The year 2020 has been a nightmare for many people in the service industry. With all the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdowns, social-distancing guidelines, and general paranoia, bars, restaurants and clubs have been some of the hardest-hit businesses. In fact, Lucky Devil Lounge in Portland, Ore., even resorted to having its exotic dancers turn into a food-delivery service affectionately referred to as Boober Eats.
Exotic dancers have had it even rougher than most. Just like professional fighters, they are in the business of close-quarters contact, so social distancing makes that job virtually impossible.
Vanessa Demopoulos is all of the above. She is a longtime jiu-jitsu player, a professional fighter, and a professional dancer. All of her skills go hand-in-hand. She has flexibility, aggressiveness, agility and an overall level of body awareness that exceeds that of your average fighter.
Demopoulos opened up the year on the right foot. Roughly six months removed from her last fight, she picked up a win in the Legacy Fighting Alliance in late January. Demopoulos was hoping to get on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series in June, but the pandemic forced a change to that plan. It also put Demopoulos on hiatus from her two sources of income: stripping and fighting.
“All the clubs were shut down,” Demopoulos told Combat Press. “So, I couldn’t be a stripper, even if I wanted to. I was going out to [Las] Vegas every week to work. So, yeah, that’s done. I went out to Phoenix a few times, right as everything lifted. Arizona and Colorado were actually some of the first places to open up. So, I went out to Phoenix to dance, but that was short-lived as well.
“Stripping has always been my primary source of income. I don’t have a shit ton of sponsors, like some of these other athletes. I don’t do personal training. That’s how I make money. Since COVID happened, it’s kind of been a blessing in disguise for me. I was forced out of the industry, which really led me to be like, ‘I’m a full-time fighter, actually.’ I got to live my dream without actually knowing it was happening. Sometimes shit just happens, and you have to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Demopoulos was able to keep training on a remote basis through the use of services like Zoom, Facetime, and even Instagram Live. It is always important to stay ready as a fighter, especially as the UFC started to open back up, because bout offers started coming in fast and on short notice.
“I feel really grateful that I got to fight right at the end — right before everything happened,” Demopoulos admitted. “I had the appropriate amount of time off between fights, if you really think about it like that, but I stayed steady through the COVID. I had a feeling that once things lifted, opportunities were going to flare up everywhere. I didn’t even blink. There was probably a week there where everybody was frustrated and crazy, but, honestly, I just stayed engaged the entire time. Working out is what I love to do, so no chips on my shoulder.”
In early July, the LFA was back in business operating out of the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D. The league’s second event since its return was LFA 85, which was headlined by Demopoulos and Sam Hughes. The two ladies fought for the strawweight belt. After a three-round battle, Demopoulos was able to secure an inverted triangle choke at the midpoint of the fourth round to pick up the win.
“The fight with Sam was a heck of an awesome war,” Demopoulos said. “I love going out to battle. She was a really clean striker, which was dope to be in there with her. It felt good to go into the championship rounds and know that I have a better gas tank than even I thought I did.
“I love fighting. I’m not just some rowdy chick going out there to fight. I really love everything about this sport. I love the opportunity to go out there and fight and live my dream, but I also love the opportunity to go out there and help people live theirs. I don’t just fight for myself. I fight for everybody that needs somebody to go out there and fight for them. I’m exciting, man. I do some cool, crazy shit sometimes. No one has ever watched one of my fights and said, ‘Oh, that’s a snoozefest.’”
While it was nice to pick up the LFA title, Demopoulos was still pining for her shot at a UFC contract through the Contender Series. The day after her LFA title win, which came only three weeks ago, she got the call. Now, Demopoulos is set to take on England’s Cory McKenna as part of the second episode on the fourth season of the Contender Series, which takes place on August 11 at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas.
“As far as I knew, I was on the radar even before I fought for the LFA,” Demopoulos explained. “The Contender Series was in talks before COVID happened, but when COVID happened, everything was so up in the air [that] all of the opportunities just went out the window. I stayed training, and I stayed ready. So, then, the opportunity to fight for the LFA belt came up.”
Demopoulos’ upcoming opponent, McKenna, is 4-1 as a pro and suffered her only loss via a split decision. McKenna’s entire career has taken place in Europe. This will be her first fight on American soil, even though she has trained with Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, Calif.
Demopoulos, meanwhile, is only fighting four hours away from her home in the Los Angeles area, where she trains at Black House MMA, Saekson’s Muay Thai, and One Jiu-Jitsu.
“Cory is a Cage Warriors up-and-comer,” Demopoulos said. “Cage Warriors is like what LFA is here in the [United] States. She’s fucking tough, you know? Everybody’s tough. Like, she wouldn’t have gotten the chance to be in the Contender Series if she wasn’t. She likes to scrap. I like to scrap. Let’s go, chick. She’s young, she’s hungry, and she’s aggressive. I think it’s going to be a fucking cool fight.”
This Contender Series appearance is a huge opportunity for Demopoulos. After a crazy life that has spanned everywhere from Ohio to Greece to California, she is finally pursuing what she loves. An impressive win in front of the boss could secure her a UFC contract only two and a half years after her pro debut. As for exotic dancing, those days are likely in the rearview mirror.
“Being a stripper is always going to be one of my staples,” Demopoulos said. “Which, I’m good with. I’m cool with it. I’ve written books on it. Obviously, I own it. Cardi B is a fucking rapper. She’s not in the club no more. I’m going to be a fighter. I don’t need to be in the clubs anymore. Fighting is what I love. It’s what I’ve been working towards. I don’t need to be a stripper. It was just a fucking vehicle to get me where I wanted to go. I’m always going to give props to the industry for everything it has gotten me through.
“I’m about to walk into this cage. I’m about to do my damn thing. I’m going to fucking punch this chick in the face. I’m going to grapple a little bit. I’m going to fuck her up. I’m going to get my hand raised. I’m going to get my contract, and I’m going to let Dana know who this chick is and why I belong in the UFC.”