They refused her. They mocked her. They booed her.
A short time later, she became one of the biggest stars not just in MMA, but in all of sports.
Her name is Ronda Rousey, and while some may see her as an overnight sensation, her well documented story is illustrated with years of hard work, disappointment, fatigue, passion and a drive that refuses to let her be denied.
"No one is ever going to give you anything of value. You have to work for it, fight for it."
~from the Ronda Rousey autobiography, "My Fight/Your Fight"
This past year we witnessed a surge in the attention placed on, and success of, women's sports in the United States. From the US Women's Soccer team earning World Cup Gold to Serena Williams' historical run in tennis, these athletes captured the attention of fans worldwide. They faced questions of race, age, competition level, gender, physical attributes, work ethic, money, personal issues and more, overcoming them all to win at the highest level. But a conversation about women's sports in 2015 cannot take place without the face of the UFC, Ronda Rousey.
Rousey represents a new generation of women in athletics. Her meteoric rise to prominence in the traditionally male sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) has been well documented, even here on The Shadow League in a comparison with Serena Williams. In an interview with Forbes, UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta said the UFC had its "aha" moment when it began featuring women on The Ultimate Fighter. When the women fought, the ratings were 20% higher. That’s when the UFC – and its broadcast partner, Fox – realized they were on to something.
While Rousey may be the face of the sport, there are other women involved in MMA across the country, and world, who are helping to build the sport of women's MMA in their own way. They come in all sizes, shapes, ages and colors. They each have their own unique story about how they got their start and what the sport has done for them. They're helping to diversify the sport and combat the stereotype of the traditional MMA fighter.
We spoke with five of these women and they discussed with us what the sport has done for them and why it's so important in their lives. And guess what.
They're not all pros.
"When I think of it in the long run, the time that I spend away from my son is only momentary compared to what I do for him for a lifetime and the example that I will set for him."
~Marion “The Belizean Bruiser” Reneau
Being a single mom can be a challenge. Doing it by yourself? It is very much a challenge.
Now, add to that going back to school to get your teaching degree while working, becoming a teacher, stumbling into boxing and mixed martial arts and finally becoming a professional fighter, all while still teaching and being a mom.
Welcome to the life of Marion Reneau.
“I've learned that I'm resilient,” says Reneau when speaking about what the sport of MMA has taught her. Given her path to where she is now, doing all that she does - currently ranked #11 in the UFC Women's Bantamweight division – it's a wonder she didn't realize her resiliency sooner.
An award-winning track & field athlete at Long Beach State, Reneau arrived late to MMA. As she told MMAfighting.com in July, "I was living paycheck to paycheck. Even though I was a teacher, I was struggling as a teacher.” So when her son was around 6, she got involved in boxing, a sport which has a sensitive history with her family.
Reneau's father was born and raised in the country of Belize, a small country east of Guatemala and south of the Yucatan of Mexico, bordering the Caribbean Sea. With a heavy Spanish influence, there were certain cultural mindsets that were part of Belizean life. When first telling her parents that she wanted to fight, her mom didn't quite understand. Her dad, however, had an answer. “No. No. You're not going to do it. I don't support it at all.”
Behind that “No” lies a sparring session that went sour for Reneau's uncle. As Reneau tells it, her uncle “got caught with a really good one and he was never the same after that”. That uncle had been a champion boxer in Jamaica. But after his brother's incident, the idea of anyone in the family taking up boxing disturbed her dad.
In many Hispanic/Latino cultures, chauvinism was the norm. Fighting, for her dad who was raised in the 60's, was “not what women should be doing”. “That's just the way they were raised. I respect that. I don't have anything against it.” Says Reneau. “In today's society when things are changing and people are more accepting, the fighting game for women is getting even more popular,” adds Reneau. “It's not embraced by all, but it's embraced by some and that's all we need.”
Within the past year, however, Reneau's dad has come around. In fact, even the Belizean family are supportive of Reneau's fight career. The family now tells her,“You've got the blood. You've got the boxing blood just like your uncle.”
