(Photo courtesy of San Diego Combat Academy)
At the San Diego Combat Academy, the power of women’s mixed martial artists has been the rule of the land for years.
The first time I was kneed in the body, the sensation — of losing air, of every muscle clenching, of a pain that radiated from my diaphragm and spread outward like a spiteful firework — stopped me cold. I held out a glove, then placed my hands on my knees. I needed a moment.
After all, I was sparring UFC bantamweight veteran Liz Carmouche, the first woman to enter the Octagon. And in that moment, she had just landed the first body shot I had ever truly felt.
“I told you,” she said. “Body shots end fights.” She was smiling.
“What do I do,” I said between breaths, “to make sure that never happens again?”
The gym clock was still counting down from a two-minute round, but she paused and showed me how to deflect a knee with my glove — and then we got back to work. We had spectators, after all.
The crowd around us was for Carmouche, of course, and the sight of her in action. She moved quickly around the mats at San Diego Combat Academy (SDCA), letting her hands drop to goad me into practicing some combos. But when I hesitated (as I always did, because punching a pad was one thing, but attempting to punch a face was another), she unleashed a calculated flurry that ricocheted against me like apples chucked against a wall.
Carmouche dropped her gloves and told me to punch her. I hadn’t been moving in close enough to hit her throughout the entire round — and I knew it was because I was used to the safe, cushioned distance of hitting boxing mitts and Thai pads. She said it again. She wanted me to stop sparring at a safe distance, somewhere between “won’t get punched” and “won’t land a punch.”
She wanted me to learn.
When A Girl Learns How To Fight
In mainstream media, women’s MMA is in a state of flux. In a series of upsets, the women’s bantamweight title belt has changed hands twice since Ronda Rousey’s loss last November. But without a single figurehead to hold the limelight, the athletic prowess of Holly Holm, Miesha Tate, Amanda Nunes, and Valentina Shevchenko have demanded recognition from casual viewers and hardcore MMA fans alike. Meanwhile, women’s strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk held her own on last season’s The Ultimate Fighter, working opposite Cláudia Gadelha as the first female coaching duo since Team Rousey vs. Team Tate in 2013.
To the general public, the prevalence of women in the UFC reveals one truth: girls know how to fight. But for a woman in a male-dominated sport, it’s an uphill battle. As sports historian L.A. Jennings points out, women have been fighting for the past 500 years — and yet, that doesn’t erase their minority status in the prevalence of MMA.
“The first year I was here,” Carmouche said, “I was one of three females who was in the gym … it was just kind of a hobby for them.” In 2010, women “didn’t think there was a chance of any future in the sport, especially with the UFC. At the time when I started, the UFC was saying that there wasn’t any chance women were going to be involved in their organization. There were gyms that wouldn’t even allow women to train there.”
But today, SDCA is filled with fierce, diverse women who regularly train — and compete — out of the gym. What changed?
“Women now actually have opportunities,” Carmouche said. That much is clear: Women are headlining main and co-main events at the UFC, and thanks to last year’s high-visibility upset, those headliners are displaying a huge range of talents, from Holm’s striking ability to Nunes’ prolific skills on the ground.
Undefeated Bellator flyweight Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, who also trains out of SDCA, echoed that sentiment. “When I first started out, it really was just the UFC’s bantamweight division that was making waves,” she said. “Now it’s awesome that Invicta FC has gotten a deal on UFC Fight Pass, because it’s bringing other female fighters in all the divisions to the national spotlight. I am especially happy with Bellator MMA’s new rebuilding of their women’s divisions. It was a really cool experience to be on the same card as WMMA pioneers Marloes Coenen and (Adrienna) AJ Jenkins.”
There’s also a quieter change in women’s MMA that feels unique to the women at SDCA: a sense of belonging.
Where Women Belong
Back in June, Manolo Hernandez — head coach of SDCA’s Team Hurricane Awesome, a Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt, and a former pro MMA fighter — posted a photo on Instagram that featured Macfarlane. “Interesting to me how many ‘tough’ dudes come and go but around here #meangirls run the show,” he wrote.
In the photo, Macfarlane sits cross-legged at the edge of a group of guys. Hernandez thinks the photo was taken on her first day at the gym three years ago. She’s the only one smiling. “This picture is a testament to Ilima’s commitment,” Hernandez told me. “All these guys started with her, but she is the only one who has made it to her goal.”
For Macfarlane, one thing made her professional successes possible: a sense of family. “If it weren’t for the closeness I feel with everyone, I don’t know if I would be where I am today,” she said. That closeness impacted her MMA career, which has been handled carefully and strategically. “They started me off with several fight nights before moving me into the amateur circuit,” Macfarlane said, adding:
“Every fight that I’ve ever taken was carefully considered by my trainers and teammates … Because of this, I was able to grow and learn, and ultimately help to setup my record and pro career.”
I heard similar statements from a number of the women on SDCA’s MMA team. Regarding Hernandez and her team at SDCA, Carmouche said, “They care about the sport’s growth, they care about women’s MMA, they care about the people, and that’s what kept me here.”
