By MEGAN BAEZA
Anchorage Daily News
July 07, 2006
If I had a dollar for every time I heard that in the weeks before my Alaska Fighting Championship debut, I would have made my prize money twice over. In a sport that's just beginning to find its place in mainstream American culture, there still is little room for women to be taken seriously.
It's perfectly fine to wear a bikini and wedge heels as a ring girl, but strap on the gloves and pop in a mouthpiece and you're an anomaly.
I can handle that. Actually, any woman who can put up with the training required could handle the odd stares and seemingly innocent questions.
The Alaska Fighting Championship is a mixed martial arts fighting venue held monthly. All styles of martial arts are allowed, and participants follow very few but highly enforced rules like "no eye-gouging" and no "head-butting." Fighters don't wear protective gear, only 4-ounce gloves to cover their knuckles. Normal fights are three three-minute rounds, and the rules are the same for men and women.
Crowds average 3,000 people, but some events have pulled as many as 4,500. Most nights feature 10 fights on the card.
I've been in competitive sports all my life, some more full contact than others, and they all seemed to lead to mixed martial arts in a long, convoluted road. Four years of rugby at Texas A&M University led to another contact sport, judo, after graduation. Judo led to Muay Thai boxing classes along the way, and at one point, after about a year into it, a mixed martial arts tournament was set up. I was talked into it, and despite my fear of being hit and scarred for life, I won. Winning is an addicting feeling.
My road to the Alaska Fighting Championship began in February when I walked into Ted Stickel's Gracie Barra Alaska Brazilian jujitsu school after a year-long training hiatus. I trained four to five times a week on average through the end of winter and early spring. I was the only female at the school, and my sparring partners went easy enough on me so I wouldn't break but were nice enough to not completely spare me either.
One of the best boxing coaches around, Mike Houston, worked with me the last few weeks on my stand-up fight because, and I can admit it, I'm a lousy boxer and hate to get hit in the face.
THE DAY BEFORE
I know professional fights require weigh-ins. I also know that I'm not a skinny person by any stretch of the imagination, and I'm aware that my competition happens to weigh a lot less than I do. I'm a girl. I'm sensitive about numbers and scales.
To be downright honest, I'm terrified of both. So standing on a scale, in a bar, in front of dozens of people while Jason Oxholm calls out my weight on a microphone rivals that "showing up to school naked" nightmare. My face was red the entire time, and it didn't help that as he was sliding the bar farther and farther right, he made fun of me and said something to the effect of "dang, girl ..." I wanted to beat him senseless with his microphone for that one. But I survived. I went home. I tried to eat. I tried to sleep. I had visions of TKOs and tap-outs in my head that night.
THE BIG DAY
5:30 a.m.: Grudgingly, I'm up. Jason called the day before and asked that I be at the KWHL 106.5 studio at 7 a.m. for a spot on the Bob and Mark Show. I get ready for work and race to south Anchorage.
7:30 a.m.: Bob Lester, also the Alaska Fighting Championship emcee, asks the million-dollar question: "What's a girl like you doing fighting?" I'm so nervous and jittery, I fumble through some nonsense about judo and a lack of rules, and to this day have no idea what I said or whether I made sense.
6:30 p.m.: Hours drag by. It seems like a lifetime before I meet up with the two people who will act as corner men for me. Ginger Schaaf is one of my closest friends and I wanted her nearby. The other is Gracie Barra blue-belt Tony Faralan. Tony has practiced with me relentlessly from the moment I said I wanted to fight and spent hours working and reworking my least favorite moves and scenarios.
8:30 p.m.: I'm fight nine of 11. At this point, fight seven is just finishing up, and my stomach is doing flip-flops every time Bob gets the crowd riled up for the "chick fight." I'm afraid I might get sick.
9:35 p.m.: Show time. My opponent is Anna Reed, a police officer. All I know about her is that she's got a background in judo and likes to wear her hair in cornrows. She's a hard book to read. Her music starts, and she disappears through the curtain to make her entrance.
9:36 p.m.: All I hear is Bob's garbled voice followed by "Baeza ...," and I know it's time. I begin the long walk to the octagon, hoping and praying with each step that I don't either fall off the runway or listen to my instincts and turn and run in the other direction. This is much more intense than any of my previous tournaments, and I'm having a hard time settling down.
The ref starts us, and Anna comes straight at me. The first round is hazy. I know we got tangled up a couple times. I used a few knees, failed to finish a guillotine choke and finally end up on the ground on top of her, trying to land the perfect shot.
But she's tough. She makes it hard to remember everything I've learned, and the round ends with a stalemate. And I'm tired. It's amazing how much energy this night has zapped out of me.
Before I walk out for the second round, Mike yells for me to start with a big right hand to her face. Somehow between there and the middle of the octagon, I forget what he says and kick her, dropping my hands as I do it. Anna capitalizes on the moment and catches me square in the face with a right hand of her own. My eyes water immediately.
At this point, I'm really drained and think there's a possibility that I could lose. I clinch up with her and hold her as still as possible while I reconsider what I'm doing in the first place. My arms feel like lead. My face is throbbing. I'm wheezing. I would rather be sitting at one of the ringside tables drinking a beer _ it's my own little pity party.
Then I see it. There's blood on the canvas next to my feet. There's blood on my arms. There's blood on my hands. My nose has opened up, and I'm worried that it's broken and I might have to take pictures with a bent nose the rest of my life.
"Oh my goodness, I'm bleeding" is the G-rated version of what went through my mind. Call it a galvanizing moment, but whatever it was, it gave me that last push of energy to throw a few more knees to her head. When she stands up, she's against the cage, and I throw the last of what I have into a few punches. They do the trick, and finally Anna falls to a knee, and the ref calls the fight. At minute 2:10 of the second round, I win by TKO. It's over, and I survived.
WHAT I'VE LEARNED
In the end, what makes this sport enjoyable for me isn't the 5 1/2 minutes in the spotlight. It's the hours and hours of practice spent with people who have become a second family to me. Win or lose, your team is by your side and ready to crank one more guillotine on you to make sure it's right for the next time.
The crowd doesn't remember my name or how I won my debut fight. But the guys at Gracie Barra do, and they make sure my slips and misses won't repeat themselves in my next bout.
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