And it's not just Reneau's “blood” family, it's her community too. Working in a community that Reneau estimates is 70-75% Hispanic and a school that is 90% Hispanic, she's experienced none of the machismo attitude that one might expect. “The entire community out there has been nothing but supportive. From the administrators to who I work with to my students and their families even their grandparents,” says Reneau. “And if they're not, they don't say much.”
Reneau likes where she stands in life – doing something she loves. She sees more and more women following that path too. “When I first started - and that was probably about 7 years ago – that's when I was training in jiu-jitsu and just getting into the MMA scene and learning about MMA, I was the only female in there. I was the only one,” says Reneau emphatically. She learned by training with men, partly for the challenge that training with a guy prsents and partly because there were no women to train with. Today things have changed dramatically. Where once she only had seven students in her female jiu-jitsu class, it's now up to 40.
What MMA has done for Reneau, and a reason why many women are embracing it today, is not easily witnessed from the outside. “I've learned that I'm resilient,” says Reneau. “I've learned that I'm not perfect. I've learned that I want to, and try to, be a perfectionist. But, I'm not (perfect).”
Many moms can relate to that. Perfectionism comes in many forms. For moms, balancing motherhood and a career is a constant struggle. As a single mother, communication with her son has been key for Reneau as she juggles her personal life with a dual career. She lets him know when fight camp is coming up. Even though that takes up a lot of her time, Reneau still tries to be around as much as possible.
It's easy to hear the pride Reneau has in her son. It's not easy raising a son by yourself, nor is it easy on her son. “We've developed a system to where he's kind of super-independent,” says Reneau. “Being an only child of a single mother, he had to be a little bit more independent. I had to rely on him a bit more to do stuff by himself. I couldn't do everything for him.”
It's not always perfect.
But this sport continues to teach her, through its discipline and understanding, that she doesn't have to be.
"When I am fighting, you better kill me because it's just not gonna’ happen. We're gonna’ fight until I either stop breathing or stop moving. I'm not gonna’ quit. I don't quit on my kids. I don't quit on my family."
Getting in shape for a wedding is the goal of many a bride. For Cindy Castro, it was undoubtedly a goal and help came in the form of a gift – mixed martial arts classes from her future brother-in-law. Some women might take offense to a gift like that. Some could construe it as the giver's way of saying, “You're fat”.
“When I got engaged to his brother, part of my wedding gift was to help me get into shape to where I wanted to be for my wedding,” says Castro.
A Joshu for Tiger Schulmann's Mixed Martial Arts, Castro's brother-in-law helped introduce her, or re-introduce her, to something that was already very much a part of Castro's make-up. “I've always loved the sport. I love martial arts. I love the art of fighting,” says Castro. “I just never knew how much a part of my life once I started.” That was nine years ago. Today, it's a huge, and “crazy" (chaotic), part of her life.
Crazy includes being a wife and a mom with three kids aged 19, 6 and 4. Crazy includes training four times a week and making sure she is there for her kids as much as possible. Being “there” means working a midnight shift as a corrections officer in New Jersey. When she comes home, their day is just starting: breakfast, getting ready for school. While they're in school, the elusive search for sleep begins. Gym time happens in the morning for Castro, training determining how much sleep she gets.
But after sleep follows the next phase of crazy.
Pick the younger kids up, help them with homework, take them to their MMA classes, cook dinner, get in her own MMA training, get ready for work. In tandem with her husband, who is also in law enforcement, they make it work. When their daughter is home from college, she becomes part of the routine as well – helping with the younger kids and doing MMA.
For the past 10 years, the 5'7”, 180lb, 36 year-old Castro's crazy life has included a career as a corrections officer in New Jersey. Working at both the state (with lifers) and county level, Castro knows that her knowledge of MMA is an asset, but fortunately she hasn't had to demonstrate her skills at work. Even though her co-workers will jokingly say to inmates, "Castro will kick your ass," she knows that there are other ways to deal with challenging situations. “I've been lucky enough that I can talk my way out of things,” Castro says. “I try to always de-escalate a situation before they become physical.” But should the need arise, her MMA training will kick right in.
