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Marloes Coenen already has the best title she could ever want

Photo: Josh Hedges/Forza LLC/Forza LLC via Getty Images/SI

Marloes Coenen (left) traces her resolve to grandparents who helped save countless Jews in the Netherlands.

Tale of the Tape: Marloes Coenen vs. Cris Santos
Invicta 6, July 13, 2013, Kansas City, for the Inaugural Invicta Featherweight title belt
Marloes Coenen vs. Cris Santos
21-5 Record 11-0
32 Age 28
5'9" Height 5'8"
67.5" Reach 69.0"
Submission Style Striking
Pro's Take: "Stylistically, you've got power versus precision. Marloes, her striking is very crisp; it's very calculated. Cyborg's style is to overwhelm people. Because of their first encounter, Marloes has worked on her strength training. She understands the power that Cyborg brings to the table because she's experienced it. I also think that Cyborg's technique has improved quite a bit since their first fight." -- Julie Kedzie, Invicta color commentator and UFC bantamweight fighter

When Marloes Coenen arrives at the Dutch nursing home after her Invicta featherweight title fight on Saturday, the old woman she plans to visit most likely will not ask her about her fight. Or her about her opponent, the one they call Cyborg. Or even about the shiny, gold belt her granddaughter has trained for months to wrap around her waist. But the old woman is almost guaranteed to lean over as her granddaughter takes her seat and ask, "Have you brought over any of those popcorn-flavored jelly beans back from America?"

At first glance, Marloes and her grandmother, Katharina, bear little resemblance. But once the granddaughter settles in and the two begin speaking at any one of Marloes' frequent visits, it's clear that they share the same sense of humor, ethics and -- when grandma breaks into the story she once kept hidden and now repeats almost every time Marloes visits -- the very same strength.

***

Emst, Netherlands, 1940

Katharina and Willem were married but still childless on May 10, 1940 when the Nazi forces parachuted into the Netherlands. As the occupation unfolded, Nazi decrees banned Dutch Jews from working in the government to riding bikes to shopping in stores without placards in the window reading, Jewish Shop. The more Anti-Jewish the decrees, the more Anti-Nazi the Coenens became, often slinking off to the join the burgeoning Dutch resistance movement at underground meetings. Most of the dissenters offered their time, their food, and their bravery—being associated with the resistance meant an almost certain death for helping the nearly 160,000 Jews registered within the Dutch borders. But Willem brought another skill set to the movement: Jujitsu. Years before the Axis forces broke the dams and flooded the streets of his homeland, Willem had seen an ad in a Dutch newspaper for the martial art. He'd studied the basics and taught his ideological counterparts how to roll an attacking German solider or fend off one of their punches. Peace, Willem knew, sometimes required knowing how to fight.

Olst, Netherlands, 1993

The woods where Jews in the Netherlands would sometimes hide to find safety from the Germans were like the same woods where 12-year-old Marloes felt danger from strangers. All of her friends for the neighborhood elected to attend schools in other areas. That left Marloes alone, on her bike, cutting through the thick of the forest in the dark and frigid Dutch mornings, her only pathway to school. The young Marloes shuddered every time she heard about people talking about the strange men who sought cover in the thicket of the woods where she rode her bike. Perhaps another girl would have found another way to school. But Marloes was Willem's and Katharina's granddaughter, which meant she had a better idea: Peace of mind, she figured, sometimes meant learning how to fight.

Emst, Netherlands c. 1941

Like most fights, the Coenens' started with a few opening moves in their battle against the Nazis. The couple slaughtered animals on their rural estate to provide food for the Jewish people seeking shelter in the pastoral Eastern province they called home. But they couldn't escape a gnawing feeling: There had to be more they could do.

Photo: Courtesy of Huub Coenen

Katharina and Willem Coenen on their wedding day, 80 years ago.

Deventer, Netherlands, 1999

Six years after the little girl afraid to ride her bike through the woods discovered her grandfather's sport, jujitsu, Marloes entered the ring for the first amateur Shooto fight in Europe. The jujitsu trainer she found to help give her the confidence to ride through the woods alone, Martin de Jong, had fought in the Shooto, the Japanese mixed martial arts organization, and became its European president. Marloes didn't know much about Shooto, MMA or even competitive fighting, for that matter, but when the round started, de Jong saw she possessed a virtue far more powerful: Instinct. "She punched the girl in the nose and somehow, the girl went down and she followed up with an armbar," he recalls. As her opponent lay bloodied on the ground after a mere 20 seconds into the fight, Marloes went back to her corner, where she kept asking a teammate, "Did I win? Did I win?" Her hand raised in the air, Marloes couldn't escape a gnawing feeling: There had to be more she could do.

