Offers a First Glance
at the Women of MMA
By Loretta Hunt
Originally published in the May 2002 issue of FCF
It’s a man’s world, but don’t tell that to the fourteen gifted women that put it all on the line to participate in the first-ever, all-female mixed martial arts show in America. On April 13th 2002, HOOKnSHOOT Revolution ushered in a new chapter for women’s MMA, as some of the sport’s most promising female competitors finally got their day in the sun. Up till this point, female fighters had been confined to sporadic single bouts on the men’s cards, and with many promoters hesitant to put women on their rosters at all, many were still waiting in the wings for their chance to compete. With men’s MMA gaining some momentum in the last year and the number of shows to compete in steadily rising, opportunities seemed inevitable. But without an organization to step forward to harness this largely untapped talent, women’s MMA seemed destined to continue in the shadow of its counterpart.
Enter Jeff Osborne and Miguel Iturrate. The two men responsible for the successful HOOKnSHOOT shows felt the timing was right to give the ladies their own night. Inspired by the successful all-female Japanese promotion dubbed ReMix, Osborne and Itturate set out to find their cast of characters via the "information highway." The Internet proved a useful tool in enlisting willing females from across the country and beyond including Texas, California, Washington, and even Canada. With many of the fighters having had only one or two MMA fights to their name, special consideration was taken early on to make sure that the matchmaking would be as even as possible. Fight tapes were submitted. Calls were made. Weight classes were considered. Contracts were signed. With SHOOTO sanctioning the event, the sixteen women chosen set off to perfect their training for the making of history.
Traveling to Evansville, Indiana, I too wanted to be a part of history. Knowing very little of what this card might have to offer, I wanted to meet the women that had undoubtedly sacrificed countless hours in the name of the sport. I wanted to hear their stories firsthand. I wanted to know what drove them in their quest for victory. What I got introduced to was the lives of four very different women brought together by a common love for this ultimate competition. These four women gave me my first glance into the growing world of women’s MMA.
Sitting across from Mayra Conde in the hotel lobby, one’s eyes cannot help but fall on her impressive physique. With fourteen years of bodybuilding experience, Mayra is the one of the most chiseled specimens to grace these proceedings. Her sculpted, muscular physique is a stark contrast to what seems to be the hundred or so teenage girls that filter past to the elevator bank. Apparently there is a Young Miss This Or That Pageant competition occupying the hotel as well that weekend, and as Mayra speaks frankly of her life as a fighter, a tiara-clad hopeful or two whisks by. What strikes you after a few minutes in Mayra’s presence is not necessarily the fact that she has spent years and years to get here, but that she had no doubt in her mind that she would somehow make it as a fighter. With an overall record of 18 and 1 — including her pankration, kickboxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and two victorious NHB bouts, Mayra is one of the more experienced fighters to touch down at this Indiana show. You can tell she’s hustled to get this far, placing first in numerous tournaments, including the recent U.S. Open Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Championships and the World Wide Pankration Championships in Greece. She is also honored to have been a member of the Canadian Olympic Pankration team.
Having grown up on a farm with her grandfather, Mayra says she was instilled with the mentality that she could do anything she set her mind to. Turned on to fighting through a friend, fellow female competitor Zee Vjesalicu, Mayra has dedicated the last five years to honing her skills, training with the likes of Bas Rutten and Marcus Vinicius. She prefers to train with men, hoping to someday pass her knowledge on to other women for self-defense. Knowing that a female is more likely to be attacked by a male on the street, she says she tries to get her teammates to spar with her at full force. "If I can get these guys to go hard on me and I can stay with them and grapple with them and even make them submit — then I know I am at the top of my game," she remarks. In her opinion, the only difference between herself and her male training partners is that she doesn’t wear a cup.
When asked why she thinks more women aren’t involved in MMA, her reply comes quickly. "I think it has a lot to do with what’s up here," she quips, pointing to her head. "Once society starts opening its doors, I think that more women will have the mentality to do this." She speaks of the support needed from boyfriends and husbands to pursue this sport, and while many men that already compete in MMA are far more understanding to women participating, men outside of this group still need some convincing.
