There was a time when Zoila Frausto was beating them all.
You have to take a step back, all the way to 2010 when Frausto (then known as Zoila Gurgel from her marriage to fellow fighter Jorge Gurgel) was one of eight women vying to become the inaugural Bellator champion at 115 pounds. Bellator was months away from being purchased by Viacom, but it was on its way to becoming the No. 2 promotion in North America, jockeying for position with Strikeforce behind the all-enveloping UFC.
So becoming the first female champion of a rising, nationally broadcast promotion was a big deal any way you slice it, even more so when you consider the names that Frausto fought and beat in the tournament. In round one, she defeated Jessica Penne, who would later become a UFC title challenger. In round two, she won a narrow split decision over Jessica Aguilar, a future World Series of Fighting champion that was among the top strawweights in the world for several years.
And then in the finals, Frausto took on the Megumi Fujii, pound for pound one of the greatest female fighters in MMA history. That bout also went to the scorecards and though it was close split call, the judges scored the fight in Frausto’s favor. Just like that, Frausto became the first fighter to defeat Fujii and the first women’s champion in Bellator history.
This was two years before the UFC brought Ronda Rousey into the mix.
Frausto had a head start on the competition and could have become one of the faces of women’s MMA; instead, a lack of strawweight competition, a streak of frustrating losses, and the ol’ injury bug contributed to the now 35-year-old fighter being pushed to the wayside as the sport boomed around her.
When she returns to action this Friday to fight Jaimee Nievera in the co-main event of Combate 31 at Save Mart Center in Fresno, Calif., it will have been three years since Frausto’s last MMA fight. She’s found success in other combat sports, going 6-0 competing in Muay Thai and kickboxing.
But now she’s coming home.
“Since Combate is coming back to California, Fresno, that’s like my hometown,” Frausto recently told MMA Fighting. “I’m in California now and I’ve been doing so much better with these MMA practices and it just kind of felt like something that I need to do because I did so well and I got so far away from it because of things that had happened in my personal life. I feel like it’s something that I need to do to show that — not just to myself, but everybody else — I’m still very much here.
“I’m winning big fights in Muay Thai, in kickboxing, against really good opponents, but I want to be able to go back and do that with MMA as well. It’s the perfect opportunity, perfect opponent, perfect promotion, and perfect place, so it just kind of all came back together.”
Frausto will be fighting at 125 pounds, a division above what she fought at in her Bellator championship days, and a division below her last bout at a Tachi Palace Fights show in February 2016. There, Frausto defeated Corina Herrera by unanimous decision to snap a four-fight skid.
By her own admission, that win over Herrera “wasn’t the prettiest,” but it put Frausto back on the winning track inside the cage and validated her decision to head back west, which she did shortly after divorcing Gurgel back in 2014.
“For me, it just feels like it’s unfinished business,” Frausto said. “I’ve been fighting Muay Thai and kickboxing, and MMA I did so well. But the thing is with MMA, things started to change as soon as I moved to Cincinnati and when I had got married, as soon as that happened, I started a three year losing streak. So I wanted to change things up, I moved back to California, I got a divorce, and I needed something different to happen, so I started Muay Thai.
“I wanted to get back into MMA slowly because I had a lot of anxiety with it coming from Cincinnati, I left a bad situation there. I just wasn’t feeling MMA — right after I won that world championship I was on an ultimate high and then as soon as I moved out there to Cincinnati, things started falling apart and along with that was my MMA career.”
There were other factors that contributed to Frausto’s struggles and decision to take time away from MMA. The last loss on her four-fight streak came in an ill-advised drop back down to 115 pounds, a weight that she could no longer comfortably make. She wound up losing a Resurrection Fighting Alliance (now the Legacy Fighting Alliance) championship bout against Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger and just attempting that cut affected Frausto’s health in the long term.
Having found success in kickboxing, it was also important that Frausto land with a promotion that made sense to her from a financial standpoint. She recalls being contacted by several smaller organizations, some offering less than she had made in her pro debut.
Enter Combate. With a growing Latin American following, the promotion was a logical fit for Frausto, both due to her wanting to compete for a company with a large platform and her Mexican-American heritage. They were also offering her a shot at revenge.
Nievera already holds a win over one Frausto, Zoila’s sister younger sister Stephanie. And it’s not just the familial ties that have Frausto stoked for this matchup, it’s the fact that she considers Nievera to be unprofessional due to having missed weight in the past.
“It’s personal to get me out and get me motivated to take this fight,” Frausto said. “She’s a really good opponent for me. It is a little personal because she fought my sister. She didn’t make weight when she fought my sister. ... At 115 pounds, she didn’t make weight, she came in I think five or six pounds overweight for my sister. She ended up winning that fight and she was celebrating like she won the lottery and that really ticked me off because it’s like, you can’t be professional enough to make weight for a fight and you’re going to go and you’re going to win the way that she did and she’s going to celebrate.
“It was a lack of respect and it pissed me off. Since that moment, I even went up to the promotion then, I was like, I’ll do anything to fight her. She’s in my weight class now, she took so many fights at 115 pounds and she’s never made weight, I think there was, like, four other times that she’s tried to fight at 115 and didn’t make weight. One of those other times was with another one of my teammates, Charlene Gellner. So there’s a lot going into this and she does kind of rub me the wrong way, so it’s even more motivation for me to get out there and beat her.”
Frausto is determined to get this next win under her belt first before considering future possibilities. It had long been a goal of hers to fight in the UFC, but she’s not fixated on it and her most recent brush with the organization, a spot on The Ultimate Fighter 26 was spoiled by an ACL tear a week before she was supposed to join the cast in Las Vegas.
She’s also open to working with Bellator again, especially since she’s fought for current president Scott Coker back in their Strikeforce days. Her relationship with previous Bellator boss Bjorn Rebney, was not as pleasant. According to Frausto she’d been promised many things by Rebney, but the promotion was never able to find her a title challenger at 115 pounds and after taking three flyweight bouts she left the organization in 2012.
That experience left a bitter taste in her mouth, but she likes the direction the company has gone in under Coker’s guidance and would consider signing with Bellator especially if she could compete in kickboxing and MMA.
The entire landscape of the sport is different now and Frausto is impressed with how stars like Gina Carano and Rousey were able to leverage their fighting success into mainstream media opportunities. She plans to compete for three or four more years and hopes to take advantage of opportunities outside of fighting herself someday.
But first, she’s taking care of that pesky unfinished business.
“I want to get out when I’m ahead, but I want to be able to get back to the top again,” Frausto said. “So my goal is to get back to the top again, wherever that may be, in Bellator, UFC, with Combate, wherever I’m treated right. I feel like I want to be able to do that.
“Get to the top again, stay there for a little bit and then leave on my own terms.”