That's a skill that empowers.
That's what Castro feels MMA has done for her and what she believes it can do for other women- empower.
She's seen an increase locally in the number of women getting involved in the sport. Not all are doing it to compete. Most do it, like Castro, to get in shape, learn self-defense and build self-confidence. “Women now that I train with – I remember when we first started training together and how timid some of them were,” adds Castro. “To see them now and how far they've come. (They're) not timid anymore and much more willing to work with somebody better than them, wanting to go harder and wanting to learn the moves they never thought they could do before.”
Rousey is inspiring to Castro but she believes that Rousey is only the beginning of what women's MMA can be. “Ronda Rousey has opened the doors to women in MMA,” says Castro. “As a woman, I'm thrilled to see where this sport has gone and where we as women have gone with this sport.”
Talk with Castro long enough and she'll have you wanting to be in a dojo as soon as the conversation ends. She feels it's made her a better person. The challenges she has put on herself to compete in the sport, which includes training with men, while continuing to be ever-present in her family's lives is no easy task. “For me, this is an outlet,” shares Castro. “This is where I go and let it all go.”
So what has MMA done for her? An emotional Castro says, “I will never quit in anything in my life because of this sport.”
“...there are things in MMA that people can take from it that are positive that can help them in whatever situation – just getting back in shape or defending themselves. People forget about that.”
~Angela “Overkill” Hill
Angela Hill's nickname is misleading.
It applies to the MMA (Muay Thai) side of her. She is full tilt in training and in the octagon. She goes hard and sets the standard for everyone else. When others are ready to break, Hill craves more.
But chat with Hill for any length of time and one gets the feeling she is overjoyed more than anything else. Overjoyed with her life both personally and professionally. You don't even have to be looking at her, you can hear the smile in her voice.
Maybe that's the creative side to Hill coming out; she earned her degree in art at the Cooper Union School of Art in New York. “You've really got to be into it,” says Hill. “It's a really hard thing to get. You get into the zone and get lost for hours and not even realize that much time has gone by.”
Her favorite, and the one she really gets into, is animation. Whether Hill realizes it or not, there is a concept to animation that is similar to MMA; it's in the details. “I worked for an animation company the first year outside of college. I got really into capturing movement,” says Hill. “That was like a really cool thing for me. If it moves really well and fluid, I'd be all over it. Old Disney movies where I can get caught up in seeing all the work that's gone into something – really planning out every detail and stuff like that.”
Paying attention to the details didn't seem to be the case when it came to sports in her youth. Before entering high school, Hill gave a variety of sports a try: basketball, softball, track, just to name a few. Her athleticism gave her the ability to try different things, but nothing held her interest. Sports became a distant memory...and laziness set in.
Things remained that way until after college and her marriage to fellow Muay Thai-er, Adam Blair Pryde. It was Adam's idea to “get in shape,” a decision which changed their lives. “We just fell in love with it. We ended up becoming fighters. We both had amateur careers,” adds Hill. “I went on to go pro.”
A move to the pro level was enhanced when Angela wound up on the UFC competition reality show “The Ultimate Fighter 20," a fortuitous opportunity in that it was the year Hill's weight class, Strawweight, was being added to the Women's Division. That helped Hill become the UFC's first African-American female fighter – a title that Hill doesn't take lightly. Says Hill, “I think with any specific, small, subculture kind of thing – if you're into it, you want to see someone who looks like you doing well. I'll get messages from random people saying 'My daughter looks up to you.' or 'I'm rooting for you. You've got a whole community behind you'.”
The response from the African-American community has been nothing but positive. Being a fighter isn't necessarily a typical outlet for African-American females but it's the perfect vocation of choice for Hill, even if it is filled with some of the typical obstacles a woman of color has to deal with.
