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Bellator 206: Zimmerman vs Melendez

By Brett Auten | Knuckle Junkies

They say opportunity only knocks once and if that's the case, Dakota Zimmerman didn't hesitate to answer.

When news broke that the 22-year-old Zimmerman was added to Saturday's stacked Bellator 206 main card to fight Keri Melendez (2-0), many in the St. Louis mixed martial arts scene were left scratching their heads. Zimmerman (1-1 in her amateur MMA career) had been making headlines but as an up-and-coming jiu-jitsu player, not a cage fighter. In fact, it has been over three years since she competed inside the cage.

Fortune favors the brave and when a promotion like Bellator comes calling and offers up the opportunity to fight on the main card of its biggest card of the year, you don't hesitate.

Melendez is 12-years Zimmerman's senior and she won her debut in November 2016. Melendez, the wife of UFC featherweight and former Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez, had a nearly two-year layoff before she returned at Bellator 201 in June to earn a first-round submission win over Tiana Valle.

“I'm being used as a stepping stone but in all reality, they don't know me,” Zimmerman said. “They don't know how hard we push. I'm not just a Facebook fighter. I've put in more time over this past year than most do in a lifetime. Regardless of the outcome, it's not going to be easy for her.”

Zimmerman is more than a one-trick pony. While her on-the-mat exploits are noteworthy, she also won the 2018 St. Louis Golden Gloves Tournament at 119-pounds.

“It will be a battle of her tools versus my tools,” Zimmerman said. “My mindset has been not that I can win but that I will win. We train to win not just to do good.”

Jiu-jitsu is where she rebuilt her spirit after tragedy shook her family to the bone.

In 2016, and unknown to those close to her and the family, Cheryl Zimmerman, Dakota's mother, had a ruptured brain aneurysm and she became sick and after a few days was taken to the hospital, where she passed away. Dakota eventually found her way into Kirk Huff's Arnold BJJ. Huff was a decorated amateur fighter who shined in all forms of combat sports; MMA, Muay Thai, kickboxing, boxing, and jiu-jitsu. Huff turned pro in 2013 and shortly after honed his focus on growing Arnold BJJ and also he also became an assistant wrestling coach at Fox High School.

“When I went through that low period, I kind of lost myself a little bit and lost that part of me, Kirk helped bring that back inside of me and really light that fire, change my mentality to be more determined and, as he would say, more relentless,” Zimmerman told Dave Benson of the Leader newspaper. “Arnold Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is what made me stay. I felt welcomed by everyone.”

Zimmerman has been a road dog, dedicated to competition. For the last 12 months, she has found a jiu-jitsu tournament somewhere and anywhere and has a stockpile of gold medals to show for it. In May at Long Beach State University in California, Zimmerman won the world title in the adult female light-feather division at the International Brazilian Jiu-jitsu Federation Novice Championship. Zimmerman didn’t allow a single point in any of her four matches, which all ended by submission, including an armbar to defeat Mayara Diaz of Modesto, Calif., to capture the title.

“In all honesty, I was kind of teetering on not doing MMA again,” Zimmerman said. “I was frustrated with a lot of aspects and I was having so much success in BJJ. But when Bellator reached out to Kirk I thought that was a sign telling me that I have a lot of potential. It was the spark that re-lit the fuel for MMA.”

Bellator 206 takes place Saturday at the SAP Center in San Jose, CA. The main card streams on DAZN and kicks off at 9 p.m. CT.

The Bellator 206 main card looks like:

Champ Gegard Mousasi vs. Rory MacDonald – for middleweight title
Quinton Jackson vs. Wanderlei Silva
Andrey Koreshkov vs. Douglas Lima – welterweight grand prix opening round
Leandro Higo vs. Aaron Pico
Keri Melendez vs. Dakota Zimmerman

“In reality, I have nothing to lose,” Zimmerman said. “I'm young. I have a lot ahead of me no matter how this fight plays out. I understand that this is an amazing opportunity but at the same time, I can't let that affect the way I perform. The platform doesn't matter. It's not anything else other than just another fight. We treat the nerves like it's a campfire. You let it keep you warm at night but you don't let it take over and destroy the whole camp.”

Graphic courtesy of Bellator MMA