Valerie Loureda doesn’t look or act like your average MMA fighter. In a sport where women often tend to fit a mold— being hardened, stereotypically “tough,” and all business— Loureda is unapologetically feminine and will post a video of herself dancing or posing in a bikini as quickly as she’ll knock an opponent out in the cage. She knows it’s not the norm, and frankly, she doesn’t care how anyone feels about it.

“If women do it, it’s being seen as doing it for social media and doing it to be an object for men and marketing. And that’s not the case,” Loureda told M&F Hers. “It’s not for any man, it’s for us as women showing we can be badass and beautiful and strong, and we could still be animals in the cage and know how to defend ourselves.”

Fresh off a stunning TKO against Tara Graff at Bellator 243, Loureda’s pro record stands at 3-0, and she’s gained more attention than ever before. She just signed a multi-fight, multi-year contract extension with Bellator and announced a new sponsorship with Vital Performance — and she’s just getting started.

Loureda’s confidence comes from a lifetime of training in martial arts, particularly taekwondo. It’s been just about three years since the Miami native decided to pursue MMA, and the rising flyweight has already proved she has serious potential. Training out of American Top Team with fellow inspiring female fighters like Amanda Nunes and Joanna Jedrzejczyk certainly doesn’t hurt.

We spoke with Loureda to get her take on rising in MMA, breaking stereotypes, and inspiring other women to be strong and stay true to themselves.

It seems that people who were doubting you are just now starting to take notice. With MMA being a traditionally male-dominated sport, do you feel that as a female athlete, you need to work harder to prove yourself?

Valerie Loureda: Definitely. I felt that in the beginning of my career, because it was a male-dominated sport I felt like I had to prove myself as an athlete to my coaches and my teammates. It was very hard to be able to grow in my own sport and to rise in a male-dominated sport. You have to learn how to speak to certain coaches and how to get through certain things and how to make the most out of what you have to reach where I am now.

You’ve been training your whole life, even at the Olympic level. What’s it like to finally be getting recognized, and signing a contract with Bellator?

When I first got my contract with Bellator, I felt for the first time the world was going to be introduced to me, and this is what I’ve always dreamed of— to be on a platform that will allow people to recognize the martial artist and the woman that I am. Now more than ever after this fight, I feel like I I’m being recognized for the first time and not just by men, but equally by women. I’m being supported by women and I’m being shown as an inspiration to them. And that means more to me than anything else.

You’re unapologetically yourself, being different than what’s expected outside the cage, which is awesome. What advice would you have for other female athletes who maybe feel like they have to fit into a mold to be taken seriously in their sport?

I would say don’t listen to what anybody has to say about you, because you have to be yourself and stay true to yourself in order to be recognized by the world. And if I would have listened to what anybody said about me, I wouldn’t be in the position where I am now. And just because I don’t look like I’m the stereotype in my sport doesn’t mean I don’t have the same level and the same talent. So I would tell girls to stay true to themselves. Be yourself, and work a hundred times harder than everyone else in your career. Stay true to your passion and just grow and shine—don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

This year is like nothing else with the pandemic. Leading up to Bellator 234, did you have to tweak your training or find it particularly challenging to get it done?

Yeah. So it was very, very hard for me and very different than old camps, but during quarantine I kept my weight low. I was eating very healthy during quarantine so that when Bellator would call me, I’d be ready at any time for a fight. They called me with three weeks notice and I hadn’t done any sparring or really any MMA sessions. I went to American Top Team and had no females to work with, so I had to train with guys who are in lower weight classes and do a small camp like that. I made the most of what I had, but I’ve been doing this since I was little and I just trusted my talent and I trusted my hard work for all these years that I’d be able to pull it off.

When do you think you realized that MMA is that space you wanted to move into and pursue?

I realized this about three and a half years ago. You know, the first time I saw MMA on TV, I really didn’t know what it was. I just knew it was cage fighting, but I wasn’t aware of anything. And I remember the first time I saw a woman MMA fighting in the cage, I had goosebumps and I looked to my sister and said, “Nancy, I could do that.” I had never taken a jiu-jitsu class in my life, but something just from looking at it told me, “You’re meant to do that. And you’re meant to be a star doing that.” The next week I was in a jiu-jitsu class and then now I’m here three years later. But from the first moment I had a gut instinct that I was born for that. And that’s exactly how it played out.

Do you have any tips for people who do want to get started in MMA but are hesitant? Especially women, if you show up at a gym and it’s mostly guys.

I think for women, one of the biggest things martial arts teaches you, in general, is confidence. You know, with confidence, you can do things. I’ve always been the only girl in my class, all full of men— for example, boxing— but I have the confidence to do that. For a woman who want to get started, I’d say start with boxing because I feel like boxing is a huge stress relief for a lot of women.

I used to teach kickboxing before my contract, and I saw the way these women, their lives were changed with boxing and kickboxing. So start with kickboxing and you know, eat healthy. And then later on you could go into wrestling and just little by little bit. Always stay true to yourself, and take care of your skin. In MMA, there’s a lot of infections and stuff like that, so take care of your skin, stay true to yourself and, and just work really hard.

Do you have any general kind of nutrition rules that you always stick to, or vitamins and supplements that are your go-tos?

I’m very big on my routine with my vitamins, my supplements and, and my nutrition. So I do eat healthy, and I don’t eat a lot of carbs. But if there’s something I’m very disciplined with, it’s my vitamins and my blood work is really important to me.

Every day I work out, and after every workout I use Vital Performance Recover. I love guava lime— it reminds me of Miami. After every training session, I always do that to make sure I’m good for the next one. You know, it really helps my body and my recovery. The amino acids, and everything has been amazing for, for my training.

That’s kind of how I’ve been able to do this camp so quickly for the fight. I’ve been using their products since before I was sponsored. Now that I’m sponsored, I’m excited to actually show proof that their products work and how they’ve helped me in my recovery for my next workout.

What’s next for your career, and when do you hope to fight again?

If all goes well, I want to fight again in December and keep proving people wrong. The more I fight, they’re starting to recognize that I’m real and that they have to deal with it. And I’m just going to keep being an inspiration to other women and other young girls. I want them not to be scared of my sport because they’re scared to get hurt. I want them to be interested so they can learn to defend themselves and develop that confidence that I feel like all women need. So that’s really my message, and the more I fight, the more I grow and build a platform to show the world who I am.