Female fighters want to open minds
Rosi Sexton is like any other working mother.
She worries about balancing a hectic work schedule with her desire for quality time with her son. She deals with homework, groceries and playdates. Like any busy mother, she's constantly doing a juggling act.
But there is one significant difference between Sexton, 35, and other moms in her neighborhood.
Her office is an octagon cage surrounded by thousands of screaming fans waiting for her to knock an opponent into submission.
Sexton, who has an 8-year-old son, is a mixed martial arts fighter, based out of Manchester, England, and Saturday she makes her UFC debut.
Sexton, who just happens to have a degree in mathematics from Cambridge, a Ph.D. in theoretical computer science and a degree in osteopathy, will take on Canadian fighter Alexis Davis, 28, who will also be making her debut, at UFC 161 in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Women in UFC
For those unfamiliar with UFC, or Ultimate Fighting Championship, it is the largest mixed martial arts promotional company in the world. It hosts the best fighters in the sport and produces events that are seen worldwide.
UFC has been around since the early 1990s, but women are a new addition to the family. Female fighters have been participating in MMA for years, but it wasn't until February that UFC held its first official women's match.
Sexton doesn't fit the image that the average sports fan would have of a female MMA fighter, but the reality is most people would be surprised by what these fighters have to offer to society.
Most female fighters are educated, socially conscious, well-spoken individuals who just happen to share a passion for a sport that, whether the image is fair or not, is often characterized as violent, brutal and vicious.
"Some people are just blocked off and are unwilling to think of it in a different form," Canadian fighter Sarah Kaufman said. "They want to think it's brutal and grotesque, but I think for the majority they would have to watch a fight because you can tell someone one thing, but if they don't experience it for themselves, they won't be convinced."
Kaufman said the injury rate in MMA is significantly lower than most would think. She feels that the sight of bloody noses and certain holds during fights lead many to their own conclusions, whether educated or not.
"Until people take the time to really watch and have somewhat of an open mind, you can't really change someone's opinion if they're not willing to change it," Kaufman said.
Sexton understands the skepticism but feels that her background could help change some of those preconceptions.
"I think one of the advantages I've got is that I don't fit the typical stereotype," Sexton said. "I make people look twice, and then when people see that, they get curious and they start asking questions and that's when we have the opportunity to explain what the sport's really about, and it's not just about two people beating the hell out of each other.
"It's actually a very technical sport. It's two highly trained, highly competitive athletes, and when people start to see that, they lose that stereotype as a whole and can see the sport for what it is."
Sexton became involved in the sport because of the challenge it presented.
As a teenager she started martial arts on a whim and found she enjoyed it. As she got older, she began experimenting with different art forms, like judo and jiu-jitsu, and after seeing a documentary on MMA she knew she had discovered a new interest.
"It was something I wanted to see if I could do," she said. "Somewhere along the line I got hooked on it, the technical complexity of it and how much goes into preparing for a fight on a physical, psychological and emotional level, as well as all the technical elements. That's what I loved about the sport."
Sexton had her first fight in 2002, and now, 11 years later, is prepared to compete on the biggest stage.
"This is a dream come true," Sexton said. "I've always looked at the UFC as the biggest show in the sport. I think most women would regard [UFC] as the pinnacle of MMA."
Mom in the Octagon
Cat Zingano, 30, is one of UFC's biggest names and was the first mother to compete in a match.
If not for a freak knee injury suffered in May, Zingano would be preparing for a title fight against 135-pound champion Ronda Rousey later this year.
Zingano, from Broomfield, Colo., was always an avid athlete and quickly developed a passion for wrestling as a teenager. She continued to wrestle until age 24, but by that time had already begun to lose passion for the sport.
After having a son and looking for a way to lose some of her baby weight, Zingano discovered jiu-jitsu. Within six months, she was introduced to MMA.
She developed an instant passion for the sport and was determined to become the best fighter she could, but didn't see it becoming a full-time career.
