Even though she’s only 20 years old and is still more than a month away from her professional debut, you can hear the radar cheeping for Valerie Loureda. As an Olympic caliber taekwondo master, she has a natural segue into mixed martial arts. As a model from Miami, she has a certain star appeal — the ability to juxtapose herself from beauty to beast (and back again).
And as a daughter who was asked to grow up quick — perhaps at the expense of her Olympic dreams — she has earned enough life experience to handle her Feb. 15 debut in the Bellator cage with a certain panache. It’s this last part that distinguishes her out of the gate, the particular depth of character. Loureda expects to do big things in MMA, in part because of all that she has gone through to get there. And in part because, well, it’s in her lineage.
“Every day I step on the mat, and I bow,” Loureda says. “I just know this is what I was made for. I know I was born different. It’s always been like that. This is what I’ve been working for my whole life, is for a platform to recognize me and to give me the opportunities to share me to the world. This is in my blood — fighting is in my blood.”
Let’s start with the fighting.
Loureda’s father has owned Master Franks Taekwondo Academy in Miami since 1985. He is, in her own words, “crazy.” Not literally crazy, but crazy about the martial arts — in particular, about taekwondo and its transformative power. As the grandmaster at his school, he has helped change the life trajectories of thousands of kids in the area by teaching them discipline and self worth. This extends to herself and Loureda’s younger sisters, one of them a fourth dan master — just like herself — at the age of 18, the other who just received her black belt at the age of 11. When Valerie was young, she would appear with her father on a morning television show in Miami to teach self-defense.
Waking up and demonstrating defensive techniques on TV was her norm.
Her mom, Mily, is crazy too. She was testing for her black belt while pregnant with Valerie in 1998. The kicks were coming from both inside and outside the womb, kind of an early two-way communication between mother and daughter. The Loureda’s are a family of martial artists through and through. It’s why when Valerie talks about one day becoming not just the flyweight champion in Bellator but among the greats to ever take off their shoes, it doesn’t sound all that far-flung or ludicrous.
It just sounds interesting. Especially because she has a mission.
“It’s all for my family,” she says. “My dad, he’s an extremely passionate man. Kids would come in as delinquents, but my dad has helped make them become doctors and trainers. It’s all part of martial arts and the discipline that comes with it. That’s my biggest thing as a black belt, to teach that. I just want to get in the cage — yes to demonstrate taekwondo, yes to demonstrate that I’m a mixed martial artist, but also to demonstrate all the values that all this teaches you that you take with you the rest of your life.”
But let’s go back. Valerie grew up inundated with taekwondo, but that was more from her father’s persuasion. Her mother wanted to balance that out, and encouraged her to be feminine — not just learn how to kick an apple off somebody’s head, but to embrace herself as a girl, and later as a woman. “She made sure I was in ballet, piano, ice skating, those kinds of things,” she says. In fact, when she was still very young, she had to decide which route she was going to go — towards dance, or towards combat and a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
She opted for the latter, but incorporated the former into her lithe, fluid motions.
“I was going to be a taekwondo fighter, but at the same time my mom wanted me to be very elegant and beautiful,” she says. “My mom, she made me that. In taekwondo back then, I’d have my ballerina leggings on under my taekwondo pants. I’d take those off and go straight to the competition for the dance team. That’s how it was…I choose taekwondo because I can’t live a day of my life without martial arts.”
Fast-forward to when she was 14 years old, and had already wowed the taekwondo circuit into paying close attention to her whereabouts. That’s when Valerie was preparing for the Olympic qualifier, giving herself fully to martial arts, and ready to do the family proud by representing the country. That’s when the mettle and resolve that she had pursued through the martial arts found her through the stark reality of daily life.
“One day we noticed my mom, she wasn’t doing well,” she says. “I had to learn how to drive on my way to taking her to the hospital. We found out she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, 90 percent developed in her bone marrow. That really changed our life. We’d never really had a trauma like that.”
That’s when Valerie took the first solid blow on her chin. As a teenager, she had to turn into a kind of surrogate mother for her sisters, and emerge as a caretaker for her mother. The Olympics? You don’t look back on the rounds you lost. You make sure you win the next one.
“She had her first aggressive chemo, and maybe three weeks later she relapsed. That’s when they told us, if she doesn’t have a bone marrow transplant, she’s not going to make it. Her blood was rejecting all the transfusions.
“With my dad busy, it was me and my two sisters — it was me at 14 years old, I had to learn how to raise my sisters. My little sister was like six at the time. That matured me as a woman. I had to step up and be the head for my family, because my dad was with my mom the whole time. That held me back a lot on the Olympic qualifier, because I couldn’t compete anymore.”
Mily, a teacher for disabled children by day, was in need of help. Valerie, the eldest daughter and grounded in the discipline that had been instilled in her throughout her whole life, dug her heels in and did what had to be done. She sacrificed for her family, and put her dreams on hold.