Mayra goes on to have the fight of the night, the only bout to go the distance with a seamless blend of some of the best stand-up and submission attempts and escapes of the evening. When the judges rule the match a majority draw, the look on Mayra’s face speaks volumes. She came to win or to lose, but not to tie. Backstage, with one eye swelled shut, Mayra hesitantly accepts the congratulations that are thrown her way, not willing to believe the adulations she says until she can review her performance on tape. I make my way through the crowd to hug her. She shrugs and raises a finger to her head before saying, "I guess it is all up here."
With looks that remind you of the girl you’d hire to baby-sit your kids, it’s hard to imagine that twenty-two-year-old Ruth Mejia will be stepping into the ring as an NHB fighter for the very first time. Ruth has fought at HOOKnSHOOT before in a grappling match, her performance obviously gaining her a trip back to Indiana. Instead of displaying nervousness for her MMA debut, the native Texan is instead overjoyed in the fact that she will actually get a chance to compete. At 114 pounds, finding opponents for Ruth has proved an obstacle in itself.
Though extremely soft-spoken, her smoky voice reels you in closer, as she begins to tell her story. She recalls going to a gym two years ago to get in shape and wandering to the back where a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class was in progress. By her second month with the discipline, she had already beaten her first guy, she admits with pride. The prospect of fighting came not long after when she added boxing, judo, and Muay Thai to her regimen. She’s fared well with both boxing matches and judo/jiu-jitsu tournaments, but felt inspired by the men of MMA to give it a try. "I love watching Sakuraba," she squeals. "He’s a very different fighter — a very entertaining fighter. That’s the type of fighter I want be."
Attending college and working part-time as a computer technician, the BJJ purple belt says she still finds time to train four to five hours a day. Since starting her training, she says that men tend to treat her a little differently than before. "They show a little bit more respect towards me. They’re amazed at what I do. They ask me how it feels. I haven’t had negative feedback. It’s all been very positive."
At the show, Ruth fights valiantly, but is overpowered by her even-younger opponent, who outweighs her by ten pounds. Her opponent is both tenacious and aggressive, gaining the mount and raining down strikes before pitching off Ruth’s side into the inevitable armbar. As I catch up with her after her fight, Ruth seems slightly dejected yet already somewhat wiser as she remarks that she needs to work on her ground game and maybe put on some more weight. When asked if she is deterred by the loss, she chimes in, "No, not at all. Not at all. This give me more of a motive to keep on working. I just fought a real good fighter. I’ll just keep going out there and try my best."
With her striking Greek features, her flowing black hair streaked with bright purple highlights, and the flare of a pro-wrestler, I expect Olga Bakalopoulos’ performance to be nothing short of breathtaking. As training partner to Mayra Conde, her training is both efficient and diversified. Mornings consist of cardio, followed by a session of grappling, rest, and then later at night a technical session of whatever discipline has been scheduled.
Having started weightlifting at the age of seventeen, Olga remembers placing pictures of female bodybuilders in her high school locker and wanting to look just like them. She met Mayra at a competition in Toronto and was relieved to find someone that would finally take her aspirations seriously. Olga eventually moved to California to train in weightlifting with Mayra, and in those few years has gone from 140 to 185 pounds.
The Canadian was introduced to MMA in 1998, after watching a tape of one of the UFCs and realizing that fighting was what she really wanted to do. Now a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Olga feels her strength as a fighter lies on the ground, but admits she is gaining confidence with her striking. When she describes her first NHB fight, her voice builds with excitement, and you can tell she is almost reliving that moment when the crowd was chanting "Olga" over and over again. Her two MMA wins have both been by submission.
As for her more muscular physique she says, " I get a lot more attention. I’ve noticed nowadays guys actually like muscular women that are in shape. It’s not so much the model-type anymore. This body-type is more appealing — a healthy body."
