Beyond The Mat

Gina+Carrano+vs+Cyborg+Santos+was+the+first+women%27s+MMA+main+event+ever

AP

Gina Carrano vs Cyborg Santos was the first women's MMA main event ever

Sweat dripping from her arms, legs and face fall and touch the mat as she stares her opponent in the eyes. With a sense of confidence in the weeks and hours of training behind her, she prepares to make a move. In one swift motion, she grabs her opponent’s arm, and just as quickly, she’s brought down on her back.

“Damn,” she says as her opponent helps her back to her feet. “I thought I had you. One more time, let’s go!”

Once again, the two of them prepare to take on the other. This time, she is successful in dropping her opponent, but is also brought down. Her Jiu-Jitsu isn’t on the same level as her opponent’s and a loss was looming.

Her corner wants no excuses. Notably, that the opponent was a man.

“You’re being too predictable. I know what move you’re going to make before you act on in it and I’m not even on the mat with you,” explains Jimmy, her trainer. “You’re a very good fighter Laura, but until you can learn to let the moves come to you, rather than forcing them, you’re going to have a difficult time against fighters who are of equal or higher caliber than you.”

Rising to her feet and nodding, Mercy student Laura Paula helps her training partner up and prepares herself for another two hours of intense training.

The intense training was to ensure she would be at her best when she competed in her biggest tournament last April.

Every night at 6 p.m. Laura headed to Jungle Gym in Yonkers in hopes of improving her cross-training. After three hours of Muay Thia, grappling (wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu), kickboxing and karate, she headed to a local track to run.

“Three miles every night to keep up my endurance,” Laura explains. “It’s hell, especially after being beaten on by my trainer and dueling partners. Guys are so aggressive, but in the end it’s worth it because girls are nowhere as difficult to compete with.”

It’s true. Laura, by her own demand, only trains with male mixed martial artists. Although she expressed the pain to be immensely worse, and she endures several more injuries with men, the payout is enriching.

By conditioning her body to the force given by the hands of a man, when she steps on the mat with females, she is able to tolerate incredible amounts of pain.

It is a pain that not many would be able to tolerate.

“I’ve broken my shins a few times. Some fingers here and there. Oh, and I’ve fractured my ribs a bit,” recalled Laura. “But it’s okay. I really don’t feel the pain when I’m fighting. With my adrenaline pumping so high, I feel that if I broke my arm on the mat, I would still be using it to choke the other girl and not know that something was wrong with me.”

Her list of injuries also include fracturing her wrists three times each, breaking a right toe, a broken jaw, dislocating her left shoulder and undergoing five concussions.

On the sidelines, watching their daughter stomach these beatings, stand Laura’s mother and father (her older brother also supports when he can).

It takes her mother several days to mentally prepare herself to watch her only daughter go through the physical abuse that takes place in a match or tournament. She’s never approved of Laura’s desire to be a mixed martial artist, but understands her daughter’s love for the sport.

“It pains me to watch other women punching and kicking my precious daughter. Whenever I see her get hit, my husband holds and assures me that Laura is fine,” says her mother. “After each match, I secretly hope that Laura would come up to me and say she’s done fighting rather than tell me about her next match or question how she performed.”

Although she objects, her mother is always at every match watching her daughter fight against women younger, older, smaller, bigger, less experienced and more experienced. All shapes and sizes.

Experience? A category that Laura sometimes lacks when facing against other opponents.

When Laura has scheduled matches, she competes against women who are similar to her ability; however, when participating in tournaments, she runs the risk of going head-to-head with women not only more experienced than she, but also older and that weigh significantly more than she does.

“Tournaments are great places to get Laura exposed. They also bring the possibility of being invited to more experienced places, but she runs the risk of being seriously injured,” explained Jimmy. “When I set up matches for her, I know the women she’s going to fight and can prepare her for a specific fight. But when we get ready to compete in a tournament, there are thousands of contestants and not enough time to train for who she’d possibly face.”

With only two years of training in the mixed martial arts under her belt, Laura knows that she’s seen as a  novice competitor, but that doesn’t stop her.

On the contrary, knowing that she is the underdog fuels her to continue every day. It’s her desire to overcome whatever obstacle is thrown her way, which sets Laura apart from other mixed martial artists her age.

“I know when people look at me on paper, they think that I don’t stand a chance, but I know differently,” said Laura. “I may be young and inexperienced, but I am feisty and resilient.”

Laura, 19, didn’t always know she wanted to become a mixed martial artist. Before entering the dangerous world of ultimate fighting, she excelled at volleyball and softball. The idea of mixed martial arts or any sport where she would sustain constant pain didn’t cross her mind until it was recommended to her.

As a child and through several years of her adolescence, Laura had been bullied by her peers due to her height and dialect.

She wasn’t known for being aggressive, and due to fear, she refused to let anyone know what was taking place outside of her home. For that, Laura was bullied for four years before anyone was aware of what had been taking place.

