Thailand’s Lookboonmee caps historic UFC debut with win

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The bright lights of the Octagon never appeared to be an option for Loma Lookboonmee. But the Thai fighter, born Konklak Suphisara in 1996 in the town of Buriram, knew at an early age that combat sports were nevertheless her ticket out of poverty.

On Saturday at Singapore Indoor Stadium, Lookboonmee became the first fighter from Thailand to step into the Octagon. Her opponent, however, was no pushover — and Alexandra Albu herself was making history as UFC’s first female fighter from Moldova. The strawweight bout would go the distance; judges Mark Collett and Pawel Harasim gave all three rounds to Lookboonmee, while Barry Foley sided with Albu.

Lookboonmee’s victory was a testament to how hard she has fought to get to this point.

“My opponent was very strong and very good,” an emotional Lookboonmee said through an interpreter after the bout. “It means a lot to me, but I would not be here if not for the support of so many people.

“I’m proud and happy, but I’m not overly excited about my performance. I felt a little bit slow, and I wasn’t as active as I wanted to be in the Octagon. For the next fight, I’m going to be doing a lot more fitness, because I’m the only female fighter in UFC without a six-pack.”

Lookboonmee’s story is similar to the ones heard often from fighters all over the region. Agriculture powered the economy in Buriram — located about 410 kilometers northeast of Bangkok — but Lookboonmee had other plans. She wanted to compete in Muay Thai, just as her father did. Lacking money, she trained with whatever equipment her family could put together. She wore old gloves that were probably too big for her tiny frame and used pillows as strike pads.

With speed as her best asset, she improved under the tutelage of her father. When she ran out of girls to fight, she took on boys and beat them too.

Lookboonmee would amass nine Muay Thai national championships and won a gold medal at the 2018 IFMA World Championship. With nothing left to prove in her country’s most famous sport, she transitioned to MMA and found her way to the Tiger Muay Thai Gym under coach George Hickman.

She fought in her first amateur match just a few weeks later, and took on her first pro bout less than a year into her MMA introduction. Lookboonmee scored back-to-back decisions in Invicta FC and Pancrase to start her career, then lost her third match via armbar to compatriot Suwanan Boonsorn in November 2018 in Bangkok. After securing a rebound decision over Monique Adriane, she was ready to make history.

From the start Saturday, Lookboonmee showed off her superior striking skills against Albu. She worked beautifully on the clinch, landing knees and elbows, and bloodying up Albu rather quickly. Albu didn’t appear quite sure what struck her in the first round. She resorted to grabbing Lookboonmee’s top repeatedly in an attempt to gain an advantage or perhaps to slow the onslaught.

It was more of the same in the second and third rounds, though Lookboonmee had to endure a nervous moment near the end of the match when she found herself grounded by her more seasoned opponent. However, Lookboonmee managed to stay out of trouble until the final buzzer for the split decision.

“My opponent was amazing,” Lookboonmee said. “I want to say thank you and congratulate her, I was really impressed by her. My next fight is going to be better.”

With her first UFC win in tow, the pressure on Lookboonmee is now alleviated. However, she is also aware that she is now fighting for other young girls in Thailand who dream of helping their families overcome poverty through sheer will and determination — be it inside a ring or in the Octagon.

“I’m so happy to be in UFC,” she said.

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