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Saturday night in Melbourne, Australia, Valerie Letourneau will step into the Octagon to challenge Joanna Jedrzejczyk for the UFC strawweight title in the co-main event of UFC 193.
A sizeable underdog, few expected the French-Canadian veteran to be the next challenger for the title when this bout was announced in early September, just a couple weeks after Letourneau defeated the previously unbeaten Maryna Moroz in Saskatoon to run her UFC record to 3-0. Most anticipated Brazilian contender Claudia Gadelha to rematch Jedrzejczyk, given that she’d picked up a win over highly touted Jessica Aguilar at UFC 190 and she dropped a razor-thin split decision to the current champion last December.
But an injury to Gadelha opened the door for Letourneau, who looks to become the third Canadian to hold UFC gold and put herself on the short list of fighters responsible for the greatest upsets of all-time.
The first two Canucks to wear the UFC title both came in the welterweight division with Carlos Newton defeating Pat Miletich at UFC 31 on May 4, 2001 and Georges St-Pierre enjoying two runs atop the 170-pound weight class, first winning the belt from long-time champion Matt Hughes – who actually won the belt from Newton, before losing it to BJ Penn and defeating St-Pierre for the title after Penn vacated the belt – and the second starting at UFC 83 when he gained a measure over revenge against Matt Serra and lasted until he opted to walk away from the sport following a split decision win over Johny Hendricks two years ago at UFC 167.
While there have been other Canadians to fight for UFC gold – Mark Hominick lost to Jose Aldo at UFC 129, Patrick Cote lost to Anderson Silva at UFC 90 – Letourneau is the first female from north of the border to challenge for a title in the biggest promotion in the sport. If she manages to hand Jedrzejczyk the first loss of her career and unseat her as champion, the single mother and pioneering Canadian female fighter will join Serra and reigning UFC bantamweight champion as major championship underdogs who walked out of the cage with gold around their waist.
Win or lose, Letourneau’s arrival at this point is a testament to her perseverance, having started her professional career in 2007 when regional promotions in Canada were sparse and opportunities for female athletes were even more scarce. She suffered early setbacks to future standouts Sarah Kaufman and Alexis Davis and endured long layoffs between bouts, her record sitting at 4-3 following a split decision loss to the aforementioned Gadelha before coming up short in her bid to make it into the house on Season 18 of The Ultimate Fighter.
She’s unbeaten since then, rattling off four consecutive victories, including three straight in the UFC to end up as the right person in the right place at the right time, except she has to share the cage with a dominant, dangerous force on Saturday in Jedrzejczyk, who has blistered Carla Esparza and Jessica Penne in her last two outings to win and defend the strawweight title and become a burgeoning superstar in the organization.
Will Letourneau pull off the upset and become the third Canadian – and first Canadian women – to win UFC gold? We’ll find out on Saturday night at UFC 193.