It’s been over five years since Vanessa Demopoulos lived in her native Ohio, but some things never change.
“That's something I can never get out of me,” said the strawweight up and comer, who faces Karolina Kowalkiewicz this Saturday in Las Vegas. “Even if I changed my number, you can't take away the Cleveland, you can't take away where I'm from.”
That means that for all the bright lights that come along with being a member of the UFC roster, when the Octagon door shuts, Demopoulos doesn’t forget that it’s a fight.
“A lot of who I am is because I am from Cleveland,” she said. “I'm loud, I'm brassy, I'm aggressive, and I got that blue collar work ethic in me. But it doesn't matter what city you put me in; I'm here and I'm going to outwork everybody because I remember where I came from.”
These days, Demopoulos calls Colorado home, as she follows up a stint in Arizona with one in the Factory X gym in Englewood.
“I've already been to a lot of gyms, so I kind of knew what I was looking for,” she said. “But when I came here to Factory X and met Marc Montoya and saw the way that he really cares so much as a coach and he has such attention to detail for his students, I really felt like home here. It's a family atmosphere, everybody trains hard, and this is some of the hardest training that I've ever experienced. You want to talk about grit? This is the place to get that at. They work their freaking faces off here, and the passion is just illuminating. So, it was hard for me to not want to be here after I checked it out.”
With the fit perfect, Demopoulos is exactly where she wants to be before the biggest fight of her career against a former world title challenger in Kowalkiewicz. And yeah, the three-fight winning streak consisting of victories over Silvana Gomez Juarez, Jinh Yu Frey and Maria Oliveira is impressive, but that trio doesn’t have the name recognition of the Poland native. Demopoulos knows this, but she doesn’t look at Kowalkiewicz any differently than she did at past foes.
“This one does put me closer to my goal, but I don't look at her different,” she said. “Not that she hasn't earned it, but when I was a purple belt in jiu jitsu, I was fighting black belts who had all these big names. And I've already overcome these things in my mind where you put people on pedestals. To be honest, at the end of the day, she's somebody who's in the gym training in the same way that I am. I’m very, very hungry, I do have my eyes on the prize, my spirit's extremely strong and my focus is right there. So we can both train, but how are we doing it? And that's going to show up in the fight. Your name is something and it can mean something to you, but it doesn't mean anything to me.”
Words like that are a reminder, like the Cleveland thing, that Demopoulos is all-fighter. Yes, she has one of the most positive and engaging personalities in the sport, but that’s outside of sanctioned combat. When it’s time to train or fight, she’s a different person, and she’s not about to take her foot off the gas because she’s had some success. Why? It’s simple.
“Because I love it,” Demopoulos said. “It's not about the goals that I'm achieving, it's not about getting on these win streaks. Even when I am the UFC champion, I will still be in the gym the next day because this is what I love. I only got here out of the passion and the love that I have for the sport, the love that I have for training every single day, and, for me, I get to come to the gym. This is a privilege for me, and I'm honored to be able to be here. And I'm even more honored to be able to fight in front of people who are inspired by it. I literally love what I do, and I don't do it for the accolades, I don't do it for the awards. I would fight if nobody was watching. So it's really awesome that I get to do it for the UFC in front of millions of fans.”
Those fans have responded to the backstory and rapid rise of the “Lil’ Monster,” and that’s not surprising. What it is, is satisfying to see someone with that star potential actually shine when given the chance. That’s not always the case. In all combat sports, there have been those who you could just imagine becoming a crossover star, but the talent didn’t match the personality. Demopoulos paid her dues, and when she did get her shot in the big show, she didn’t let it pass her by. That’s not a common occurrence, and while it’s happening, she is taking full advantage of it, whether it’s doing commentary on UFC FIGHT PASS events, more interviews or meeting her growing legion of followers.
“Even as I was coming up through the regional scene, I specifically remember telling someone that one day, I'm going to be a commentator in the UFC,” she said. “And they're like, ‘Well, girls don't do that.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, but I know I can do it.’ And now you have Laura Sanko out there doing it, you have Megan Olivi in front of the microphone all the time. And these ladies have paved the way for someone like me, who's always had these aspirations to one day be able to live them out. And today, I am a fighter, but one day I’ll get to also fulfill that part of my dream, too. And it's really cool to be able to work with FIGHT PASS and fill that cup up at the same time as being a fighter. It's also helped my fight game to improve because, as an analyst, I'm looking at fights from a very different perspective. So to be able to look at my opponents under a different microscope really helps me. Everything coincides, it really does.”
Some would call that a perfect storm on its way to Las Vegas.
UFC Fight Night: Dern vs Hill took place live from the UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada on May 20, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!