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Brazilian judoka Juliana Velasquez sees Bellator belt ‘equivalent to an Olympic medal’

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Juliana Velasquez challenges Ilima-Lei Macfarlane for the Bellator flyweight championship on Thursday.
Bellator MMA

A teenager Juliana Velasquez started her athletic career as a judoka in Brazil, but never reached her ultimate goal of competing for an Olympic medal. Years after making the jump to mixed martial arts, however, she’s close to finally becoming a champion.

The unbeaten judoka, 34, needed five wins in a row to earn a shot at 125-pound flyweight queen Ilima-Lei Macfarlane in the main event of Thursday’s Bellator 254 in Uncasville, Conn. She refuses to allow herself to dream about holding gold right now, but knows it would be a life-changing moment.

“I always try to be the best in everything I do,” Velasquez said in an interview with MMA Fighting. “In judo, I tried to earn a spot at the Olympics and competed for one, but unfortunately I didn’t make it. I’m able to fight for a world title in MMA now. I think this title is equivalent to an Olympic medal to me. … (But) I will only think about the belt after (the fight).

“I’m facing this fight as any other fight, like every other fight I had. I always have the same mindset, the same hunger, the same desire to win. The belt is just an extra. But I really want this title, to own this belt, not only for myself but for my team as well, you know?”

Macfarlane, also undefeated as a MMA fighter with eight finishes in 11 professional wins, has been one of the faces of Bellator over the past few years. For Velasquez, being the one to stop her could finally convince the promotion to hold an event in Brazil in 2021.

“(Defeating her) would be great because we already have a (female) champion in Bellator, (Cris) Cyborg, and I think it would be nice to have another one,” Velasquez said. “Maybe that ends up bringing Bellator to Brazil. It would be pretty cool. I would love to fight at home. Any athlete would.

“We have Patricio (Pitbull) as a two-division champion, we have Douglas (Lima), and we have Cyborg. With one more, they would possibly come to Brazil. That’s what I want the most.”

Velasquez is out to make history at the Mohegan Sun Arena, and is well aware that Macfarlane is no easy match with a 70 percent finishing rate under the Bellator banner. That said, Velasquez hasn’t seen many variations in “The Ilimalator’s” game.

“The fights I’ve seen from her are always pretty similar,” Velasquez said. “She has good submissions, a good grappling game, good jiu-jitsu, good scrambles, but… She’s really strong, but I’ve never seen her fight someone who likes to stand and also comes from a grappling background. It’s going to be a fun fight between two undefeated athletes, neither wants to lose.”

The Team Nogueira flyweight pictures herself in the worst possible scenarios going into every MMA fight because “I don’t want to be frustrated or surprised by anything,” and is no different with Macfarlane. That’s why she can’t foresee a precise outcome for her Bellator 254 fight with the champion.

“I never know how to answer that question for any of my fights,” Velasquez said when asked for an official prediction. “I always say every athlete has to be prepared in all areas, especially us who fight in a sport that has everything. Wherever she gives me the opening, I’m ready.

“If the gives me an opening for a knockout, I’ll knock her out. If she gives me an opening for a submission, I’ll submit her. If it has to go the distance, no problem, I have cardio for that.”