Bellator fighter Jackie Vandenburgh said, “The girls give me a whooping in pro practice, and that’s what pushes me for my fights. It makes me better.”
At professional fighter Misha Nassiri’s old gym, she had “few to zero” women to train with. “I felt like training at SDCA with Manolo and the vast amount of girls I would have as training partners would benefit my fighting career better,” she said. “What made me stay is the dedication and support that my new teammates, coaches, and instructors put into me, each other, themselves, and into development of the sport in general.”
The sentiment is felt internationally, as well. Visiting fighter Kanako Murata — a Japanese world champion wrestler and undefeated pro MMA fighter — chose to train at SDCA because “I usually train among all male fighters in Japan. I wanted to come here because I heard that there are many female fighters in SDCA.”
But why should the number of women at a gym matter? Conventional wisdom would suggest that if someone wants to learn how to fight, they should power through “shyness” or “fear” in order to train. They shouldn’t care about whether or not their partner is a guy, right?
Google “women’s MMA fighters.” Of the top three results, two of them have to do with lists of the most attractive women fighters in the sport. Meanwhile, searching for “men’s MMA fighters” results in exactly what you’d expect: lists of the greatest fighters of all time, not the sexiest.
We celebrate men for their power, and women for their looks. It’s a distinction that sets a precedent for how women are to be handled in gym settings — and one that could dissuade women trying their hands (and elbows, knees, and legs) at combat sports in the first place.
But while women don’t exclusively train with women at SDCA, the sheer number of women that attend — regularly wrapping their hands and slamming kicks into pads and rolling on the mats — is reason enough to feel like we have a right to fight.
Respecting the Fight
In terms of abundance, San Diego is home to an impressive number of MMA gyms: in 2012, UFC President Dana White told the San Diego Union Tribune,“Pound for pound, San Diego goes toe to toe with any major city that has mixed martial arts. The amount of people that come out of there, train out of there, and the amount of gyms that are down there, staggering.”
But in terms of grit, SDCA holds its own.
The gym spans two modified garages. On one side of the street, California Boxing Hall of Fame inductee Tiger Smalls shouts, “Let’s go, champ!” at his students, who spill out into the pavement out front of the gym’s neighboring gas station. It’s a shared space — but really, it belongs to the boxers.
Across the street, next to an auto repair shop and a too-small parking lot, grapplers and fighters filter through the gym’s narrow doorway. Everything but boxing happens here: jiu jitsu, wrestling, MMA, kickboxing, Muay Thai. Both sides of SDCA are a constant stream of bodies covered in rash guards and bruises and sweat. There are no lockers, no juice bars, no saunas. There is no room for ego or complaints or even fear: it’s a space to train, roll, and fight.
“My experience here is we work from the ground up,” Carmouche said. “I started in January 2010 here with no background, and they took me all the way to the UFC. That doesn’t happen. It certainly doesn’t happen in three years.”
— LIZ CARMOUCHE (@iamgirlrilla) October 12, 2012
And yet, that progression — from ground to Octagon — makes complete sense at SDCA, where the doorways are narrow and the parking lot is consistently cramped. I understand entirely why so many women train here: there are no pretenses, and there are no preconceptions. When everyone has a fighting chance, anything is possible. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman, it doesn’t matter if you’re a male,” Carmouche said. The respect, and the opportunity for glory, remains the same.
One night after training, still coming down from the adrenaline of realizing that I still have much to learn, I asked Carmouche who she admired in women’s MMA. “In all honesty, I don’t look toward other women as aspirations,” she said. “I think I look more toward making myself to be the best that I can be. … Before, it was so unknown and underground that nobody was rising up to create mentors. And now we’re finally creating this path where we’re making mentors, and that’s just now evolving.”
The fruits of that evolution, then, is what brought me to the mats, facing down Carmouche with pain radiating across my torso from the shock of her knee. I knew who was watching: men and women from the evening Muay Thai class, the ever-present Hernandez, and jiu jitsu grapplers that had stopped to see Carmouche in the ring.
“I look more toward making myself to be the best that I can be.”
Someone behind me called something out that I, in my rush of adrenaline and mild panic, couldn’t hear. “She’s never going to learn unless she punches me,” she said, and turned back to face me with a smile. I was clenched up tight in my stance like a spring. Her gloved hands were held out on either side of her in a “come at me” pose. We only stood for a few seconds, but it felt like days.
I have high hopes for the evolution of women’s MMA — not just because of its continued exposure in major promotions like the UFC and Bellator, and not just because of the growing number of women who are walking into gyms because they’ve seen other women with clear skills. I have high hopes for women who want to fight because, as more women step onto the mats and experience that sense of respect, possibility, and belonging, they’ll feel what I feel when I train: like I’m pushing myself to be the best possible version of myself, and I’m happy with the power that I feel.
By: Rebecca Paredes @beccawriteswhat