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Liz Carmouche reacts to unexpected trilogy with Juliana Velasquez, unsure if she’s still Bellator champ

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Liz Carmouche had mixed feelings when she found out Bellator sold to PFL.

When the sale completed, Carmouche was barely a month removed from her third straight title defense as Bellator flyweight champion. She anxiously awaited her next assignment, but rather than moving forward in the new version of Bellator, the 40-year-old veteran shifted to the PFL to join the upcoming season-long tournament that kicks off Thursday.

“The excitement, the potential, especially for a female, to make the most money you could ever make in your career, that was super exciting,” Carmouche told MMA Fighting about her move to PFL. “To have another belt in another promotion. Again, really excited.

“But also wanting to defend the belt that I earned and have a chance to keep going on and having successful title defenses — I’ve talked to other fighters like Ilima [Lei-Macfarlane] who discussed the idea of having a season and knowing when you’re going to fight, to be able to get another belt, just sounded so exciting.”

As part of the PFL season, Carmouche could potentially compete four times in 2024, which would serve as her most active year since debuting with six fights in 2010. Adding in the $1 million prize awarded to the winner at the end of the season was also a welcome bonus.

But what about her Bellator title?

Truth be told, even Carmouche has no idea about that question.

“I don’t know either,” Carmouche said with a laugh. “My answer is we’re both still in limbo. It’s weird, but at the same time it’s kind of fun. You get a clean slate every year. I treat every title defense like it’s not my belt and I’m going for that belt every single time, so this legitimately is exactly what I’m doing. I don’t have to pretend and tell myself that.”

If her unknown status as Bellator champion wasn’t confusing enough, Carmouche also found out she’ll be kicking off the 2024 PFL season with a familiar foe as her first opponent.

Rather than pit her up against any of the other fighters in the tournament, Carmouche was matched up with ex-Bellator champ Juliana Velasquez, who she’s already faced and defeated twice.

“[I was] 150 percent surprised,” Carmouche said of her reaction to the booking. “I thought it was going to be Taila Santos. To me, she seems to be the most dangerous person in there, she’s probably going to be my first-round matchup. Great, let’s get the toughest one out at the beginning and then we can kind of go in order backward. Then. for whatever reason, not having seen Velasquez fight since our last fight, she just didn’t even go on my radar as a possibility of being in the tournament. Of course she is, but I just didn’t think about it.

“So [they told me] ‘it’s going to be Velasquez,’ and [I said], ‘What, no, I think that you got that wrong. What?’ It’s not who I thought it was going to be.”

As tough as it was to understand the logic behind the matchmaking, Carmouche promises she’s found plenty of motivation to beat Velasquez for a third time.

“She feels like — and a lot of people feel like — that first fight was controversial and that she didn’t actually lose it,” Carmouche said. “I don’t see how when you don’t move your head and you don’t do any defense and you get elbowed with one minute left, I don’t see how that’s not a loss. Then the second one, without a doubt [I won]. To me, that just makes her that much more dangerous.

“To me, at this point, she’s willing to do anything to get a win, to get back in the win column and advance in the tournament. Even if it’s something illegal. If anything, as much as that isn’t the one I expected or the one I wanted, to me she and Taila Santos are the two most dangerous people in this tournament in this moment.”

Carmouche also acknowledges that fighters are notoriously their own worst critics. so there’s always room for improvement. Even with two wins over Velasquez — one by TKO and one by submission — Carmouche expects to do better when they meet again on Thursday.

“Even when I beat [Kana] Watanabe and it was a matter of 37 seconds, something like that, I still was not happy with how I performed,” Carmouche said. “Yes, I beat her and it was a quick and easy finish, but technically-wise, I was not happy with my performance. Same thing with Velasquez. Our first time, I feel like I gave her too much respect and let her kind of instill her way, and I wasn’t happy with how it went down and that there weren’t any doubts. I wish I broke her face, sliced her open, and then we’d have no doubts. That second fight, there’s technical things that look super sloppy that I wasn’t happy with.

“Opportunity No. 3, I get to clean that up. Would I much prefer a challenge of somebody I’ve never faced before and doing something different? Absolutely. But again, when I know that she’s looking to get to that $1 million, it’s not just a third rematch. It’s a rematch to get to a million dollars.”

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