Women are making great strides in the male-dominated MMA world and deliver a unique level of excitement. Still, female fighters feel they must work especially hard to gain respect within the sport they live and breathe.
MMA’s biggest promotion, the UFC now has 60 women on its roster. This is a major shift from the statement made by President Dana White just over three years ago that women would never fight in the Octagon. Further, the recent UFC 193 card featured female fights as both the Main and Co-main events for the first time ever.
But as acceptance and admiration for female fighters surges, MMA’s ladies remain a minority and many feel that they're still struggling to prove themselves capable competitors.
"We’re nowhere near being totally equal yet, but I think we’re on the way,” 18 year-old amateur strawweight, Angelica Martinez said, adding that “Women are objectified in the sport. We have to worry about so much more than just performance.”
Martinez’s passion for MMA was ignited by her father’s love of boxing and at 14 she began training in Tae Kwon Do. The hardcore youngster has come a long way since her first fight at the tender age of 16.
Losing her first two fights didn’t keep Martinez down. In fact, it was after the second loss that she decided she would pursue a career as a fighter. Finally admitting that she lost those fights because she failed to train to her full potential, Martinez reached a turning point. She also determined that it would take more than Tae Kwon Do to really compete in the cage and quickly found RVA MMA, where she trains now.
The more she trained, the more hungry Martinez became to see her dream materialize. Perhaps more importantly, she began to believe it was actually possible. Martinez has since won her last two fights, including her most recent TKO victory over Tara Graff at Sprawl N Brawl 5.
Chelsea McCoy also has big MMA dreams. Like Martinez, the Richmond native does a whole lot more than dream. Committing herself daily to a grueling training schedule, McCoy works tirelessly to prove that she has the drive to make it.
At 21, McCoy was simply looking to stay in shape after undergoing back surgery when she began practicing Muay Thai at MMA Institute, in Richmond. She quickly gained an interest in fighting, taking her first amateur bout less than a year later. That fight got McCoy completely hooked. She celebrated her 24th birthday December 18th with a 3 and 1 record. She defeated Maryland fighter, Kristen Outten with a first-round knockout also at last month’s Sprawl N Brawl 5.
The dedication required to succeed in the punishing world of MMA already exceeds the comprehension of most. As the sport’s newest and fewest faces, MMA’s ladies must shine even brighter. "We have to work harder because we’re still proving ourselves,” Pro-fighter Gabby “Gabanator” Holloway said.
Holloway also began boxing with no intention of actually fighting. Looking to pursue a competitive sport after years of high school athletics, the Rhoadesville, Virginia native began training at Zamora Boxing Gym in Culpeper in 2008. Falling in love with the sport immediately, the then 18-year old took her first fight and went on to win seven straight amateur fights before going pro in 2012. “I just can’t get enough,” she said.
"There's a certain aggression that I see in almost every female fight I’ve watched. We bring more to the table,” Holloway said. “I think it’s because we are still trying to prove ourselves,” she added.
The need to prove themselves may just give MMA’s ladies an edge. The hunger to succeed and to silence the doubters can be a driving factor for many. Watching any card with a female fight, it’s easy to see that the ladies bring a special vigor to their craft.
Still, "We’re underestimated. It’s a challenge for people to recognize us as dedicated athletes and not just attention-seekers,” McCoy said, describing her greatest frustration.
Martinez shares that irritation. She recounts a recent situation in which she was asked if she was training at a particular gym to pick up a guy. Martinez laughs it off, as it’s not new for her. She combated the same silly questions as the only girl on her high school's wrestling team. “They don’t understand that I’m there for me,” Martinez said.
Being a minority in the sport also means that most females are outnumbered in the gyms at which they train daily. Holloway believes training solely with men gives her an edge. “No female can throw anything at me that I haven’t seen in training,” she explained.
But McCoy feels a bit differently. As MMA Institute’s only full-time female, her training partners are primarily male. "I wish we had more females. Sometimes the guys are scared to go 100 percent with you, which means I'm not getting all of my teammate,” McCoy said.
Ladies like Holloway, McCoy and Martinez remain hopeful that women’s contributions to the sport as a whole will continue to be acknowledged more and more. These persistent ladies are more than happy to challenge those who doubt their place in the fierce MMA arena.
“People say I’m going to mess my face up, but it doesn’t really bother me,” Martinez said. The budding fighter has grown accustomed to the confused looks that come her way when explaining her passion. "People say I don’t look like a fighter, but I think of it as having the best of both worlds- I can be one of the guys, but also a lady,” she explained.
Holloway understands those bewildered looks well. “[People] say I’m too nice to be a fighter, but MMA is a sport. I don’t hate my opponent,” she said.
Being underestimated can also have real advantages. McCoy exploits her unassuming appearance and nature. "I don’t look super tough, so I like to show what I can really do and prove people wrong,” she said. The tenacious fighter plans to continue to silence her doubters as she battles her way to the top. Her eyes currently set on Invicta, McCoy hopes to eventually compete in the UFC. “My ultimate goal is to become well-known as a skilled athlete,” she said.
Fight fans can continue to witness the rise of these three warriors, along with all of the other female fighters currently competing in the sport they love, as many local promotions are embracing the growth in WMMA. Continue to check back on MMAinVA.com for a complete list of upcoming fight cards in the Commonwealth.