Emst, Netherlands, c. 1942

The men of the village were all gone. The Arbeitseinsatz, the conscripted service of all men ages 18 to 45 in German factories, stole Willem away from Katharina for the second time. He'd managed to escape before and Katharina had faith that he would manage to do so again. But, in the meantime, the cows needed milking. Not just the Coenen's cows but those up and down their rural route. Katharina, it turned out, was the only woman strong enough to tug the milk from the cows' udders. Milking the cows had always been men's work.

Miami, 2010

Marloes knew it from the first punch Cris "Cyborg" Santos landed in their January 2010 inaugural matchup for the Strikeforce featherweight title. "I felt like I was hit by a guy of 176 pounds," Marloes says. She endured longer than most, going 3 minutes, 40 seconds into the third round when referee Jorge Ortiz waved his arms across his chest, signaling the end of the bout. "It was completely survival for me but I didn't give up ... After that fight, I'd really proved to myself that I'm a true fighter."

Before the Cyborg fight, she's bounced around promotions with names like Smackgirl and ReMix, or any other promoter willing to put women on the cards. She'd met with Dutch bureaucrats who worried about putting women in the cage. But in October 2010, after dropping from featherweight to bantamweight, she hoisted the Strikeforce belt in the air after a third-round submission over Sarah Kaufman. Fighting, she would show the naysayers a year before Ronda Rousey turned pro, didn't have always have to be men's work.

Amsterdam, 1943

It was after the German-imposed 8 p.m. curfew when Katharina hid in a porch in the country's capital. After years of feeding the Jews in Katharina's eastern province, she'd ventured into the heart of the German occupation, where the bulk of the Jewish population lived. The deportations to Auschwitz and Sobibor began the previous summer and Katharina and Willem knew that bootlegging food to Jews in hiding wouldn't be enough anymore. They decided to become onderduikers—people hiders—transporting and sheltering Jews slotted for concentration camps.

Katharina stood in the shadows of the porch, listening for the footsteps of the patrolling German soldiers as she leapfrogged her way from porch to porch en route to pick up a rabbi and his family from the city's center. When she finally arrived at their door, she was overwhelmed by all the people in hiding begging her, "Please, madam, take me with you. Take me with you." But Katharina had to be careful. Getting caught meant certain death for her and her family.

She grabbed the rabbi and his family, including a baby roughly the same age as Marloes' father, Huub. She clipped off the yellow, six-pointed stars the Germans had ordered the Jews to wear during the war, and took out a fabric brush to wipe away traces of the badge. Katharina collected the yellow badges and stuck them in her underwear beneath a maxipad she's worn for the rescue. She then hurried them off to an eastbound train where she hid them, fed them, and kept them safe beneath the animal stables behind the Coenen's home. Katharina brought a flock of geese to her stables for one simple reason: They were noisy and could drown out the sounds of her people hiding behind her home.

A knock at the door came one day, when fellow resistance members called on Willem to come out and attend a meeting in a secret place. Katharina, unnerved, thanked the men at her door but told them Willem was sick that day and wouldn't be leaving the house. The other resistance members Katharina saw leaving that day would never be heard from again. The risks, they knew, were great.

Kansas City, 2013

There's a difference between a chance and a risk. Katharina's granddaughter, Marloes, isn't afraid to take either. There was a chance that Invicta, the start-up, all-women's fight promotion would have folded like so many other companies before them when Marloes became their first signed fighter in 2012. And there is a risk now that Santos, the most powerful pound-for-pound female featherweight in the world, will, in Marloes' words, "get my faced smashed in" during their rematch. "But I'm planning on doing the same thing with her," Coenen says. "I've gotten way stronger now, too. I've done hardcore strength and condition training ... I know what's coming and I know it will be hard." But Marloes also knows one other thing, because her grandmother won't let her forget: "You've got my strength," Katharina routinely reminds her.

But for Marloes, being called a pioneer in her sport or even a champion in it, pales in comparison to the woman she admires most. Curators at Israel's official holocaust memorial, the Yad Vashem, would honor the Coenens in 2008 with the title of "The Righteous Among the Nations" for helping to save countless Jews in the Netherlands.

"Everyone is always looking at me, 'You're a fighter. You've been a champion and all that. But compare it to what they did in the war and what I'm doing is completely nothing," Marloes says. "No matter what I do, I will never accomplish the great things my grandmother and grandfather have done. It's impossible."

Besides, no matter what happens on Saturday night, Marloes Katharina Coenen already has the title she cherishes most: Granddaughter.

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