Michelle Nicolini made history as a black belt, winning eight IBJJF World Championships in multiple weight divisions and a gold medal at the ADCC 2013. She now focuses on making the same impact in mixed martial arts.
Nicolini successfully debuted in the sport in 2011, winning by first-round armbar in Peru, but only completely shifted her focus three years later. With a 2-1 record in the sport, Nicolini signed with ONE Championship and moved to Singapore, where she trains and teaches jiu-jitsu, and submitted Mona Samir in 136 seconds in her promotional debut.
"I had a great training camp for that fight,” Nicolini told MMA Fighting. "Ever since I moved to Singapore, I focused on getting better for the debut. The fight was in Singapore, so the entire gym was there to watch me compete. I gained more experience since that fight. I still don’t risk standing and trading yet [laughs], but I’m more mature in MMA."
On Friday morning, Nicolini will step back inside the cage to meet Irina Mazepa at ONE Championship 54 in Manila. The Brazilian grappler is confident she will win, but admits she didn’t expect to face such a tough opponent so early in her career.
"I thought it would be good to fight someone in between,” Nicolini said, "but they gave me this tough opponent. But it’s nice.
"There’s no title in our division yet, so they came up with this idea of making this fight for the belt. They asked me if I’d fight her for the belt, and I said of course, but then they matched us up in a non-title fight. I think there were other girls I could fight before her, but it’s ok.”
Mazepa holds a 2-0 MMA record with both of her wins being under the ONE banner, but had a career in kickboxing prior to her transition to MMA. In the kickboxing ring, the Russian striker competed with UFC bantamweight contender Valentina Shevchenko in the final of a one-night tournament in 2014, losing by stoppage.
"I watched some of her fights, and my coaches watched everything,” Nicolini said of Mazepa. "She’s a striker and I’m a grappler, so it won’t change anything. The fight will be the same if we fight today or in six months or in a year. So let’s fight now."
“A clash of styles makes it pretty obvious what every fighter will go for in the fight,” Nicolini says, "but I’ve trained hard and focused on my wrestling. I never had good takedowns in jiu-jitsu, but I’ve worked on my wrestling. I know she probably worked hard on her takedown defenses, too. She might defend my takedown once or twice, but I will manage to get her on the ground.
"I see myself taking her down, passing guard and submitting her."
With tons of titles in high-level grappling competition in her resume, Nicolini’s ultimate goal is to add more gold now that she’s a MMA fighter.
"I’ll ask for the belt after the fight,” Nicolini said. "There aren’t many girls in the division yet, so maybe one or two more fights and the title will be on the line. My goal is to win the ONE belt.
"This is my biggest dream,” she continued. "Be a world champion in jiu-jitsu, with everything I’ve accomplished, and make the transition to MMA, a new sport to me, and do well. I won’t fight as many years as I did in jiu-jitsu, of course, but I want to be as successful as I was in jiu-jitsu."