“It’s still sinking in every day.”
It’s Tainara Lisboa’s first official UFC fight week, and she’s visibly enjoying every last second of it. Whether it’s getting fitted for her fight kit, receiving her first bag of Venum gear or taking a group photo with the UFC Charlotte broadcast team (Megan Olivi, Daniel Cormier, Dominick Cruz and Jon Anik), it has been ear-to-ear smiles for the Brazilian bantamweight.
It was nearly a year ago that she got the call to the big show, and she vividly recalls the disbelief.
“My manager told me the UFC was interested and I was like, ‘What do you mean? Get out of here! I’ll only believe once I sign the contract.’ When the contract arrived, I was very happy. I cried a lot. It’s an entire life dedicated to the sport. I had some injuries, but now I finally have the opportunity to make my debut.”
That debut it set to kick off UFC Fight Night: Rozenstruik vs Almeida when “Thai Panther” will find herself standing across from Jessica-Rose Clark. It’s the culmination of a decades-long journey for the 32-year-old from Santos, Sao Paulo; a journey that had its roots—as is often the case in sport—in the awkwardness of adolescence.
“I was about 13-14 years old. I was a bit chubby and really anxious. So we started looking for some martial arts gyms. My father was the one who encouraged me the most. So, at first, I started doing it because of that. But then I started following the teams in competitions and I fell in love with the fighting world. At 14, I had a local fight. At 16, I made my Muay Thai debut, and I haven’t stopped since then.”
Muay Thai was the first love and she proved to be particularly gifted. She holds a black belt in the discipline.
“I won two world titles in Thailand. I’m the only Brazilian two-time professional world champion. These titles are very special and I’m proud of them.”
Her coach, Bruno Polengo, has been integral in helping her reach this moment. In fact, if there is any damper on her fight week elation, it’s that her longtime mentor was prevented from traveling to Charlotte due to some unforeseen visa hassles.
“We've been together for about six years working on this project. He started training me when I transitioned from Muay Thai to MMA, which is really different. It’s been a long road. He's not here today, but he’ll definitely be represented there with me.”
She won’t be alone.
“We’re always talking. I have two people that I trust a lot here with me: my jiu jitsu and my striking coaches. As I said, it’s been 17 years in the making. Six years in MMA. I’ve fought with several girls that are already in the UFC, and now my time has come. So my anxiety is under control. I’m very excited.”
She’ll aim to keep that anxiety and excitement in check Saturday morning when the Octagon door closes. Despite suffering back-to-back losses “Jessy Jess” has been a threat across the women’s flyweight and bantamweight divisions since arriving in the UFC back in 2017.
“Jessica is a UFC veteran. I was already following her work and I’m a fan. I find her amazing.”
She even bumped into her opponent in the elevator of the host hotel. Far from a contentious meeting, she remarked how beautiful Clark was in person. Odds are she’ll find her less beautiful on Saturday, but Lisboa is ready.
“My coaches were able to come up with a good game plan. She is an excellent striker. She moves very well. Her boxing is sharp. However, once she feels cornered, she tends to grapple and take it to the ground. Even though she has some holes on the ground, including her last fights, we believe she’ll try to do that. We’re ready for an eager Jessica because she wants to get a win and I’m making my debut. So I think the fans are in for a treat.”