How UFC Fighter Vanessa Demopoulos Brought Pole Dancing Power to the Octagon: “I’m the Cardi B of MMA”


Vanessa “Lil Monster” Demopoulos is a daredevil by nature. From performing acrobatics two stories up in the air – wearing nothing but her underwear – to delivering beatdowns in a cage, Demopoulos has never been afraid of walking on the wild side. “Obviously, I like doing crazy ****,” she tells The Jiu-Jitsu Times, laughing with good-natured self-deprecation. 

A former competitive pole dancer and exotic entertainer turned professional MMA fighter, Demopoulos won over fans at UFC 270 as much for her boldly charismatic authenticity as her first-round armbar submission victory over Silvana Gomez Juarez. “The only reason I was so successful as an entertainer is that I was just my goofy-a*s self,” says Demopoulos. It’s an attitude she continues to embrace wholeheartedly in the octagon.

When asked whether her now-viral post-victory leap into Joe Rogan’s arms was a spontaneous stunt or part of her fight night plan all along, Demopoulos gives a coy little grin. “I planned that,” she admits. “When I found out I was going to be on camera with Joe Rogan, I was like, ‘yo, he’s so cool, bro, he’ll be down.’ I don’t know how down some of the other announcers would have been, but I know Joe Rogan’s just a fun guy, you know?”

Demopoulos shines under the spotlight. Born to parents who’d met in the entertainment business themselves, performance is in her blood. While many rookie fighters find themselves suffering from stage fright during their first tango in the octagon – not just because of their opponent, but because of the spectators – Demopoulos embraces her audience. “I’m an entertainer at heart, and I’m not just talking about pole dancing,” she says. “I love the lights. I’m about that life.” Later, she adds, a bit mischievously, “And hey, if I can get on stage in front of hundreds of people in my underwear and totally fail – because I fall sometimes as a dancer too, I’m not perfect, bro! – I’ll slip and fall and have to stand back up and play it off. I’ve fallen publicly, I’ve fallen privately, and I’ve gotten over a lot of those fears.” 

Demopoulos’ origins as a fighter, she explains, really began when her manager at work – who moonlighted as a kickboxing instructor at the time – “started talking ****” to her one day. “I was doing all my tricks,” Demopoulos remembers, “and he was like, ‘you know, if you put half that skill that you put into the pole toward fighting, you might do something with your life.’” 

Never one to back down from a challenge, Demopoulos asked him to teach her to fight. He refused initially. Undaunted, Demopoulos persisted, which was how that same manager became her first martial arts coach. The rest is history. 

“I get really competitive,” she admits, “and I put a lot of pressure on myself, not for any other f*cking reason besides the importance [of a fight] to me. And that in itself can make someone tense up.” 

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Luckily, her career in exotic entertainment has equipped Demopoulos with nerves of steel – which has served her time and again in the cage. “People don’t realize that [being an exotic performer] isn’t easy,” she explains. “You’re entertaining in front of an entire crowd of people, so you can’t just stop and take a break. When you’re in the cage, fighters might stop and chill, like you can take your moments, but you don’t have those moments as a dancer. You don’t have those breaks – you’ve got to keep going. And pole dancing is so physically demanding – every trick engages every muscle in the body at the same time, and you have to be able to balance yourself, know where you are in space, and figure out your next transition, without even being able to see anything. You just have to trust that you know what you’re doing well enough to move fast enough to grab the pole in time while you’re doing the craziest stunts.” 

In other words, it’ll take an awful lot to rattle Demopoulos – or for her to let you see her sweat. “During a fight, there’s so much that’s happening at the same time, you have to be able to calm yourself down,” she says. “You have to be in the moment, and relax amidst the craziness.” And relaxing amidst the craziness is an art she’s perfected. After all, when you’ve climbed two stories high in the air and find yourself in danger of losing your grip on a pole, there’s no tapping out to gravity.

“I remember being at a pole competition in Miami,” Demopoulos recounts. “I was doing this trick where I was upside down, and I remember my arm didn’t lock – so my feet flew over the top of my body while I was in a scorpion backbend. Thank god I caught myself before I could fall to my death – because one hand was still on the pole – but I was at least two stories high, in the middle of a competition.”

