UFC's Next Aussie Champ? 22-Year-Old Chelsea Hackett Dreams BigNovember 16, 2020
Australia's Chelsea Hackett has yet to set foot in the UFC's Octagon, but the people closest to her believe she will follow in the footsteps of Alexander Volkanovski and Robert Whittaker and bring a world title back to the land Down Under.
The 22-year-old flyweight will look to take a big step toward meeting those expectations on Tuesday, when she battles Victoria Leonardo on Dana White's Contender Series—with a UFC contract on the line.
Hackett, an experienced striker with an expansive collection of muay thai titles, will step into the cage on the promotion with a 3-0-1 mark in MMA. While the pressure to perform is at an all-time high, the level-headed prospect is ready for the challenge ahead.
"I feel great," she told Bleacher Report not long after arriving in Las Vegas, where she'll imminently attempt to earn a UFC contract. "I feel switched-on. This camp has definitely been the best to date."
In Leonardo, a 7-2 veteran of the Invicta FC cage, Hackett will battle a significantly more experienced mixed martial artist with an edge in the grappling department, at least on paper.
The Australian striker is aware of what her opponent brings to the table and is cognizant of the things she needs to be careful of in the cage, but she is brimming with confidence nonetheless.
"Victoria is really experienced," Hackett said. "She's coming over from Invicta, which is a super-high level female MMA show over here, so she's definitely got credentials.
"I expect her to bring her A-game, and I want her to, but at the end of the day, it really doesn't matter who I'm fighting. She's just a dance partner to show what I've got—especially in front of Dana White."
Hackett's confidence can be attributed, at least in part, to her training. She has always been a workhorse in the gym, and ahead of her fight on Contender Series, she ramped things up even further by enlisting the help of one of Australia's most accomplished female fighters: Bec Rawlings.
Rawlings, who previously competed in Invicta, the UFC, and Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, is a member of the Bellator MMA roster and was a crucial part of Hackett's preparation for Contender Series.
Hackett is grateful to have trained with a woman she considers a legend, but the feeling of gratitude and admiration is mutual.
"Her quality is great," Rawlings told Bleacher Report. "She matches the sparring I get at [Alliance MMA] in San Diego.
"Her striking is amazing," she added. "She's learned the grappling very quickly. She picks things up really well. I just pointed out a few things that she could work on when we were grappling and wrestling, and then the next sparring session she had applied them. She's a very quick learner.
"There's no holes in her game that I could find. She's very, very hard to deal with."
Having put in the work with Rawlings, Hackett is feeling good about her chances of winning a UFC contract on Contender Series. If that's the way things shake out, it will justify every bruise and black eye she's sustained in the gym and all of the sacrifices she's made in pursuit of her goal.
"This spot is what I've been working for literally my entire life," she said. "I think back to when I started martial arts, when I was eight years old to now, when I'm a week out from the biggest fight of my life and I'm in the best shape of my life, and there's no reason for me to doubt my ability at all, because of the work that I've done.
"There's not one bit of doubt that I can take that contract home," she continued. "I'm going to have so many emotions: happy, excited, relieved and just proud—and I'll definitely be crying."
While earning a UFC contract would be the culmination of years of hard work for Hackett, it will only be the beginning of her larger journey. Once she's earned a spot on the promotion's roster, she will shift her focus to her ultimate goal, and the feat those in her inner circle view as inevitable: winning the flyweight title currently held by Valentina Shevchenko.
"People say that Contender Series is the dream, but for me, being the UFC flyweight champion is my ultimate goal," Hackett said. "If Valentina is up there for long enough, that would be a dream come true to fight her. She's a role model and she's everything I aspire to be. But the first step is next week: Win the fight, get the contract. Then I'll work through the flyweight top 15, all the way to the top."
Skeptics will undoubtedly point out that she's only competed four times as a professional MMA artist and argue that it's too early to be talking about her becoming a UFC champion, particularly in a division ruled by a fighter as dominating as Shevchenko.
If you ask the UFC featherweight champion Volkanovski, however, it's completely justifiable to forecast such things for Hackett. The featherweight king has trained with the youngster previously and was blown away by her talent.
"Not only does she have the skills as a striker—she's a high-level striker, she's been striking for years—but her explosiveness, her strength, and the power she can produce is pretty incredible," Volkanovski told Bleacher Report. "You can see it in her fights. She's very explosive and very fast, and that goes a long way in this sport.
"I definitely think she can follow my footsteps and go a long way in the sport—all the way to the title," the featherweight champion added. "I don't think it's too early to say that because she's so committed to training. She puts the hours in. That goes a long way. When you've got the talent and the skills, and then you've got the hard work and dedication behind, that can bring you to the top."
Hackett is determined to justify the confidence of fighters like Rawlings and Volkanovski by capturing the UFC flyweight belt. Her first priority, of course, is earning a place on the UFC roster with an impressive win this Tuesday, and she's dialed in on doing just that.
"[Winning the title] is my biggest goal in life and I'm going to make it happen," she said. "There's so much on the line on Tuesday, and I want Dana to see what I've got.
"I'm going to be tactical, I'm going to fight my fight, and the finish will come."