Just four days after her 22nd birthday, Nadia Kassem made it into an exclusive group.
Not only had she joined the world’s leading MMA promotion and been successful in her debut appearance, but she was just the second Australian woman to do it. Kassem defeated fellow Aussie Alex Chambers via unanimous decision. Now, at 23, she is one of just four Australian female fighters on the UFC roster. Despite being so young, she acknowledges the strides in her career, not merely for where she is now but because of where she started.
“I have to be proud of myself for how far I’ve come,” Kassem told EMG. “Because when I started I didn’t think I’d be any of this, and I never really wanted it or dreamt of it because I didn’t wanna have that false hope. So I never bothered having dreams when I was younger. That’s what I believed and the fact that I made it here – I didn’t expect it but it’s happened. I feel like it’s destined and I’m happy to be in this position.”
Now a 5-0 professional MMA fighter, Kassem has come a long way from the 16-year-old girl who had once prioritised hair extensions and acrylic nails over jiu-jitsu class. Though it was only 18 months after her first attempt that she was back on the mats for good.
“I just thought ‘you know what, try it again,’ and I got rid of the nails and everything, and I just loved it. It was an obsession. I was training BJJ basically every day for a few months. And then I competed in my first tournament and that’s kinda where the fuel for the fire started.”
Kassem grew up far from precious, adopting “187” – the California Penal Code reference for murder – as a moniker in her teenage years. What started off as “just a thing to say”, a byproduct of listening to a lot of rap music, eventually became synonymous with the Western Sydney prospect.
“I was very defensive growing up, so I had the attitude and that kinda stuck with me. It stuck to me as a teenager and then as I hit the gym it was there. So before I even had a fight, we had a fight name already lined up, and it was just natural. People would just call me that over my name. When someone calls me ‘Nadia’ over ‘Nads’ or ‘187’, I’m like, ‘Who are you, calling me by my government name?’”
That attitude she continues to embrace as a fighter, while understanding the importance of staying composed.
“I feel like it’s my healthy way of getting everything out, as long as I’m not emotional while I’m in there and I’m still focused and working on my strategy.”
This Sunday, that composure will be tested against American submission specialist Montana De La Rosa on the main card of UFC 234. Kassem will move up to flyweight for the bout which she decided, in part, due to missing weight in her debut by 4lbs.
“I felt, of course, embarrassed that I’d missed weight that time because it was on the world stage and as a professional you should be making weight. It’s part of your job, you get paid to do that.”
Kassem has alternated between strawweight and flyweight in her career, but in an ideal world, she’d fight somewhere in between the two.
“I’ve always said that to some of my teammates. I’m like, ‘You know what would be perfect? A 55-kilo (division),’” she said. “I can diet down to that if I could, but that extra few kilos is what kills me.”
De La Rosa (9-4) is on a two-fight win streak after submitting Rachael Ostovich and Christina Marks. She currently sits at #14 in the flyweight division which means this fight likely gives Kassem the opportunity to insert herself into the rankings with a victory. However, she’ll have to overcome a year-long layoff to do it.
Due to a spate of injuries, Kassem hasn’t fought since her debut in November 2017. A back injury forced her from a scheduled bout at UFC Singapore in June, and a deep cut to her knuckle prevented her from returning on the UFC Adelaide card in December. Eager to put those behind her and pick up where she left off, the Australian Top Team talent expects to “come back fresh” with a crowd-friendly performance.
“If anything, it’s made me feel more confident because I’ve had so much time to learn and just observe from the outside.
“I’m just trying to battle my own demons and prove to myself that I am better than I think, and put on a show, no matter what.”
UFC 234 takes place at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne this Sunday, February 10. In the main event, Australian middleweight champion Robert Whittaker will take on title challenger Kelvin Gastelum.