Demopoulos, though, has always been a thrill-seeker, and she gravitates toward going against the grain. As a teenager, she was an avid skateboarding enthusiast – who lost a few teeth in the process – and the only girl on the football team. Yet it’s not entirely fair to call her a tomboy either – a professional dancer since the age of eighteen, and a seasoned exotic entertainer, Demopoulos may know how to bro out, but she’s equally comfortable glamming up. 

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“Man, you want to talk about giving yourself permission to be anything that you want to be? When I want to do my hair and makeup, I can. When I want to be a super chill in my comfy clothes, I can do that too.” Demopoulos brims with characteristically frank good humor, as she details the multitudes she contains. “And I don’t care who judges me. You can be beautiful, and choose to be comfy, and it takes so much confidence sometimes, just to be comfortable as a female, and it shouldn’t be like that, you know? We should be able to be whatever the freak we want to be, whenever we want to be it. I just give myself permission to be fully anything that I need to be, at that moment. I think that’s one of my superpowers, to be honest, and I think that’s really freaking cool.” 

What do her parents think of their daughter leaving the “family business,” so to speak, in favor of the octagon? “My family’s used to me being wild,” says Demopoulos. “I’ve always loved doing the craziest sports with the highest risks, so when I got into fighting, they were like, ‘oh, Vanessa, another thing.’” She fondly mimics her parents’ sighing, put-upon tone – “they’re Greek, mind you,” she explains – as she describes their utter lack of surprise at Demopoulos’ daredevil antics. 

While they may be entertainers themselves, certain parental attitudes are near-universal, and Demopoulos’ folks are no exception. For quite some time, they treated her fighting like a fad: yet another wacky hobby for their exuberant daughter to grow out of. When Demopoulos began traveling the world to compete in jiu-jitsu, they started taking it a little more seriously, but also asked, perhaps a bit plaintively, “When are you going to get a real job?” 

Not a refrain most would expect to hear from a DJ father and an exotic dancer mother, but Demopoulos laughs it off now. 

“It wasn’t until LFA got to UFC fight pass that my family was like, ‘oh wow, okay!’” says Demopoulos with a grin. “They’ve always been my biggest fans, but also my biggest voice of resistance – because I care about what they think.” 

Fighters and pole dancers, on a purely physical level, actually have a surprising amount in common, particularly at the highest levels of their respective occupations – commonalities that have served Demopoulos well across both careers. “Working as an entertainer is crazy,” says Demopoulos. “I’m on my feet for eight hours a day in ten to twelve-inch stilettos, doing all these crazy tricks, and when I go on stage, I’m coming from dancing on the floor to then going on stage for a solid six to ten minutes at a time – and that’s just pure, intense gymnastics. In MMA, we fight for fifteen minutes, which is a long time, but I’m doing that three times a night at work.”

Pole-specific athleticism has also paid dividends in Demopoulos’ fight game on a technical level, especially her jiu-jitsu. The pole has gifted Demopoulos with an unusually powerful grip, core, and back strength. It’s also granted her tremendous spatial awareness in uncomfortable positions, particularly when inverted. “How do you think I pulled off that inverted triangle choke that put my opponent to sleep back in LFA?” Demopoulos jokes. 

Pole may have its foundations in sex work, but it’s increasingly viewed as an athletic discipline in its own right, a cousin of sorts to both traditional gymnastics and aerial circus acrobatics. Dancers have grueling conditioning regimens, an arsenal of complex physical vocabulary to master, and even competition venues ranging from local events to major international championships. They perform and compete through injuries both minor and major. Some have even advocated for the pole to be recognized as an Olympic event – a movement not unlike the age-old debate around whether or not Brazilian jiu-jitsu should become an Olympic sport. 

Put that way, pole as a professional discipline starts to sound a lot like, well, fighting. 

Does the sex work label bother Demopoulos? “It’s not what I prefer,” she says with a shrug, “but it is what it is.” She’s well aware of the popular perception of exotic dancers and isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade. She’s also proud of her previous profession, and happy to embrace the public’s fascination with her sex appeal. “**** it, I’m the Cardi B of MMA, baby, let’s go!” she exclaims. She’s happy to discuss what exotic dance entails – though it does get a little weird sometimes. “Unfortunately, guys are sometimes a little too fascinated by that side of my life, maybe for the wrong reasons,” Demopoulos admits. “Like, man, if you want to know what the back of a room is like, go buy one.” She laughs. “I don’t know what to tell you, dude, every dancer’s different!”

