Former Strikeforce champ Marloes Coenen has been through a lot in the last year and a half. First she won the women’s 135-pound title, then lost it to Miesha Tate after defending it once. She was released from her Strikeforce contract during a time of frosty relations between Zuffa and her Golden Glory management team, then verbally committed to BlackEye Promotions, only to later sign an exclusive North American deal with the upstart all-female organization Invicta.
Through it all, Coenen told Ariel Helwani on Monday’s episode of The MMA Hour, she had her mettle thoroughly tested yet again, and now believes she’s emerged stronger for the experience.
"It never really crossed my mind to quit MMA [after the loss to Tate], but I was hurt," Coenen told Helwani. "I was really, deeply hurt. I really needed some time to be away from my family, from my friends, from my training camp, from the Netherlands. I really recovered in Kansas."
Kansas, oddly enough, is where Coenen stayed for three months in the aftermath of the Tate loss and the Strikeforce release. While there, she said, she worked on her wrestling a great deal, but also got a chance to reflect on a career that’s spanned more than a decade, with plenty of ups and downs along the way.
At 19, she won the ReMix: World Cup 2000 championship in Japan, fighting three times in one night. She’d come into the event with only one pro MMA fight to her credit, and returned to her home in the Netherlands with a title she wasn’t sure what to do with.
"I had just started studying at the university," she said. "...It wasn’t that interesting. [MMA] wasn’t my world at the time. Then all of a sudden I became a champion in Japan and I said, well, I’ll quit university and focus on fighting."
Shortly thereafter, the women’s MMA scene in Japan began to decline, and Coenen’s family pressured her to go back to school. They also encouraged her to give up fighting and focus on something resembling a more normal career for a Dutch woman.
"There were so many points in my life where my parents told me I had to quit. Come on, Marloes, focus on something else, because it will not work out with fighting. At a certain point I started to believe that as well, then Strikeforce came and my world changed again."
After splitting her first two fights in Strikeforce -- a submission win over Roxanne Modafferi in her debut, followed by a TKO loss to 145-pound champ Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos in her next fight -- she became the 135-pound champion with a submission win over the previously unbeaten Sarah Kaufman. Coenen couldn’t have known then that she’d be out of a job after just two more fights.
"I made a lot of sacrifices in my life, prior to when I went to Strikeforce," Coenen said. "Those things really helped build who I am."
Women’s MMA is in a very different place now than it was when she found it, Coenen admitted, but she thinks the time is right for Invicta’s all-female approach, and expects that she’ll be proven right when the organization rolls out its debut event in Kansas City on April 28 -- a card that Coenen will headline in a rematch with Romy Ruyssen.
Though Coenen said she’s always tried to be a role model for young girls in and out of the cage, a recent run-in with a different type of fan convinced her that the demographic for women’s MMA might be bigger than many realize.
"In the supermarket this woman came up to me, like a mom with three kids. ...She said to me, ‘Oh, I saw your TV show, and you really inspired me.’ I was like, huh? I inspired you? That proves to me that there’s this audience we do not hear of, they don’t go onto the forums, but they do want watch female fighting because it’s a big empowerment for women."
For now, the 30-year-old Coenen will only say that she has "a few more years" left in MMA, but before she goes she has one specific goal in mind.
"I want to end my career fighting Cyborg," she said. "All my fights up to that will lead up to that."
And even after news of Santos’ positive steroid test and subsequent suspension, Coenen refused to pile on the criticism of the recently stripped champion, explaining "that when an opponent is down, you don’t kick them."
Then again, after feeling Santos’ strength, it’s not as if she was surprised to hear the news, Coenen added.
"I was in the cage with her, and believe me, I couldn’t understand that she really could hit that hard. I always thought that I really hit hard and I’m tough, but when I was in the cage with her, it was on another level."
While many people might be upset to learn that the hard blows they took might have been the result of a juiced up physique, Coenen offered another, somewhat surprising take.
"I really like Cyborg, and I deeply respect her as well. Even after she got caught, it tells also that she really wants to do everything she can to win. That says something about her mindset, and that sort of mindset I can respect."