Fabricio Werdum, Roger Gracie and Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza are the only men to ever win an IBJJF world championship and an ADCC gold medal before capturing belts in MMA. Michelle Nicolini is ready to add her name to that list.
One of the most accomplished grapplers in history, winning the jiu-jitsu world title eight times in multiple weight classes before reaching the top of the ADCC podium in 2013, Nicolini challenges Xiong Jing Nan for the ONE Championship strawweight title in the main event of ONE: Empower on Friday.
Nicolini made the transition to MMA in 2011, but took five years to finally walk away from the mats to become a full-time fighter under the ONE banner. Four wins in five appearances, capped off by a decision over Angela Lee, was enough to secure her a shot at the gold in Singapore.
“I’ve been chasing this for a long time,” Nicolini said in an interview with MMA Fighting. “I didn’t want to just fight MMA, I wanted to make a statement in this new sport I was coming in in 2016. To get here and fight for a belt alone is an incredible opportunity and I already see myself as the champion. I won’t stop after this fight regardless of the result, I still plan on fighting more, but it’s like I’ve accomplished all my goals in the fight circle.”
Werdum captured two gold medals each in the IBJJF Worlds and ADCC between 2003 and 2009 before moving to MMA and winning the UFC heavyweight championship. Gracie became the ONE Championship titleholder after cementing himself as the best jiu-jitsu player in history with multiple gold medals in the IBJJF Worlds and ADCC. “Jacare,” a former Strikeforce middleweight kingpin, won three IBJJF titles and the ADCC 2005 championship.
“To have my name next to these guys, guys who have made history in the sport and inspired many other generations, makes me happy already,” Nicolini said. “I hope that people believe in their dreams and go for it because it’s all worth it. There’s no point wanting something but not executing it. Look at this, I’m fighting for a championship in something I started off as fun. Someone asked me if I wanted to fight and I said yeah, and two weeks later I was fighting in Peru. It started off as fun, I didn’t take it serious, and but then I realized how cool it was and how bad I wanted it.”
Nicolini hopes her run in MMA inspires other grapplers who may be insecure about making the jump to rings and cages, but advises them to go all-in right off the bat instead of trying to balance both sports simultaneously.
“If you migrate slowly, OK, it might work, but I think it should be more drastic,” she said. “Disappear from the jiu-jitsu scenario and put your head in MMA. You don’t have to adapt your game only, you have to adapt your mind as well because it’s a whole new life.”
Nicolini vs. Nan was expected to go down in 2020 but was postponed several times due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s finally on for Friday’s show in Singapore, and the Brazilian grappler feels better than ever.
“Xiong Jing Nan is almost complete but we always find holes, just like they must have studied my game” Nicolini said. “We trust the grappling, the ground game. Even though she seems to be a very strong and explosive athlete, we’ll focus on dominating the grappling area.”