Combat sports and pole dancing have also both been commodified – and some would argue, sanitized – for popular consumption in recent years. Once upon a time, if you made your living in the cage, you were considered a violent goon by genteel society, and if you made your living on the pole, those same yuppies assumed you were a tramp. If you wanted a respectable reputation in polite society, you simply didn’t engage in activities with those connotations.

Not so anymore – thanks in large part to the boutique fitness industry. Doctors, lawyers, and finance professionals pay pricey monthly membership fees to attend hobbyist MMA classes or join pole fitness studios. Demopoulos points out that these days, a professional pole competitor can win up to a hundred thousand dollars in prize money at prestigious competitions, and that a sufficiently well-regarded pole dancing coach can quickly build a solid income off their teaching skills. 

What does Demopoulos have to say about both her chosen professions – previously the target of pearl-clutching and frequent misunderstanding – making a very lucrative splash in the mainstream? 

“I told you so!” she crows, delighted. “I told you it was cool! I was doing pole dancing before pole dancing was a thing, you know? When it started becoming a thing, I got my license to be a pole dancing instructor, and I had people who wanted me to run studios.” Those same studio owners were shocked that Demopoulos chose to fight instead, unable to understand why she would want to “get punched in the face” instead of pulling in good money as a pole instructor. 

“Man, I’ve caught so much **** from both sides about the other side,” says Demopoulos, with regard to both the pole dance and combat sports worlds. “I was just doing what I believed in. I’m really, really good at dancing. I’m good at making a lot of income in a short amount of time to feed this dream of being a fighter, and I was self-taught in pole dancing. There weren’t instructors back when I started. There were no crazy names for tricks; they were just tricks. I just did them, I just figured them out – which translated over to MMA, because there’s so much wild **** that happens in MMA, you’ve got to go with the flow. I taught myself this whole entire dangerous art form, you know, I can learn this too.” 

How would Demopoulos react to more MMA fighters hopping on the pole for a bit of creative cross-training to get an edge on their opponents? She laughs, exclaiming, “Eryk Anders! Eryk Anders is one of my teammates, and as soon as I won, he put up a meme that was like ‘I’m gonna get a pole to start learning jiu-jitsu!’” Anders may have been kidding, but it might not be a bad idea. Demopoulos’ advice for any aspiring pole dancers or aerialists in the MMA community is simple and practical: “Work on your fancy feet, and only do tricks that are close to the ground.”

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Nevertheless, Demopoulos has no regrets about leaving the pole for the cage. “I don’t miss that ****,” says Demopoulos. “I love dancing. I’m always going to love dancing, because I’m passionate about the art, but I don’t miss being completely drained and exhausted one bit.”

It’s easy to understand why. Overtraining was a real issue, back when Demopoulos was juggling two careers as both fighter and dancer. “There’s zero recovery time,” she explains bluntly. “Like, none. There were times when I’d accidentally put myself into a flu state, because I’d overwork myself, and my body would freak out and break down on me. Or like, I remember one time, I had some super serious injuries, and I was like, ‘okay, you know what, this limb is super f*cked-up right now, but I’ve got three others, so we’ll figure this out, you know?’ So I’d just wrap it up and keep going. I’d go to work, and have KT tape all over me, and customers would be like, ‘what’s this, are you ok?’ And I’d be like, ‘haha, yes, it’s just a new style of tattoo!’”

“It was a wild balance,” Demopoulos reflects in hindsight, “but I also feel like that’s why I’m so f*cking tough. I never took a break, not if I was injured, not if I felt like I just needed some time, I just f*cking pushed through it, man. I had to.” 

So what’s next for Demopoulos in the octagon? Unlike a lot of up-and-coming fighters, she’s not interested in calling out anyone specific or manufacturing a rivalry right now. “I’m gonna let my manager take the reins on that one,” says Demopoulos, cool as a cucumber. “A lot of people thrive off [that sort of thing],” she observes, “where they’ll be like, ‘oh man, I’ve talked too much ****, I can’t back off now!’” Demopoulos, in contrast, remains steadfast in her own goals, which is to take a measured approach to the fights ahead, whatever comes her way: “I’m just gonna say I’m chilling right now.”