When asked why she thinks men have become more accepting of women’s MMA in the last couple of years, Olga has this to say on the subject: "Women are starting to train with men," she explains. "In the beginning, there weren’t that many women in dojos or gyms training. Now, men are seeing that women can be strong and tough and can do the same things they can do."
Olga’s father likes the idea that his daughter is able to take care of herself. She calls her mother "a bit old-fashioned" by wanting her to get married and into any career that doesn’t involve fighting. Of course, when her daughter wins, it’s another story. When asked how Olga pictures her own MMA story ending, she says she hopes with fame and fortune.
Olga’s fight is the second of the evening, and after stunning her opponent with a powerful punch, she capitalizes on the situation by quickly taking the fight down to her domain before maneuvering her adversary into an irreversible keylock. After the show, she is beaming pure delight. Olga Bakalopoulos is in her element.
Like any other teenager, Erica Montoya claims that when she is being punished, her parents take away something that means everything to her — training privileges. At seventeen years of age, Erica is quite possibly the youngest female mixed martial artist in America. With two no-holds-barred fights now under her belt, this high school junior is well on her way to making a mark in the sport. She’s also in a unique position. As women’s MMA grows in the next five, even ten years, Erica will still be in her fighting prime and might still be around to reap future benefits.
Erica got her first taste of the martial arts at the tender age of 12, when she and her brother tried out "freestyle fighting" at a local California academy. Showing prowess early on, Erica was encouraged to compete in some local tournaments, which led her to try out other disciplines as well. "Wrestling, judo — you name, I tried it," she says, as every weekend had her parents driving her to one tournament or another. Eventually, this experimentation led her to the discovery of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. She started to train under Rigan Machado, eventually making her way up through the tournament circuit to the Pan American Games, where she placed first in her division. After winning the World Championships in Brazil last year, and gaining her purple belt in the process, the 16-year-old decided to give MMA a try. Erica’s father had also seen the ReMix tapes and agreed that this might be the next step in his daughter’s career. Erica sought out the help of UFC and KOTC veteran Chris Brennan and his Next Generation Team of fighters. Brennan had first seen Erica fight in a couple of open-handed cage events back when she was only 13 years old, and even then, the potential for greatness was there. "I always knew I’d see her fighting on the scene when this [women's MMA] blew up, and now that she’s come to me for her no-holds-barred training, I know I can offer her a lot and she can give a lot back to the team."
Erica and her parents make the hour drive to Next Generation practically every day. In the few months she’s been training with the team, Erica has already had her first professional fight, at one of MMA’s better-known venues nonetheless. Her win at Warrior’s Quest in Hawaii has cemented her appearance on the HOOKnSHOOT card and at 17, she will be the evening’s youngest participant.
Pleasant, polite, and agreeable — talking to Erica is like talking to your little sister. When asked what she does outside of her life in the martial arts, Erica says that besides school, she has little time for anything else. She doesn’t have a boyfriend and she claims her friends stopped asking her to hang out on weekends long ago. What little TV she watches swings toward medical shows as she would like to someday attend UCLA Medical School and later work in a hospital ER. Having already accomplished tasks that take other’s lifetimes to complete, I picture Erica running down a hospital hallway in her long white labcoat, stethoscope in hand.
I sit with Erica’s parents ringside at the show. They are noticeably edgy and can’t wait for the whole scenario to finally play out. Luckily for them, Erica’s fight is the first one of the night. The brawl quickly goes to the ground, where Erica dominates her opponent into submission. After Erica’s hand is raised in victory, she is whisked backstage before her parents can get a good look at her. Her father leans over to me and whispers that his main concern is that Erica took a hit in the beginning of the round and that her face will show the results going home. Erica appears moments later with her coach, mentor, and "big brother" Chris Brennan, unscathed by the whole ordeal. Her father breathes a sigh of relief as a little girl approaches Erica for her first-ever autograph request. Welcome to the world of women’s MMA.