Meet Randa Markos, the Iraqi refugee-turned-UFC fighter

Stuart Pettican

UFC title contender Randa Markos was born in Iraq and imprisoned in Turkey before she landed in Canada, where she has become a professional cage fighter.

Randa Markos didn't have much of a childhood. War will do that to a kid.

In the late 1980s, near the end of the Iran-Iraq War, Markos and her family were constantly on the move in their native Iraq. They moved from city to city, country to country riding on donkeys and in cabs, sleeping in churches, eating table scraps from strangers, even spending time in prison; Randa was only 3. Eventually, the Markos' immediate family scattered across the globe, with Randa, her parents and siblings landing in Canada. Other relatives relocated to Australia and Italy.

Fast-forward two decades, and life has hardened the now-29-year-old woman into a highly skilled mixed martial arts fighter, someone who is able to tell a remarkable story of escape, imprisonment and, finally, liberation as an adult.

Markos is one of 16 female athletes competing on Season 20 of the UFC's "The Ultimate Fighter." This season will crown a 115-pound strawweight champion at its conclusion. Whereas past seasons of TUF contestants had to win their way into the competition to eventually earn a UFC contract, these 16 women are all already signed by UFC, fighting for the title in tournament style. They are whom the UFC deems the 16 best 115-pound female fighters in the world. Basically, the show is inventing a new women's MMA weight class.

The season debuted Sept. 10, and Markos entered the show as the No. 14 seed. She ended up on Anthony Pettis' team, and was one of the first two fighters called out to fight. On Episode 1, she upset No. 3 seed Tecia Torres. Even on the first show, you can see what makes Markos such a tough customer.

And escaping Iraq was only the first half of the battle.

War torn

It was 1988, at the height of the Iran-Iraq War.

Markos was just 3 and her father knew he had to get his family out of Iraq.

"In Iraq, all the males are required to join the army, but they were so poorly equipped and trained, he felt like it was an instant death sentence," Markos said. "My father watched so many of his friends die in the war, so he began the process of getting us out of Iraq. He knew if he stayed and didn't join the army, they would kill him."

So the Markos family set out for the Iraq-Turkey border.

On foot.

The family walked for four days and finally arrived at the border as refugees, alongside hundreds of other Iraqi families. From there, they were transported across Turkey to Istanbul to a refugee camp where they remained for nearly a year while waiting for visas to any country that would take them.

The process dragged on; the family lived in squalor. Markos' father grew increasingly frustrated and angry. As a refugee, he was not permitted to work.

A distant aunt in Canada was coordinating their visas, but it was taking time. Nearly a year gone by and no visas obtained, the Turkish government sent them back to the Turkey-Iraq border, where they were held in a prison awaiting deportation. Couple that with a new baby -- Randa's younger brother, Robert, had just been born -- and things were desperate.

"My father talked to a United Nations official and asked for his help," Markos said. "Somehow, they didn't send us back. Shortly after, our visas to Canada came through."

By January 1989, they were on a plane to Canada. Though there was nothing exploding and no people dying there, the adjustment was huge for the Markos family.

"The Canadians took care of us right away," said Markos, who currently lives in Windsor, Ontario, with her husband and works full-time as a pharmacy assistant in addition to training for MMA. "They took us in, the Salvation Army gave us clothes and we even had a little house."

And that's when the real fighting began. Markos' father had been a wealthy business owner in Baghdad, but left everything behind to get the family out of Iraq. In Canada, with limited English skills, he ended up taking a minimum-wage job washing dishes.

Markos has spoken openly about what happened next. The family struggled, especially her father, and her home environment deteriorated. Eventually he was ousted from the home.

During her turbulent youth, Markos eventually found solace in wrestling, joining her high school team. It wasn't long until she was hooked -- she had discovered an outlet that she was passionate about, and good at. "I loved wrestling because when all that stuff was going on in my house, I never talked about it," she said. "So I'd go to the gym and I'd get all my frustration out. And it was like another family to me. I would do well and [my coaches] would give me great feedback. I was starved to get that approval from them. I never got that approval at home."

As a Chaldean (Iraqi Christian) family, Markos' upbringing remained traditional and strict. So she told her family she played volleyball instead, then she went off every day and grappled with the boys.

When high school was over, Markos' focus became college. She missed wrestling, though, and felt a void in herself. She got serious in her relationship with her future husband, Jeff, who was an aspiring MMA fighter. "Jeff was training and after I watched his first fight, I knew this was what I wanted to do," Markos said. "I waited until I got out of college first before I started training."

In a local gym in Windsor at which Jeff trained, Markos was introduced to jiu-jitsu. With the wrestling background and jiu-jitsu's similar use of leverage and arm and leg locks, Markos took to the art effortlessly.

"Jeff and I actually trained together for a little while, but it got to be a little crazy," Markos said with a laugh. "We'd end up beating the s--- out of each other. So we stopped that."

With the encouragement of Jeff and her coaches, Markos' grappling skills and stand-up game had progressed to amateur level. But in a loss to Kelly Warren, she received a valuable wake-up call.

"It made me understand that if I wanted to do this for a living, I had to get a lot better and train harder," Markos said. "From then on, I trained as if I was training to fight Kelly Warren every time."

After four amateur bouts in which she went 3-1, it was difficult to find opponents. After she defeated Bernice Booth in 2010 -- for the second time -- two years would go by without another fight. So she decided to go pro, where fights were more plentiful and more importantly, sanctioned.

Markos finally found a taker in Allanna Jones, a much heavier fighter, in November 2012. Markos, so starved for competition, took the fight provided they could agree on a catch weight.

"I just wanted to fight someone," Markos said. "She said she could make it at 125 or 130. Honestly, I didn't care. I just went in and fought as hard as I could."

That produced a third-round armbar submission, her first win as a pro. By the time the UFC made an open call for 115-pound female fighters on March 19 of this year, Markos had amassed a 4-1 record as a pro. Markos answered the UFC's call, impressed at the tryouts in Las Vegas on April 28 and earned a UFC contract.

Now, a few wins away from being crowned the UFC's inaugural 115-pound champion, Markos has elite grappling skills, with three of her four pro wins coming by armbar. Her mother has come around to her daughter's job as an MMA fighter, but she is mostly estranged from her father, who still lives relatively close in Canada.

"I still go and see him sometimes, but he just can't live with us anymore," Markos said. "We'll always be appreciative that he got us out of Iraq, but it doesn't condone his behavior."

In MMA, she's found that there is no shortage of support, including from her husband. She's also got a new training center in Michigan Top Team, where she's found more sparring partners about 10 minutes over the U.S.-Canada border.

"She's really good," says Ultimate Fighter coach and UFC lightweight champion Pettis. "She's got that attitude that she doesn't care -- she's just going to whoop your ass no matter what ... She's a little quiet, but when she gets in that cage, she's totally different."

Now she embarks on the biggest fight of her career. As much as the UFC needs a new group of talented female fighters like Markos, Markos may need the UFC more.

"If I didn't have MMA or wrestling I don't know where I'd be now. I'd probably be a drug addict or something," Markos said. "It was a rough time and not many people can take something so bad and turn it into a positive in your life. I did. I chose the right path."

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