“Laura didn’t show any signs of being abused until she was around 15,” recalls her father. “I remember coming home from work one day and approaching her with my arms wide open. As we embraced, she winced in pain and pushed me away.”

Soon after the incident, Laura revealed to her parents that she had been verbally and physically abused by a group of boys from her school since the age of 11.

With hopes of helping their daughter, her mother and father sought the help of a local therapist.

Laura immediately began seeing Dr. Maria Szabo twice a week to cope with her memories of abuse.

“After several sessions, in which Laura revealed many traumatic incidents, it was apparent that she was suppressing years of pain and anger,” said Dr. Szabo. “This in turn caused her self-esteem to lower tremendously. I recommended that she should take up boxing, in hopes of releasing some of the anger she had bottled.”

And box she did.

Five days a week, for months, precisely after school, Laura went to a local boxing gym and boxed for four hours.

Some nights, she would stay until John, the gym’s owner, would tell her she had to leave.

“I had never seen a female her age with as much dedication and fire in her eyes,” said John. “There was something about the way she would hit the bag that let me know there was something special in her.”

John’s interest in Laura quickly paid off. He invited his close friend Jimmy, a local personal trainer, to the gym one week night. The two men watched Laura as she attacked one of the gym’s punching bag.

For hours, Jimmy watched as Laura jabbed the bag as if it were an actual person.

“There was such force and precision behind each of her hits. I knew from just watching her, that with training, I’d be able to mold her into an incredible athlete,” said Jimmy.

From that moment, an unforgettable friendship was created.

Jimmy quickly volunteered to assist Laura in perfecting her boxing skills and promised to introduce her to a world of similar sports.

Once Laura was done with boxing, she learned the fundamentals of kickboxing. With her knowledge on how to maneuver herself across the boxing ring, the basics of how and where to strike with her legs and feet came easily.

“She absorbed everything I threw at her with ease. We went through lessons quicker than I had with any of the other students I have trained. It was insane,” said Jimmy.

After kickboxing came karate, the martial art in which she is still training. As of now, Laura has a Purple Belt in Shorinji Kempo Karate and is inching closer to receiving her Purple Belt with Black Stripe.

Within the three years that Laura has been studying Shorinji Kempo Karate, she has been given her White, Orange, Yellow, Blue, Green and Green with Black Stripe Belts. After the two stages of Purple Belts, she will then continue until she has been awarded her Brown, Brown with Black Stripe, Red, Red with Black Stripe, Black, Black 1st Degree up to Black 10th Degree Belts.

By spending a significant amount of time on every aspect of mixed martial arts, Jimmy began to develop Laura into a good overall fighter. With the recent increase in popularity of women’s mixed martial arts, he decided to train her as a cage fighter; Laura gladly accepted.

“The excitement behind Women’s Mixed Martial Arts has skyrocketed since Strikeforce announced its newly-created female championship in 2009,” explained Jimmy. “Females everywhere are training harder than ever to get exposed so that they can become the next Women’s Middleweight Champion.”

Strikeforce hosted the first women’s championship match by a major U.S. organization on August 15, 2009. The match for middleweight championship (145 lbs.) was between Gina Carano, known as “the Face of Women’s MMA” and Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos. Santos won by TKO (Technical Knockout) with one second left in the first round after a furious slugfest.

Since the fight, Strikeforce has added a welterweight champion (135 lbs.) as well and continues to host several female tournaments.

The amount of time that Laura has to dedicate to become a respected women’s cage fighter has taken a toll on her body both mentally and emotionally.

“After a rough day of working out, I want nothing more than to take a warm shower and to sleep for hours,” said Laura.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Once she’s finished training and has prepared for bed, it’s usually several hours after midnight. This gives her a little under five hours of sleep before she has to wake up and get ready for school.

“I don’t know how she does it,” said Jackee Mulvey, Laura’s roommate. “I play lacrosse for our school for two hours, at the most, everyday and am exhausted from that. Laura trains and fights for over five hours a day, sleeps for around the same amount of time and still wakes up on time for her early morning classes.”

Desire.

When asked how she’s able to manage school and training, the word Laura gave was desire.

The desire she will need when she competes against the world’s best female mixed martial artists.

“In order to succeed, you have to have desire. I love being a mixed martial artist and want to continue training so that I can be discovered. I know that in order to achieve my dream I have to be able to balance my schoolwork and training. In the end, if I am unsuccessful in martial arts, I will be able to fall back on my education and become prosperous that way,” explained Laura.

Prosperous she will be.

Laura is currently seeking her bachelor’s in criminal justice with hopes of someday becoming a thriving defense attorney, a career which requires excellent communication and interpersonal skills, in order to gain the trust of clients.

These skills, which she has acquired, have helped her in the classroom as well as with her friends and relationships.

In order to maintain good relationships, she must be able to interact, communicate and manage her time well.

Luckily, her current love interest understands her time constraints and has no problems with Laura being involved in a sport where she is beaten up on a regular basis.

“Who am I to say anything if she loves what she does? I completely understand her devotion to the sport and support her 100 percent. I go to her practices and matches and cheer for her, hoping she doesn’t come out too damaged,” said Laura’s beau at the time of the interview.