“I know this is a country where if you're a black woman or a minority, you have to work twice as hard as someone who isn't,” says Hill. She feels there's a double-standard in this country for Black women, and in this case, it's the school of thought that she was signed because of her skin color, not because of her promise and skill as a fighter. And although she was recently released from the UFC, she wouldn't have been invited back to the TUF 20 finale, where she defeated Emily Kagan, if she wasn't good enough or simply because of her skin color.
It's about respect and talent, and she has both.
“MMA is martial arts. When you think of martial arts, you think of walking into a dojo, bowing before you enter the mat and doing all of this traditional stuff,” states Hill. “There's that respect that you give to your coach. If you don't respect your coach, you're off his team. If you don't respect your teammates, you're off his team.” For Hill, there isn't the macho, sizing-each-other-up, braggadocio like you may see at a boxing gym. That respect factor is a huge part of the martial arts scene.
But that's not the only thing it's taught Angela Hill. “I think I learned that I can do a lot more than I thought I could. There's always this one moment I always think about when I'm feeling really tired,” says Hill. “There's this one moment, it was like the first moment my coach had ever held pads for me – and he goes Are you about to give up? Are you about to die? Are you about to throw up? And I said, “no”. I was really tired and I thought I was going to die. He's like, Are you about to throw up? And I'm like, “no”. Are you about to cry? I was like, “NO!”. He's like, Well then, keep going.
And because of MMA, she will.
"I found my place in life. I am stronger and I have so much more in life than I thought I ever did."
~Gillian “Valkyrie” Noll (age 17)
“Gillian is one of the biggest mma draws around this area, male or female, and at only 17 years old” – said the Facebook reply. In an area that has produced MMA fighters like Mike Chiesa, Elizabeth Phillips, Sam Sicilia and Julianna Peña, two of whom won The Ultimate Fighter competition, that's saying a lot. And Gillian “Valkyrie” Noll is looking to make her name as well known as that stellar quartet.
“One of her goals is she wants to be the youngest person to hit the UFC,” says Gillian's mom, Donna Gudenau Noll. “I think that's her main goal.” At first glance, this former cheerleader doesn't look like a future UFC-er. Bright smile, engaging conversationalist, compassionate heart. As Noll has done throughout her 17 years, she defies your stereotype of her.
Gillian is the youngest of three children in the Noll family. Two older, sports-playing brothers that Noll wasn't afraid to mix it up with. “We have a rec room and they'd clear everything out and the boys would have this wrestling, kind of hitting thing (going on),” says Gudenau Noll. Well, when the older brothers are at play, it's only natural that the little sister tags along. And when she did, Gillian found out the hard way what playing with her brothers would be like.
“Her older brother actually clocked her,” added Gudenau Noll. “Everybody stopped for a second. She wiped her tears with the gloves and got up and went back at them.”
Whether it's wrestling with her brothers or falling 30-feet out of a tree, bouncing back up and climbing it again, Noll learned early on to be resilient. She needed to be, especially because of what she's had to endure in school.
“I've gotten bullied since I was little,” says Noll. “I'd come home from elementary school crying my eyes out because I would get bullied.” It created a shyness and protectiveness in Noll, and unfortunately, the bullying hasn't really stopped. The drama that exists in high school has found Noll, in more subtle ways. “I hear so many whispers when I walk down the hallways,” she says. Bullying continues, but because of the skills she's learned through MMA, she stands up for herself now, and it all started because of two guys.
Gillian's then-boyfriend worked out at Legacy MMA in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Gillian would attend practices with him just to watch -what girl doesn't like to spend time with her boyfriend, right? That's where Coach Jerry Rupinski stepped in. Rupinski's been doing this long enough to know that it never hurts to ask someone to give it a try. “If they're there watching them and their friend likes it, a lot of times they may like it (too), even if they don't know they like it (yet),” says Rupinski.
So he asked and Gillian “gave it a shot”. And discovered she loved it...from the start. “I get to be aggressive,” says Noll. “When I did basketball in middle school, I always fouled out halfway through the game because I would elbow the chicks. They'd be just terrified. I wanted to be aggressive, one-on-one.”
MMA is the perfect avenue to engage in that one-on-one aggression.
At age 15, Noll took up this new sport. Within six months, she was ready to fight. Ready to fight, but not quite ready to win. Says Noll, “After that first fight, I took a year off before my next fight. I needed more of a foundation and knowledge of what I was doing in there. I think that fight was very good for me because it got me (thinking) 'Hey, this is fighting. This is what you do. I actually enjoy it.'”
During that layoff, Noll worked on everything she could to improve her skills. She'd watch film, ask questions and practice...and practice...and practice until she got it right. Every negative thing is under extreme scrutiny with Noll in the hopes of getting better – a sign of the work ethic this young 17 year-old already displays and something her mom is quick to point out. “That year in between (fights), because she was taking higher classes, she was a cheerleader and then she was coming in here - she was trying to find that even ground, that balance,” says Gudenau Noll. “Once she got that balance and she eliminated what she didn't need and she knew what she wanted...that's when she really started to grow.”
Her family has been with her every step of the way in every endeavor Noll has chosen to do. Cheerleading, wrestling (yes, she's on the boys high school wrestling team) and now MMA.
The love of the sport, the support of her family and the skills it has taught her has changed Noll for the better. Ask her what MMA has taught her and the smile that was prevalent on her face changes to tears. Maybe part of those tears has to do with the years of bullying she's had to endure. Or rather, it's how the sport has changed her from wallflower to a powerhouse. “This (MMA) really helped me bloom and blossom into the girl I am today,” says Noll confidently. “I'm no longer a wallflower. I stand up in class. I raise my hand. I'll go up to people. I'll do something because – I'll do it because I want to do it. And that makes me happy. Who cares what people say? I like it, so it doesn't matter.”
"You either got it or you don't. One of those tests that I found out about myself is that I do got it and there is no quit in me."
- Julianna Pena
Julianna “Venezuelan Vixen” Peña is a woman of moments. Moments both positive and negative. Moments past that helped form her early thoughts and beliefs. Moments present that have given her an abundance of opporunities she never thought possible. Moments future that she hopes will be fruitful for herself and others along the way.
In the octagon, there are many moments. From stepping into the cage, looking at your opponent, the ref, the crowd, the mat – moments alone with one's own thoughts. And, then there is also that one moment...a situation that seems like there is no escape...
'How am I gonna get out of this? I'm stuck like a duck. How am I gonna get out?' Then you end up getting out and you're like, 'That's right, Because I'm stronger. This girl's not tougher or harder than me and there's no quit in me and there never has been'.
Julianna Peña learned to be tough at a young age. She had to. The youngest of four children with a large extended family, she was usually the one the rest picked on. “ I was getting beat up from a very early age by my brother and sisters,” says Peña. “And my cousins.” Peña felt it from all sides, including a brother who was the first to introduce her to the world of martial arts by practicing his “Bruce Lee” moves on her.
The bullying didn't stop with family. School was often a cruel place as well. Gordita (Spanish word for fat, chubby girl – a family nickname) would deal with body issues at a young age. “I was heavier growing up in school,” describes Peña. “I felt like it was baby fat. That's what everyone said. Don't worry, you're going to grow out of it. It's just baby fat.” She waited to grow out of it, but she never did. That “body” stayed with her throughout middle school and high school. As did the teasing.
Peña endured a constant stream of teasing (bullying) from one boy in the 7th grade that sent her home crying. The constant verbal jabs of middle school were replaced in high school by the subtle ones – ones that many women, both young and old, can relate to. “I was definitely the “cool friend” that was a girl,” says Peña, “but no one ever wanted to date me because I was thicker and they didn't want to be like, That's my girlfriend, the fat girl”.