This isn’t to say that other fighters don’t continue to influence – and impress – Demopoulos. “Cory McKenna surprised me the most,” she says when asked which of her opponents have given her the most memorable fights. “She grew up in weightlifting her whole life, and I felt like I had her in some very compromising positions. I felt like I was winning on the feet, but she was the one who surprised me. She’s a very skilled little girl – I think she’s only twenty-one years old or so, it’s crazy. I wouldn’t mind fighting her again.”

When asked if there are any top-ranked UFC fighters she’d particularly want to emulate, Demopoulos names Tecia Torres. “I have so much respect for anyone in the top five – or even the top ten for that matter,” says Demopoulos, “but I would definitely say that Tecia Torres has got some really awesome tenacity in her striking abilities. She’s just so seasoned, she’s been fighting literally her whole entire life, and her striking just looks very sharp. That’s just really cool to me.”

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Demopoulos, though, is also heavily focused on cultivating a memorable fighting style of her own: “I’d like to take my strengths, and mesh them with something like [Tecia Torres’ style].” She’s savvy enough to understand that fans have developed certain expectations of favorite fighters. We know we’re going to see high-level grappling any time a Demian Maia fight hits the ground, the same way we expect spectacular kickboxing from the likes of Stephen Thompson and Israel Adesanya. 

What does Demopoulos hope her own calling card in the cage will be? “Expect the unexpected,” she says. “I’ve out-struck strikers, and I’ve out-grappled grapplers. Sometimes, crazy **** happens – my face gets mangled, and I’m still fighting, I’ll eat a right hand for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, then somehow pull off a submission. How are you gonna pin me down, man? Let’s go! Expect the unexpected when you’re watching me because there’s going to be some wild **** popping off.” 

On a technical level, she hopes to develop herself as a grappling specialist with heavy hands, in the vein of Charles Oliveira. “Between submission or KO, I’d prefer to win a fight by KO,” she tells the Jiu-Jitsu Times right away when asked to pick one or the other. “Just, winning by KO, how cool is that? Grapplers knocking people out? Let’s do that!” Stylistically, of all the major MMA sub-disciplines, jiu-jitsu still remains her first love. “I’m always gonna favor jiu-jitsu,” confesses Demopoulos. “If you left it up to me, I’d be grappling three times a day. I definitely work a lot on my striking, and I work a lot on my wrestling because I have to develop those arts as well. My jiu-jitsu game’s not going anywhere, as long as I continue to maintain that. But I’ve got to upgrade the other software a little.” 

Demopoulos hasn’t ruled out getting more involved in pure sport jiu-jitsu either. She’d love an ADCC invite, for example. “I’m still competing in jiu-jitsu all the time,” she points out. “I just did the Medusa tournament back in October for Eddie Bravo – every chance I get, I’m gonna work towards that, but right now my focus is MMA.” 

For someone as active and exuberant as Demopoulos, it’s hard to imagine her slowing down, but there’s a quiet and contemplative side to her as well. Outside of the cage – and the clubs – Demopoulos loves some downtime with a good book. She’s also an author in her own right, having penned Stripper Bible, an instructional on the exotic entertainment industry. Her goal is to write six books in her lifetime, and she’d love for at least one of them to be about her martial arts experiences – though that might have to wait until after retirement, or between training camps. “It takes so much to write a book,” says Demopoulos. “It takes so much of my mental capacity, as well as my emotional capacity, and I feel like I only want to fill that tank with fighting right now.” 

Demopoulos remains a performer through and through, but her most important audience is still first and foremost herself – an attitude that she encourages everyone to embrace: “People see me now, and I don’t know what their impression is of me, but I didn’t come from anything,” says Demopoulos. “I had to work my f*cking a** off – and so much more – for everything that I have, and no one really believed in me along the way. I had my sister, and a few friends here and there, but people have come and gone. I just want people to know: yo, believe in yourself man! Get a plan, understand that sh*t’s going to be hard, but you can do it. Just make it f*cking happen – not for anybody else, not because you told Joe at work you were gonna do it. Do it for you. Do it because you love it. Do it because your soul is screaming for it, and don’t give a sh*t who’s watching. Speak from the heart, live from the heart, and make that sh*t happen for yourself.” 

To keep up with Demopoulos’ MMA career, you can follow her on Instagram.

To read Stripper Bible, you can order a copy from Amazon. 


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