Although Bellator has made a habit of signing talented female boxers, the experiment has yet to produce a legitimate contender.
The sample size is been extremely small, of course. But the promotion does give its fair share of publicity to its pugilistic projects, including former WBO champions Heather Hardy and Ana Julaton, both of whom have struggled in MMA; Hardy is 2-2 under the Bellator banner, while Julaton is 2-4 as a pro cagefighter.
Ava Knight is the latest to trade in her boxing gloves for a pair of four-ouncers. It’s inevitable she’ll be compared to Hardy and Julaton when she makes her MMA debut on Saturday against Shannon Goughary (3-3) in a strawweight bout at Bellator 228 on Saturday at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif.
The 31-year-old Knight warrants the attention. She still holds a WBC Diamond Championship belt, a title she won at 125 pounds with a win over Mariana Juarez, who was a 43-fight veteran at the time. When she beat Juarez, it was just Knight’s 14th pro bout.
And yet Knight is quick to downplay any comparisons between herself and the other Bellator boxers despite her accomplishments.
“I’m not Heather Hardy, and I’m not Ana Julaton – it’s apples and oranges,” Knight recently told MMA Fighting. “I was a champion way longer and way before Heather even came into boxing.
“Ana Julaton, I never was a big fan of hers, I didn’t think she was all that great, and I hate to be harsh like that, but it’s just the reality. I’ve been boxing for 18 years, I feel like I have talent, and I think I can move it into other areas.
“There’s no reason for me not to be good at something else as long as I work hard for it, even though I was so good at boxing. It’s hard for me to just sit here and think that I could be compared to them. I don’t understand why people hate on boxers so much, when someone from judo comes, or someone from just wrestling, or just jiu-jitsu, and they can do better, but then they get knocked out.
“When it’s a boxer, everybody wants to say, ‘They can’t do it. They’re going to get kicked or they’re going to get taken down.’ Obviously, we know that, so that’s what we practice for. But it all depends on the team you have behind you, and who’s really gonna help you do all this.”
Over the past few years, as Knight continued to rack up wins in the boxing ring, she did MMA training on the side, putting in work at a UFC gym in Las Vegas where she met her current boyfriend, an MMA fighter who helped her get started with jiu-jitsu. For her Bellator debut, she made a temporary move from Floyd Mayweather’s Money Team to complete her training camp in Los Angeles.
Former UFC and current Bellator broadcaster Jay Glazer was the person who talked Knight into making her MMA debut. He also guided her toward the Bellator cage. She almost signed a contract with Invicta FC back in 2016, but the deal was never finalized.
Like many female boxers, Knight lamented the wide gap in popularity between being a woman in boxing and a woman in MMA. Her original idea was to win a few MMA fights, boost her profile, then bring some of that glory back to the ring.
Three years later, is that still the plan?
“Yeah, 100 percent,” Knight said. “I think if Bellator wants to keep giving me fights, and then Mayweather Promotions jumps on and wants to keep me in, I feel like this is something doable. As long as I don’t get severely injured in a fight, I feel like I have more than the opportunity to be able to be a champion; a current champion in both sports. I don’t know of anyone that’s done it.
“I know Holly [Holm] went from one to the other, but nobody has been a champion in both sports at the same time.”
Knight is right. Following a successful boxing career, Holm reached a new level of stardom with her head-kick KO of UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, and she never looked back. Hardy has attempted to juggle the two sports, even winning a vacant WBO title last year, but she has yet to make any significant progress in Bellator’s flyweight ranks.
Knight isn’t backing down on her ambitions, nor is she worried about debuting against Goughary, a woman with six pro bouts (or six more than Knight, for those keeping score). Even though she doesn’t want to be lumped in with some of her peers, one comparison she’s willing to make is the version of herself that excelled in boxing and the version of herself that’s about to step into the cage.
“I’m a champion, I’m a world champion,” Knight said. “In my head, even though it’s a different sport, it’s still a fight sport. Even with the experience [Goughary] has and seeing everything that she’s done in the ring, it doesn’t bother me at all, because that’s what I’ve done my whole career is fight people that are way more experienced and way better, or champions.
“It’s just another day in the books. It’s just another tough fighter that I’m gonna have to get through to prove that I really am the best.”
Check out more from Knight as she spoke to MMA Fighting during Bellator 228 fight week: