, begin fighting too strong of competition and subsequently watch her record suffer. Bakan said in the MMA professional world, promoters will glance right over fighters if the record isn't overly impressive.

"When you're ready to go into the pros, the girls are much gnarlier and have been training since they were like 9 years old," Bakan said. "It's something I'm looking forward to in the near future. I don't want to go quick because that's when you're pro records start mattering more."

Even though Bakan's fights keep getting cancelled, she's been able to support her fellow Bellingham MMA teammates on fight nights, including her fiancé Clayton Hoy, who owns a 3-0 record and is the current 185-pound title holder.

Still, just being in attendance hasn't satisfied Bakan's urge to compete.

"Dramatic as it sounds, my heart kind of aches," said Bakan of the feeling of being in the holding room while fighters are getting ready. "I'm so excited. I start shadow boxing and throwing little combinations. Oh, I just want to be fighting so bad. The energy is there and it's super cool. I feel that yearning to be in the cage."

Bakan finally gets her shot Saturday, and if all goes well, she'll bring another title belt back to Bellingham MMA.

BATTLE AT BELLINGHAM 2

Jessica Bakan vs. Maria Olivera

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, June 21. Doors open at 7 p.m.

Where: Bellingham Sportsplex

Cost: $25.

More information: Visit axfighting.com.

Reach Andrew Lang at 360-756-2862 or andrew.lang@bellinghamherald.com . Follow @bhamsports on Twitter for Whatcom County sports updates.

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