Jessica-Rose Clark wants an Aussie victory on biggest stage

Jessica-Rose Clark Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Having lost money by taking fights to further her MMA career, Jessica-Rose Clark cannot hide her excitement as she prepares for a shot at Australian combat sports history.

The Queenslander will face American Paige VanZant on the UFC Fight Night St Louis card on January 14, and the bout, her biggest fight to date, is just reward for her split-decision victory over Bec Rawlings at UFC Fight Night Sydney in November.

Reflecting on that victory in Sydney, Clark spoke of the added satisfaction the triumph had given her, opening up on the beaming smile she wore post bout despite 15 exhausting minutes of hand-to-hand combat.

"Obviously it is a big turning point because up until that fight, every time I did compete I was left in negative [ground] financially; it cost me more to fight than what I was actually making," Clark tells ESPN.

"Having my first fight in the UFC, even with the penalty for missing weight, has just changed a lot of things. I can finally pay my bills and then have a bit to spare. But honestly it's just elation at everything. I was happy to win, I was happy that I got to beat Bec, I was happy that I was in Sydney. I love what I do so much that even when I lose fights I'm still pretty happy because I still get to do what I love doing."

Originally a kick-boxer by trade, Clark has had to broaden her arsenal since taking up the sport, essentially by accident. And just as it is with many other of the female fighters in the UFC, it's the "rawness" of the sport which she finds so appealing.

"I started kick-boxing," Clark tells ESPN. "I was power-lifting with an ex-boyfriend and he'd been kick-boxing at the time. He took me into his gym to do some cardio to lose weight for a power-lifting meet, and I was just hooked straight away from day one.

"It's only been seven or eight years from when I was in my early 20s, so I never did it as a kid or anything; but from day one I just loved it. But I hated grappling. I didn't grapple for two years. Even after I had my first MMA fight I'd barely done any grappling.

"But as I'm progressing in the sport, I've developed more of a love for the overall game; I'm still a kick-boxer at heart but I do just really enjoy the rawness of MMA in general."

Clark will have to be at her best on the ground against VanZant, whom she says is "pretty tough, pretty scrappy" and a natural grappler. And then there's the chance to become the first Australian woman to win a UFC fight on American soil.

"Yeah, absolutely, for sure," Clark says when asked about the motivation and desire to raise the profile of sport for women Down Under.

"The Aussie female fighters already have a pretty good reputation anyway; we're all known as being tough and scrappy. But we haven't had the best success fighting internationally. It will be good to get that win and hopefully change the tide for the Aussie women."

Clark's fight in Sydney was an all-Australian showdown that saw the local crowd offer support to both her and Rawlings, but she is not at all concerned by a potentially hostile pro-American welcome in St Louis.

"It doesn't really matter who's there," she says.

"I have had a few fights where I'm not the favourite. I've never been booed or anything, but I know when I get there all I can hear is my coach anyway; I'm all about being in the moment.

"I'm not worried about it at all. I don't think I have the sort of personality that people actually 'hate me, hate me', either. I don't see it as being an overly negative thing. The response online has all been pretty positive so far so I think that will carry over."