“We were blessed to find a donor,” she says. “She had the bone marrow transplant, and my mom’s a survivor of that. That happened in June 2016. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t survive that, and most of them relapse. But thank God it’s been two years and my mom, she’s still healthy. She does have problems with different parts of her body because of so much aggressive chemo, and she’s actually undergoing radiation right now on her thyroid. But, with the grace of God, we’re all able to stay really close together and my mom has survived it.”
Her mom will be at her debut on Feb. 15 at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, when Valerie embarks on her new adventure.
It’s been a year-and-a-half since Valerie made the transition to MMA. She never really watched it growing up, but happened to catch UFC 213 — the night of the first clash between Yoel Romero and Robert Whittaker — and had an epiphany. “I was at a sports bar, and something in my heart just told me, ‘Valerie, you could do that, you could fight like that, and change the world,’” she says. She understood right away that MMA gave equal shine to the women as it did the men, and that some of the women had gone on to become icons in martial arts.
And so she sought out a gym.
At first it was in Miami. She took a pair of amateur fights, two months apart, drawing even in those matchups, winning one and losing one. In the first one, she got a feel for the whole experience, the feeling of limitless possibility. The second one, she already began to learn she was a natural wrestler, taking the fight to the ground instinctively and at will.
“My debut as an amateur was the best experience of my life, because I felt free as a martial artist, and I felt very comfortable,” she says. “I thought, I’ve found my niche. In taekwondo there was always something more I felt I needed, and MMA it’s all in there for me.”
Before her third fight, she wanted to surround herself with the best people she could to help expedite her training towards becoming a pro fighter. She left Florida International University and enrolled to finish online, and relocated from Miami to Coconut Creek, the headquarters of American Top Team. In September, Loureda fought Hannah Jackson in her last tune-up amateur fight. She won a decision.
Two months later, Bellator approached her with a contract. The taekwondo master and mega-watt prospect had a home.
“Honestly, to me, it still blows my mind that I’ll get paid to do this,” she says. “For me it’s never been about money. My manager sent me my contract, and I was like wait, what? I forget because to me this has always been about passion. I’m one of the most passionate people. It’s been about the legacy that I believe that my dad passed onto me, that’s made me a well-rounded female in every aspect. So, to me it’s never been about money. It’s been about my glory and really proving myself as a martial artist.”
Loureda doesn’t yet know who she’ll face on Feb. 15 in Uncasville. She just knows that she feels ready. Her father believes she’s ready. And so do her coaches at ATT. She has been training “three and four times a day” for the last couple of months, cramming in the other disciplines — the grappling, the jiu-jitsu, the scrambling, the clinch game, all of it — so that she can hit the ground running. Does it bother her that people are so dismissive of taekwondo as a relevant discipline in a mixed martial arts cage?
Master Loureda says no, not at all.
But then again, you know…she wants to prove them wrong.
“Taekwondo has never been relevant in MMA, and it’s always been looked upon as nothing beneficial to the sport,” she says. “People are like, oh taekwondo fighters, they get taken down, there are too many kicks, all of that, that taekwondo is just two minutes instead of five minutes.
“But if you really analyze it, taekwondo is the best base you can have in MMA. I believe that putting in my style people have noticed how taekwondo is efficient in MMA, and they’re trying to copy it. Now everybody wants to learn spin kicks, and now everybody wants to learn how to ax kick. Those are all ideas I’ve had in my head because I know they work. I’ve been doing them my whole life. It’s just the right person to come in and demonstrate it.”
The first thing Loureda did when she got some money was buy her mom a pair of tickets to a Miami Dolphins game a couple of weeks back. Her mom is a diehard Dolphins fan, and always wanted to go. That was the first gift. The second one comes on Feb. 15, the night after Valentine’s Day. That’s the night her father — who is celebrating the 33rd anniversary of his school — will be in her corner, along with her ATT faction, for her pro debut. And her mother, who is still going strong two years after the transplant, will see her daughter in a new light.
That of being a mixed martial artist.
“When I started MMA, it was a whole different story,” Valerie says. “Imagine she’s watching me in a cage, my face bruised, training with so many men in a male-dominated industry. It’s very hard for a mother to see that. To this day when she goes to my fights, she’ll go but she’ll be in a corner. You won’t even know that she’s my mom because she’ll be hiding. She knows how passionate I am about it, because I tell her, ‘Momma, I train everyday to help change our life because you deserve it.’”
But when Valerie spots her mother sitting there at Mohegan Sun, she’ll know that her first fight is borne of the one they shared together. That all of it was leading somewhere, all the tournaments and the discipline and all the dreams realized — and even those curtailed due to circumstance — will have come to mean something.
“My mom, I owe her my life for making me into a well-rounded woman,” Valerie says. “I want to make her happy. That’s my biggest thing right now, to see my mom happy, because she’s been through a lot.”