By Frank Bonada
Every so often, the world of professional combat sports becomes the stage for a thrilling collision between two emerging talents. In the spotlight at Superior Challenge 26: Legends are two former Champions of the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF), tried and tested against the very best in the world on the amateur circuit.
These individuals have already proven their worth at amateur level, having faced the world’s best and now they are set to ignite the world of professional MMA. The competitors in question are IMMAF World Cup and European Champion Cecilie Bolander and two-time IMMAF World Champion Nina Nikolija Milosevic.
Norwegian-born Cecilie Bolander was already an elite judoka before stepping into the IMMAF Fighting Area, having claimed multiple medals across several European Cups in Dubrovnik, Sarajevo and Bratislava. Bolander’s skills translated perfectly into MMA, winning her first five amateur bouts via first-round submission, and claiming gold at the 2021 IMMAF Senior World Cup in the process.
However, in the finals of the 2021 IMMAF Senior World Championships, the unstoppable force that was Cecilie Bolander came up against an immovable object, in the form of Sabrina Laurentina de Sousa of Bahrain. At the time, de Sousa was one of the most highly touted prospects competing under the IMMAF banner, having already claimed gold at the 2019 IMMAF World Championships, and defeating some of the amateur ranks’ hottest prospects, the likes of Jasmine Favero and Michelle Montague.
Ultimately, Bolander was unable to overcome de Sousa, but gave the future three-time World Champion one of her trickiest tests to date. The bout would play out as a high pace back-and-forth contest. Despite the loss, Bolander still cites the fight as one of her fondest memories during her time with IMMAF.
“The de Sousa fight was a really big personal thing for me, just because it was that kind of fight that I wanted to have as an amateur, which really tested me and literally just made my team and I more secure in the thought that we’re going to make this. Because we didn’t really know,” Bolander told IMMAF.org.
“The fighters that I met before that, and some of the fighters that I met after that, haven’t challenged me in that way. And we were really wanting to see if I was the type of fighter that was gonna flee when the challenge got too big, or if I was just gonna go forward. And obviously, you can see in the fight, I’m not doing s***. I’m like a bobblehead, taking all the jabs, having no technique. But still, like I wanted to be in the fight and it was just an amazing fight.”
The impact the bout with de Sousa had on Bolander’s career cannot be overstated. A few short months later, the talented Norwegian blazed through the 2022 IMMAF European Championships, a performance that culminated in her submitting England’s Summer Onley in a mere 31 seconds during the finals.
With two IMMAF gold medals to her name, as well as an amateur record of 7-1 marked by a 100% win-finish rate, Cecilie Bolander made the decision to go pro. Reflecting on her amateur days with IMMAF, Bolander had the following to say about making the switch:
“Obviously, your amateur career is more of getting the knowledge and the experience, just being in the cage,” the Norwegian athlete said. “I knew that I wanted a lot of it. Once I figured out that I could do several fights with you guys in a couple of days, that was a game changer for me because I wanted my career to go quick… The step you take when you go pro is just a step that you have to take. And I don’t think like, obviously, you can prepare yourself being in the cage, an amateur cage, but obviously, it’s a different game when you go pro.”
Bolander’s success has seamlessly transitioned to her professional career. She currently boasts an unblemished record of 2-0, securing both victories in the first round via armbar submission.
Challenging Bolander’s status as an undefeated professional competitor is none other than Nina Nikolija Milosevic, a two-time IMMAF World Champion, whose name resonates with excellence in the world of mixed martial arts.
At Superior Challenge 26: Legends, Milosevic will make her professional MMA debut. However, it would be unwise to underestimate the Swedish athlete due to her seemingly limited professional experience. Milosevic’s list of accolades and achievements in amateur MMA and other combat sports is nothing short of extraordinary.
Milosevic has found great success in the realms of Muay Thai and BJJ, which, when paired with a black belt in karate, provides her with an elite set of skills that are near unmatched on the amateur MMA circuit. Her results whilst competing under the IMMAF banner reflect this.
Having made her promotional debut at the 2021 IMMAF World Championships, Milosevic made an instant impact, dismantling her opposition in an impressive display of skill and determination. In the finals, Milosevic took on talented Brazilian Raiane Vinuto, who had previously triumphed over the likes of Josiane Oliveira and Faine Mesquita—both of whom would go on to become future IMMAF champions.
Yet, for Milosevic, Vinuto was merely another hurdle to surmount, a challenge she met emphatically. She secured a unanimous decision victory, clinching her first IMMAF World Championships gold medal for Sweden. In a recent interview with IMMAF, Milosevic stated that her run in the 2021 IMMAF World Championships was amongst her most fond memories from her time as an amateur:
“We were in Abu Dhabi and everything from start to finish, it just felt so professional,” Milosevic told IMMAF.org. “Like I’m in the UFC and the whole experience, like travelling to another country, living in a fancy hotel, even the arena, the stage, the lights, everything. It really felt like I could be fighting in the UFC. So that is one of my best memories and experience with IMMAF.”
In 2022, it became clear that Nina Nikolija Milosevic was one of the top European prospects on the planet. She participated in two IMMAF Championships—the 2022 Worlds and Euros—dominating each of her opponents, with each bout ending inside the distance. Notably, she notched two victories over the 2021 IMMAF European Champion, Paulina Kontna, who boasted an impressive 12-1 record at the time of their initial encounter.
Milosevic has since stated that her performance in the 2022 Championships was the result of all her years of hard work and dedication to the martial arts finally paying off:
“I’ve been a martial artist since I was a little girl. I’ve always done martial arts, whether it’s MMA or Thai boxing or karate, even karate. So I mean, after all these years with training and like learning and learning, being day in and day out in the gyms. Like I think it sums up in the cage for the last Championships.”
It came as no surprise that following the conclusion of the 2022 World Championships, Milosevic announced that she would be going pro. What did send shockwaves through the global MMA community was the identity of her debut opponent. Not since the epic showdown between Manon Fiorot and Leah McCourt at Cage Warriors 94 had two such high-profile prospects clashed so early in their careers. Interestingly, while McCourt emerged victorious that night, both fighters have since ascended to the ranks of title contention in their respective promotions, with Fiorot in the UFC and McCourt in Bellator MMA.
Now the question arises, how will this bout between amateur champions play out? Will Bolander’s elite submission skills force the tap from Milosevic? Or will Milosevic’s relentless pressure break the Norwegian Judoka down?
Cecilie Bolander is of a mind that the dynamic of the fight will not be nearly as simple, stating that she believes it will test both competitors in all aspects of mixed martial arts:
“I think it’s gonna have both striking and [standing in] the cage and on the ground like a real MMA fight. I don’t think we’re gonna be just standing, just grappling. I think we’re gonna be all over the place for real. I know she’s a fighter, I’m a fighter like to the core, so yeah it’s gonna be fire, that’s all I know, 100 percent.”
For Nina Nikolija Milosevic, she is simply looking to continue testing herself against every rising levels of competition.
She states: “The next step was to go to professionals. And also not just fighting anybody, like she’s a tough fighter. Also, it’s a good experience for me, for my martial arts arts career, it’s good to have a tough opponent so I can develop furthermore. So, I thought it would be a great opportunity to fight her. So I said yes when the opportunity arrived.”
Cecilie Bolander and Nina Nikolija Milosevic will face off this Saturday at Superior Challenge 26: Legends. Also featured on the card are a few of their fellow IMAMF alumni, such as Robin Roos, who competes for the Vacant SC middleweight title.