"I was satisfied with having a couple of fights a year, to enjoy them and have them be part of my training routine," Zingano said. "When the UFC came around, it seemed like it fell in my lap. It was like I got so good at my hobby and now I'm living all these people's dreams who had been working for so many years. I almost feel like I don't deserve it sometimes because I got here just by loving it, but now that I'm where I'm at, I want it more than ever."
Zingano admits motherhood affects her career, but only in a positive light.
"My son is a huge inspiration for me," she said. "Sometimes I look at my opponent and I resent them because of the time I miss with my son by having to train for them, and that gives me even more strength."
Zingano and her husband, Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Mauricio Zingano, run a fitness and martial arts school in Colorado, and their 6-year-old son has already been introduced to jiu-jitsu and kickboxing classes. He has an understanding of what his mother does, but Zingano says she is extremely protective of him.
"I want this to be fun and educational and about safety and learning to protect yourself and defend yourself," said Zingano. "I don't want it to be about a blood sport and injuring people and violence and hurt. I want it to be a positive outlet and something you can use your whole life.
"Honestly, I'm not sure if I'm going to want him to fight, but I want him to have these tools for the rest of his life."
Zingano admits there were mixed reactions from other parents when they learned of her career. But for the most part, she says, the support has been unbelievable.
"So many moms are coming out and telling me how proud they are of me," Zingano said. "It's a great feeling because I know it could have gone either way. I'm sure some could have said, Hey, you're a mom and what are you doing being in fights and promoting violence? But that's not what it's about. Getting support from moms means volumes to me, especially since I don't have my own mom anymore, so to have these experiences is unbelievable."
Like Sexton, Zingano believes UFC is the pinnacle for every female fighter.
"My first fight was incredible, it was surreal," recalled Zingano. "I almost forgot I had to fight, I was so overcome with emotion. It was just an amazing experience."
That first-time, life-altering experience is what seems to drive so many to the Octagon.
Kaufman is in the midst of preparing for her UFC debut in late August. Like so many before her, the 27-year-old Canadian fighter discovered MMA in a roundabout way.
Kaufman, a dancer since she was 2, was training with a dance company when an MMA school opened in the same building. She joined to try a kickboxing class and soon was taking every class offered.
During this time, Kaufman was attending the University of Victoria in British Columbia, with plans to become a cardiovascular surgeon, but the lure of MMA was too much to resist.
The change of pace was a shock to many, especially considering Kaufman's personality.
"I was always the quiet, studious type," Kaufman said with a laugh. "I had never been in a fight or an altercation in my entire life. I had a competitive side, but never a physical side."
Over the past seven years, Kaufman has compiled a 16-2 record.
The lessons learned from her many years of dance have served Kaufman well, as she is always striving for a higher level of success.
"Once I had that first fight, it really lit a fire to me and I knew I wanted to get better," said Kaufman. "It was fun and I didn't mind getting hit in the face and I have an inherent drive to do well at whatever I undertake."
Kaufman isn't afraid to admit that her goal is to be the best, and she plans to fight for a title one day.
But until that time comes, she balances her training by working as an MMA teacher for those of all ages.
This weekend, Kaufman will travel to Winnipeg for UFC 161 to watch the Davis-Sexton fight.
Davis is favored to win by decision, and you can guarantee that her family, which will be on hand, will be cheering for a quick outcome.
"My mom still gets so nervous at times and she cringes for me," said Davis.
Davis said her family has been supportive from the moment she expressed an interest in the sport. She grew up in Port Colborne, Ontario, and was somewhat of a late arrival to MMA, but she has quickly made a name for herself, as her 13-5 record attests.
Davis is a strong advocate for the sport and says she wouldn't be the woman she is without her MMA experience.
Her advice for anyone considering a future as a fighter is to experiment with the various martial arts. Fighting might not be for everyone, but Davis believes the sport offers so much.
"I was a small girl, and then as a teenager I kind of blew up like a balloon and didn't have much self-esteem," she said. "I think martial arts is great for discipline and confidence, and from doing this it's really helped me come out of my shell."
While opinions aren't always easily changed, it's clear the women of the UFC will do all they can to persuade people to at least give them a chance.