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MMA: Setbacks only motivate Haga

What should have been a victory in the cage was ruled a defeat. Celine Haga fought back.

Out of the cage, she lost again. And again.

But Haga is still fighting back, starting Saturday night at Isleta Resort & Casino.

Haga, an Oslo, Norway native who lives in Albuquerque, studies at UNM and trains for MMA at Jackson-Wink, made news in her chosen sport some 16 months ago.

It was not, exactly, the kind of news she wanted to make.

On an Invicta FC card in Kansas City in January 2017, Haga put Amy Montenegro to sleep with a choke hold as time expired in the third and final round — but lost the fight by decision because referee Greg Franklin failed to note that Montenegro was unconscious before the horn sounded.

Haga filed an appeal with the Missouri Office of Athletics, to no avail. She filed suit in the Missouri judiciary, but the court found in the commission’s favor.

A victory over Montenegro would have improved Haga’s record to 11-13. More important, she’d have been 6-1 since revitalizing her career at Jackson-Wink.

Instead, the loss to Montenegro, and to the commission and the courts, left her at 10-14. At 11-13 and riding a wave, she believes she might have gotten a tryout for the UFC’s The Ultimate Fighter.

“It’s tough, because I already had a really mixed record,” Haga said Wednesday at a news conference held in advance of Saturday’s Jackson-Wink/Fresquez Productions card at Isleta. “I was on a good winning streak, and in MMA a win is one step forward and a loss is two steps back.”

Haga and Montenegro, though, weren’t done. In July, the two faced each other at the Eddie Bravo Invitational Brazilian jiujitsu tournament in Los Angeles. Haga won by rear naked choke — in overtime.

Revenge was not so sweet, at least not sweet enough.

“I got the rematch and I beat her, but it’s not the same,” Haga said. “I do want the rematch in MMA, but she didn’t want to accept it, twice now, so I just have to move on, I guess.”

Moving on, after 16 months of fight after fight falling through, begins Saturday. Haga, a strawweight (115 pounds), is scheduled to face North Carolina fighter Hannah Cifers (6-2).

Of Cifers, she said, “I think she’s well-rounded, basically a striker. But I don’t focus too much on her strengths. She’s not going to show me something I haven’t seen before.

“I’m training with some of the best grapplers and strikers and wrestlers in the world, so I’m not concerned.”

Haga, 33, is nothing if not well traveled.

Debuting in MMA in 2009, she fought exclusively in Japan for the next five years — compiling a 5-12 record. Her only real skill, she said, was grappling.

“I really didn’t have any striking (skills),” she said. “That’s kind of the reason I wanted to come here, because I’d seen Holly (Holm), Michelle Waterson and Julie Kedzie, and I was so amazed by their performances.”

Holm, who took time from preparation for her June 9 UFC fight in Chicago against Megan Anderson to attend Wednesday’s news conference, recalled not knowing what to think of the new arrival when Haga first came to Jackson-Wink in 2013.

“It was like, is this person going to be around for a while, or is she just kind of in it for no reason? Is she just trying to prove something?” Holm said.

And now?

“Celine is one of my favorite people that have come into the gym, for sure,” Holm said. “She came from a huge losing streak, a lot of losses and nobody giving her opportunities. I would say nine of ten fighters would be broken from that, blaming everybody else.

“Instead, she’s the type that just said, ‘Well, I’m gonna change that. … She inspires me, actually, a lot.”

Haga’s life in Albuquerque has not been easy.

A full-time student at UNM in sports psychology, she supports herself with money from a scholarship in Norway. She helps clean the Jackson-Wink gym at night to pay for her training.

“I still don’t have a car,” she said. “I get around everywhere on my bike. But I’m doing the best out of it.”

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