Justine Kish (Credit: Bellator MMA)

Justine Kish (Credit: Bellator MMA)

Justine Kish relishing next phase of career while overcoming adversity, personal loss, and joining a new home in Bellator MMA

An in-depth interview with flyweight Justine Kish about overcoming personal and professional obstacles as she moves on in her next career chapter with Bellator MMA.

Before any professional fighter steps into the cage to take on another opponent in their career, every avenue of their life both personally and professionally needs to be accounted for. For most, reaching the UFC is the mountain top and if they don’t reach star status or championship gold, the dream feels incomplete. For others, like professional flyweight Justine Kish, finding a new home outside the UFC, with Bellator MMA, was everything she needed for the next chapter of her career.

Following a two-fight skid in the UFC, Kish was released from the UFC roster and left without a home after fighting through adversity just to get back into active competition. After thriving as a teenager in Muay Thai competitions, Justine Kish found success early in her MMA career and that would lead to making her debut in the UFC at UFC 195 against Nina Nunes in 2016, a fight in which Kish won by unanimous decision. Originally scheduled to be part of The Ultimate Fighter Season 20, Kish was forced to withdraw from the tournament due to injury, a situation she would continue to face down the road.

After starting her UFC tenure with two consecutive wins, she would then drop two straight and then the injury bug struck. In an unfortunate downtime of her career, Kish would undergo her fourth knee surgery and was out of action between 2018 and 2020. Upon her return she would pick up a win over Lucie Pudilova but following the victory she dropped two straight and was released from the UFC.

In an interview with MyMMANews, the Russian-born fighter discusses overcoming personal loss, changing homes to a new promotion, and how her goal to be MMA world champion has not changed.

Kish would find her second chance with Bellator MMA who signed her to a deal in 2022 and she was set to make her promotional debut against DeAnna Bennett. After overcoming the loss of her mother, multiple losses in a row, and working her way to back to a full clean slate of health, she would admit that the road back was rough at times.

“It wasn’t just injuries, I was adopted from Russia by an amazing American family. My Dad had passed away but I still had my Mom and she was incredible, she was in her 80s and she was very, very sick and I was trying to help her. I was trying to be a caregiver, be an athlete, and go through injuries at the same time. So really, being an athlete going through a knee injury, my Mom’s sickness and her death, it was so exhausting. I just told myself ‘Don’t give up’ and obviously my performance struggled a lot. I wasn’t the fighter I was in comparison to Muay Thai and my earlier MMA fights.

I knew there was several contributing factors and I even had such a humiliating fight that put the brakes on how I perform. It took finding a certain group of people that helped me get past the mental struggles, the emotional struggles, and the physical struggles. It was a lot at once but I’m not the kind of person to give up. I’ve been fighting since I was born.

Realizing that her new opportunity is coming at the right time, Justine Kish says she knows how she wants to leave MMA when her career is over, and she wants to do so as Bellator MMA champion.

“I know the kind of exit I want in this career so I want to keep on getting after it and I’m going to say yes to everything that Bellator offers me. They’ve given me a second chance and I’m so grateful, I have a chance to be a MMA world champion. This is what I want to be. This is where I need to be. Now that I’m in a place where I know Mom is in a good place and I know her spirit is protecting me in one way or another, that’s what I feel.”

Making her Bellator MMA promotional debut against DeAnna Bennett earlier this year, Justine Kish was once again hit with adversity as the fight did not go her way as she lost by unanimous decision, it was her third straight loss. Looking deeper than her performance inside the cage, Kish said she had to dig deep and have a conversation with herself about where she was, where she wanted to be, and recalled a similar personal conversation she had when her Dad passed away.

“I have that conversation a lot with myself. Three losses in a row I was like ‘Who is going to sign me, how am I going to get back to being where I want to be?’ So when I lost to DeAnna Bennett I had that big conversation, I was like ‘Am I doing the right things? Am I in the right spot?’ Of course, you freeze and take a step back. What was my goal? My goal was to become a MMA champion and I was so honed in on the UFC but I was like no, I just want to be a MMA world champion. So I don’t know why I put so much chips into the UFC because I felt really good after being cut.

After two losses they didn’t renew my contract and I was like who’s going to take me next? I had an experience like that at a really young age, when my Dad passed away. It was a car accident and he passed away, I was six-years old when this happened and I was like ‘Man, am I going back to Russia? What’s going to happen to me? Is my new Mom going to leave me?’ Of course she didn’t, she adopted me, she loved me. I am pretty good at taking step back and looking realistically. I know this sport and I know that fighting brings out the best in me, the best and the worst. I feel if I stay on track and keep my focus to being on top, it’s going to happen one way or another.”

Given the fact that her promotional debut against Bennett did not go according to plan, Kish was once again forced to dig deep within herself and find that belief of a future world champion. She couldn’t have proven it any better to herself or the world in her next fight with Bellator MMA, when she defeated former flyweight champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane who was fighting in front of her home crowd in Hawaii. The win over Macfarlane would open the door for a rematch with Bennett at Bellator 284, a fight that Kish believes will show everyone who she truly is and that she belongs at the top of the flyweight division.

“Bellator, It’s amazing because they understood that it wasn’t my best fight when I had my debut. I told my manager, please tell Bellator not to give up on me. Next thing you know, they gave me the No. 1 contender and then my team was like ‘We can do this’ and I was like, of course we can, yeah we got it. Nothing against the UFC, they treated me well, but I never got the momentum that Bellator is giving me now. I am grateful, I’m going to give them my freakin’ best. When I lost to DeAnna, I was like ‘Man I hope Bellator doesn’t regret signing me. I hope they don’t think I don’t belong here’ cause I do, I do belong here.”

While social media, critics, and other promotions felt that Justine Kish may not have belonged on the big stage, a battle to prove the critics wrong was the easy fight for her. Now home with Bellator MMA and armed with an opportunity to once again right a wrong in her career, Kish plans to make the most of her rematch against DeAnna Bennett, position herself atop the flyweight division, with her sights set on becoming world champion.

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Mike Pendleton
Mike Pendleton is a current contributor to MyMMANews while also hosting his "On The Mic" podcast and is a former Associate Producer at Sirius XM's Fight Nation. With a special passion for interviewing and talking to the very best around the fight game, you can read or listen to Mike's work across his multiple outlets. Follow me on Twitter: @MP2310