All of the teasing and ridicule toughened this young, 26 year-old fighter from Spokane, Washington. Deep down, she knew that she could do whatever it was she set her mind to. She'd already seen it in her mom, who worked in a local aluminum plant with men. Her dad was the head of the family, but it was her mom who made it go. “My mom was very much about women and empowerment. She was very much a strong woman in her own right,” says Peña.
Seeing this strong, determined woman in her family left an impression on Peña. So much so that when she became an adult, she discovered a path that neither her mother or father were too crazy about. She found mixed martial arts, and unfortunately it eventually drove somewhat of a wedge between them
An invitation from her sister to join a kickboxing class was more about losing weight than it was to fight. She had never done any type of martial arts class before, but one workout followed by one punch, one fight and she was hooked. Her parents, her dad mostly, were against it. “They did not support my fighting career at first,” says Peña. “They were absolutely against it. Girls don't fight. Girls are supposed to be dainty. Girls are supposed to be in the kitchen, cleaning the house.” Cleaning house was something Peña liked to do, but not for a vocation...or as part of her life. She wanted to fight and she knew the only way to do that would be to move out.
For as emotionally charged as it can be to live in a Hispanic/Latino family, there is still a respect. A respect for parents, fathers – Peña knew she needed to move out before she “did it under their roof against their wishes”.
It took a while to warm up to the idea of their youngest, their baby, as a fighter. While they disagreed with her vocational choice, they still attended every fight. “Once they started to see how serious it was, they were on board all the way,” says Peña with a smile. “Especially after winning The Ultimate Fighter, they became my biggest fans.” And they weren't the only ones.
Being Latina and the first female to win The Ultimate Fighter made Peña a recognizable and inspirational role model, a title she doesn't take lightly. “I hope that I can be a role model for so many more people,” says Peña. Whether it's with young Latinas or just anyone, she is embracing the platform she holds. She wants her life to inspire others. "The thing that I'm trying to push is, you can do anything that you can set your mind to. If you focus, if you believe in yourself, there is no doubt in my mind you can do anything that you absolutely want to do.”
Peña tells of the time in middle school when a boy would tease her ruthlessly. He would tease her on a daily basis. So much so that she would come home crying. Peña has seen that boy since then. Whereas she has come to a point where she is healthy and “doing something cool”, he is the complete opposite. She doesn't necessarily revel in his demise, but rather, she revels in her success. Success that came because of MMA.
“MMA has given me so much confidence as a person, as a female,” boasts Peña. “It has made me into a completely different person. I am not the same person I was at 18 years old that I am (now) at 26.” She knows this is her time to seize the moment, learn all she can and grow as a fighter and as a person. There are choices she had to make to get to this point. Choices with family. Choices with friends. Choices with work. Even choices in the sport she loves so dearly.
Pena sees more women getting involved. She observes the growth of her sport, but cannot allow herself to be distracted by it. Right now, she's in this moment. Focused on her fighting. When she's in the octagon, there's always a chance for a “duck” moment. It's that moment where, Peña says, you're stuck – your opponent has you in a position that you don't know how you're going to get out of. And, the moment that you realize – that voice in your head goes off – you CAN get out of it and you do...that's when you realize how strong and tough you are.
That's Julianna Peña's “duck” moment. One of many “duck” moments she's overcome in her life. From the bullying to the body issues to family challenges to fighting – they've made her stronger, tougher and harder than any opponent standing in her way.
The sport of MMA is very much on the rise and, as these ladies can attest, it's very empowering for women in particular. Lack of confidence, structure, discipline; they all fall like beads of sweat when training in the sport.
Yes, it is a violent sport, sometimes embroiled in controversy both in and outside of the octagon. But while debates erupt and rage around the sport and its athletes, there is no denying the positive, life changing effect MMA has had on these women and the women who have taken up the sport. They are no longer bound by their past, restricted by their internal fears or limited by external forces of doubt.
They know who they are. They are fighters on the mat and in life, connected by three letters which empower.
And they're proud of it.