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To evolve in MMA, Denise Kielholtz had to ‘let go’ of kickboxing

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Denise Kielholtz (pictured) fights Kristina Williams in a flyweight bout on the Bellator 239 preliminary card in Thackerville, Okla., on Friday
Bellator MMA

For Denise Kielholtz to forge a path in MMA, she had to put her championship past behind her.

“Miss Dynamite” already has “Bellator champion” on her resume, though it’s in the promotion’s kickboxing division. Despite the success she’s had in MMA, her most recent loss caused her to reassess everything she’d been doing in training up until that point.

Since losing by second-round submission to Veta Arteaga, Kielholtz (4-2) has bounced back with consecutive finishes of Sabriye Sengul and Bryony Tyrell. Ahead of her fight with Kristina Williams on Friday at Bellator 239, the 30-year-old Dutchwoman spoke about how going all-in with the Netherland’s Team Schreiber and learning everything she could from the Arteaga loss helped to put her back on track to potentially compete for another title.

“I trained kickboxing and I did MMA in different gyms, and I think that the fight with Veta was really a wake-up call,” Kielholtz told MMA Fighting. “‘Hey, you’re a kickboxing champion, but you’re not all that in MMA.’ After that fight, I really got back to figuring out what my style was, because that fight made me stronger in every way.

“Before, I did a lot of kickboxing but a little bit of MMA, a little bit of ground things. … That’s when I woke up, and I thought I have to take this to another level and another direction, and that’s how I’m now focused more on MMA.”

Kielholtz had been a drop-in at Team Schreiber, which is located in Krommenie, working at the gym once or twice a month. She didn’t see any issue with splitting the time between kickboxing and MMA, as she won her first two fights with Bellator. But then she lost to Arteaga.

Terrified, angry, disappointed – these are the words she uses to describe her emotions in the wake of that setback. She truly felt she was the better fighter. And that’s when she knew she had to truly move on from kickboxing.

“It was just a stupid mistake by myself, and at the end—after I take a couple of weeks after the fight because I was really, really angry at myself and disappointed—I had so many thoughts of ‘Why did I do that?’ That’s how I get a wake-up call and say, ‘I have to take this to another direction.’

“And that’s how I say I’m gonna let go the total kickboxing part. I let it go and I want to focus more on MMA.”

The results have been positive so far, though not everyone has been a fan of Kielholtz efforts to round out her game. Kielholtz has always had some acumen on the ground, tracing back to her early teens, when she was an amateur judo champion. She actually has two submission wins in MMA to her one TKO.

But that didn’t stop Sengul from hurling invective at Kielholtz after being submitted in just 32 seconds last November. The Turkish kickboxer was seemingly upset with Kielholtz breaking some sort of unspoken kickboxer code to stand and bang it out.

“Before, at the weigh-ins, she was really disrespectful, she was laughing about me because I was shorter,” Kielholtz said of the Sengul incident. “She was really cocky, and I think that cockiness is getting to her head too much and after the fight she woke up, almost knocked out and she tapped. Then you come to reality that this is the cage.

“I really don’t know what she was talking about, because I almost cannot understand her. I only hear, ‘MMA and no kickboxing!’ But look around and look to your hands, you are in an MMA cage. I think it was really embarrassing how she reacted, and I know for sure that she’s not a champion because champions don’t act like that.”

One champion for whom Kielholtz has plenty of respect is the current queen of her division, the undefeated Ilima-Lei Macfarlane. Part of the reason that Kielholtz is so excited about fighting Williams is that she feels a win definitively moves her one step closer to achieving her goal of winning world titles in kickboxing and MMA.

However, she’s not looking to make that leap just yet.

“For sure, I think if I win this fight, that’s three wins in a row,” Kielholtz said. “It’s a good way to get to the title shot. But I hope that after this fight I’m going to get another fight, another challenge in this division, and then I’m 1000 percent ready for the title shot.

“I’m still young in this fighting game, in this MMA experience, so if I want to be 1000 percent ready for a title shot, and another challenge would be great.”

There is still the small detail of Kielholtz holding Bellator Kickboxing’s 125-pound belt, so she may have to worry about her own title defense if the occasion calls for it. Whenever she does step into the ring again, though, it will be hard to rediscover that old feeling, at least compared to the passion she now has for MMA.

“If Bellator wants me to go back to the kickboxing ring, for me, it’s no problem,” Kielholtz said. “But if have to be honest, in kickboxing I fought everyone, I won from everyone, I get every title there, so I think there’s no more challenges there. Now I think I’m totally focused on MMA, and I’m really in love with this game. I see myself making more progression as an MMA fighter, so I think in my heart if I look really deep in my heart, I’ve let go of kickboxing and kickboxing dreams because I already did all the dreams that I had.

“Now I have a new dream. I want to be a better MMA fighter, and I think that you cannot do both. Kickboxing is so different than MMA. The standup game is totally different, you can’t do kickboxing in an MMA cage. So now when I let go of that feeling that maybe I want to go back to kickboxing, I feel I can make myself more complete as an MMA fighter. The fire in MMA is still really, really high, and kickboxing I don’t see any challenges that are going to make that fire high again.”