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Kristina Williams’ unlikely path to slaying Heather Hardy began with training horses

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Kristina Williams, Heather Hardy
Kristina Williams defeated Heather Hardy via second-round TKO at Bellator 185.

For most of her life, Kristina Williams has worked with horses. Dressage, eventing, hunter and jumper competitions, just to name a few. That certainly does not seem like a logical path toward mixed martial arts, but perhaps there is something to be said for the ability to command a 1,200-pound animal as a transferable cage skill. Williams certainly made a case for it last Friday, when she battered Heather Hardy en route to a technical knockout at Bellator 185.

It was a result that few saw coming, although they could hardly be blamed. Prior to the match, there was a certain kind of myopia going on, a focus on Hardy stemming from her acclaimed and well-told history of combat sports success as a former women’s boxing champion. By contrast, Williams was a virtual unknown on the scene, and was making her professional debut. It was as if she was being dropped out of the sky for a very specific job.

“I think maybe they thought I’d put up kind of a fight, but I don’t think they thought I was going to win, especially like that,” the 28-year-old flyweight told MMA Fighting.

As it turns out now, it was more like Hardy was ambushed.

“She might have been 0-0 as a pro but that was very deceiving,” Williams’ jiu-jitsu coach T.J. Tomlin told MMA Fighting. “She’s had amateur MMA fights, Muay Thai fights, a boxing fight. When we got an offer to fight a big name that would actually stand and strike with her, we were immediately like, ‘Hell yes!’ All of her fights she’s been fighting wrestlers and jiu-jitsu girls. She’s a purple belt in jiu-jitsu so she’s high-level there too, but we knew that if we were going to get a striker, a boxer would be absolutely perfect. So when we got a big-name boxer on a big show, we were like, ‘We’re going to win this in the first round.’”

It took a little longer than that, two minutes longer to be exact, and ended with Williams going around a Hardy hook with a textbook kick that shattered Hardy’s nose. As a moment, it wasn’t too dissimilar from Holly Holm’s famous knockout of Ronda Rousey, and now the hope is that Williams can capitalize on the win to jumpstart her own career, and with it, a rise to stardom.

“That was impressive,” said Bellator president Scott Coker. “To have someone come out and perform the way she did under this scenario, a crowded arena, live TV and fighting Heather Hardy, I think she did herself a lot of good as far as building her brand, building her name and building some great fights ahead for her.”

While Williams suddenly earns the hot prospect label, traditional sports were not an early part of her life and there was no inclination toward life as a professional athlete.

“I have a regular background,” she said, shrugging.

Growing up in Oklahoma, horses were a constant in her life, and her first favorite pastime.

Kickboxing followed later, at around age 12 when she began tagging along with her brother for cardio kickboxing classes at his boxing gym. Then she tried taekwondo. And MMA classes. And Muay Thai. Unconsciously, she was designing a path that was heading in an unavoidable direction.

“After doing about two years of Muay Thai, I really wanted to try a fight just to see how I could do,” she said. “After that first fight, I was hooked.”

It’s worth noting that she won that first fight. And she won all her amateur kickboxing, boxing and MMA fights, too. So she had never tasted defeat when she stepped into the Mohegan Sun Arena cage before a full and pro-Hardy crowd.

Though soft-spoken, Williams exhibited a focused intensity from the opening bell, declining to touch gloves with Hardy in favor of getting the action started. Once engaged, Williams employed a strategic plan, using her length to her advantage with a kick-based approach that flummoxed Hardy’s entry routes. Similarly, Hardy’s exit routes were fraught with danger, as Williams’ combinations never seemed to end, and that approach paid off with just over a minute left in the first, when Williams landed a right head kick on the tail-end of a combo that bloodied her opponent’s nose.

"I was blocking fine, and she was throwing what I expected, so I knew how to anticipate,” Williams said. “So I wasn’t worried. After the first few minutes, I was really comfortable with it. I was really enjoying it. She kept coming and doing the same things, so I got into a comfort zone of going with the game plan.”

The game plan worked on Friday to the very end, but the future holds many new variables to deal with. Chief among them: After a debut like that, Williams is no longer under the radar. Opponents will see her coming and feel the head kicks coming, too. The approach to her will be different; the expectations will be, too.

“I think she’s going to be the champion,” her coach Tomlin said.

After one fight, Williams is — as she was against Hardy, as she is against her 1,200 pound beasts — unfazed.

“I’m ready for anything,” she said. “Whatever I get. I love fighting. I love competition.”