The time that she barely has to herself, Laura  must also use to show affection to those dearest to her.

“MMA takes a lot of energy out of me, but I always manage to pull some time out of my crammed schedule to spend time with the ones I adore. I have to make sure they understand training takes up most of my time, but also know that I care. I’ve never had a problem so far, hopefully it stays that way,” said Laura. “And when I don’t have any time, there are always text messages and phone calls.

With the time that she barely has to herself, Laura must also make sure to fuel her body with nutritious foods.

In order to maintain a healthy diet and workout regimen, Laura follows the Alkaline diet, with a few exceptions.

An Alkaline diet is based on the consumption of fresh fruits, vegetables, roots and tubers, nuts and legumes while avoiding grains, dairy, meat and excess salt.

Although the diet says to avoid meat, Laura eats grilled chicken everyday in order to assure that she’s taking in a good amount of protein.

Consuming protein along with the Alkaline diet and her consistent training has allowed Laura to mentally and physically prepare for her toughest task so far.

Increasing her training has gone into effect in order to ensure that Laura is 100% ready to compete in New Jersey’s female Mixed Martial Arts Invitational.

The date, April 10, was circled on the calendar she walked by every day, continuing to remind her why she pushed herself harder than she ever had.

*          *          *          *          *

She jumps in the air several times while shaking out her arms and legs. Rolling her head left, center, right, back and left again, stretching out her neck. Breathing air in slowly to fill her lungs.

Staring Anya Tarasov in the eyes, without a single flinch in her posture.

More experienced, heavier, older, Anya was in each of those categories, but it didn’t intimidate Laura. It fueled her.

From the second she stepped onto the mat, she was transformed. Cheerful and relaxed moments before, but now stern and strict. An intimidating fire had lit in her eyes. If she focused on anyone else, heads would quickly turn away from her position. With a silky stride to the center of the mat, she tapped Anya’s gloves.

Ding. Round One.

Time slowed with every punch and kick thrown.

Each move made seemed to have been countered by the other, as if the two were conscious of the other’s moves.

Right jab. Left jab. Left kick to the body.

Neither budged.

Boom.

Laura had been taken down by a powerful kick to her left leg.

A quick attempt at a leg lock was stopped by Laura and the two females returned to their feet.

Ding. End of Round One.

“I know, I know. I have to be more aggressive. But I wanted to try and get a feel for how she fights,” said Laura as Jimmy whipped sweat from her face and gave her water.

“Okay. Well don’t get accustomed to that. Show her what you’ve got. You don’t want to have to go five rounds with her. If you can take her out, do it,” he replied.

Ding. Round Two.

Back to the center of the mat they were: staring at each other, waiting for someone to make a move.

A quick right jab by Laura grazed Anya’s face, triggering an even quicker knee to Laura’s chest.

Boom.

Laura fell to the ground for a second time.

Anya was immediately on top of Laura, holding her down with her weight, throwing a frenzy of punches in Laura’s face.

Laura tried blocking the punches with her arms, which only caused the side of her head to be vulnerable to Anya’s hits.

Left. Right. Left. Right. Left.

Anya continued punching Laura.

Ding. End of Round Two.

“You look foolish out there. You’re not doing anything but letting her have her way with you. Have you forgotten all your training? Are you not sure what to do because she’s a female? Picture her to be a man or something. Laura, let’s go!” said Jimmy.

Ding. Round Three.

Laura charged at Anya, bringing her down and getting her in an arm lock. Finally, she had her. Victory was in her grasp.

Yet.

Anya countered with another leg lock.

Ding.

Unable to bear the pain, Laura tapped out and gave up the match.

An intense battle, training that lasted for five months did not lead to victory. Many consoled her, telling her defeat was inevitable from the onset of the fight due to her opponent’s vast experience. Laura wanted to hear none of it.

Frustrated of her performance, she walked off the mat, ignoring friends and family that had watched her lose, and headed straight to the women’s locker room.

She needed ten minutes, wishing to see no one.

Laura then returned to the site of her defeat, furious.

“I won’t give in ever again. I’ve handled so much more pain than that, I don’t know what got into me. That’s the only loss I’m ever going to have, so I hope she enjoyed it,” said Laura.

Even though she lost, her passion didn’t go unnoticed.

After competing in other tournaments, Laura had toyed with putting her MMA training on pause.

“All the training required a lot from me, and I didn’t want it to start affecting my school work.  I was going to take a break from MMA and focus on my studies,” she explained. “I like to work too. Money is good in your pocket.”

Yet that only lasted so long.

A few weeks after making those statements, she was back on the mats. Rolling around in side control. Throwing kicks. Applying triangle chokes. Working on takedowns. She’s signed up for a tournament in December in South Jersey.

“How could I leave it? I missed it too much,” she said, heading out of her English class. “There’s going to be a thousand girls at this tournament. I probably have to win about six matches to win the gold in my division. I’m ready for them this time around. I don’t quit.”

Desire.