How Bec Rawlings is becoming the Ronda Rousey of bareknuckle boxing
It's early February in Cancun, Mexico. Aussie Bec Rawlings takes a brutal, bare knuckled overhand right to her mouth during her 125-pound title fight against hometown favourite Cecilia Flores. Undaunted, Rawlings spits out a tooth and fights on. She defeats Flores by unanimous decision to retain her Bare Knuckle FC women's title, upping her record to 3-0 and defending her featherweight Police Gazette Bare Knuckle Diamond Championship belt.
"I mean, she got her tooth knocked out, choked on it and kept fighting ... what more can you ask for?" says Bare Knuckle FC president David Feldman.
And all the while Rawlings knows what she asks of herself. Why does any prize fighter...fight? And bare knuckled no less.
"The more wins I get, the more prominent I'll become and then I can get the big bucks," Rawlings tells ESPN.
In the sport of bareknuckle boxing, where the audience displays a spectrum of judgement and emotion ranging from disdain to morbid curiosity to outright bloodlust, Rawlings is determined to wring the sport of what she needs in order to survive. As a single mother of two who has experienced physical and mental abuse, she says she is a survivor.
"I'd like to take over everything," Rawlings says. "I'd like to be the queen [of Australian fighting]."
It should come as no surprise that Rawlings kept fighting that night. She says she has had to fight for everything most of her life. Growing up as the youngest of four children in the Tasmanian city of Launceston, Rawlings was a self-admitted "angry wild little kid who was looking for trouble everywhere."
"I was a difficult kid. My mum was a single mum, a full-time nurse, and she had her hands full trying to control me and raise three other kids," the 29-year-old Rawlings says. "I didn't make it easy on my mum at all. I just rebelled against everyone and anything."
She regularly got suspended at school.
"[My attitude] was just 'f--k everyone, f--k the world' and that attitude just grew bigger and the chip on my shoulder got bigger and bigger ... it was self-destructive [behaviour] and a vicious cycle," Rawlings says.
"I'd hang out with bad kids, look for trouble all the time and I don't know why. I didn't get my s--t together until I had my eldest son Zake [now 10]."
In 2010, she met ex-mixed martial arts fighter Dan Hyatt, who introduced Rawlings to the sport and she discovered a natural aptitude for it. By October 2011, at just 22 years of age, Rawlings fought in her first MMA bout. Though she got knocked out by vicious head kick, it started a seven-year MMA career that culminated in Rawlings' selection to the cast of the UFC's The Ultimate Fighter reality show that sought to fill the league's new women's strawweight division. Rawlings did this while being the mother of two, after welcoming a second son, Enson, now 8, into the world in 2010.
But just as quickly as she rose up the ranks, despite two early wins, a four-fight losing streak ended Rawlings' run in the UFC in 2018.
Meanwhile, Rawlings says as she built her fledgling MMA career, she was fighting her own battles at home. She said Hyatt inflicted years of horrific domestic abuse on her "on a daily basis."
"[The relationship was] highly abusive, physically and emotionally," Rawlings recalls. "The first few years I was competing in the sport were the hardest I've had to go through. I was raising two young boys and trying to get ready for fights, but dealing with an abusive husband at home."
She alleges the relationship turned abusive shortly after they got together in January 2010. For three years she says endured the abuse, first in Launceston and then after a move to Brisbane, where she still resides and trains.
In 2013 Rawlings found the courage for her and her children to flee, saying "I knew their lives and my life depended on it and I had to do it. It was terrifying. I don't think I slept a full night for the first two years after leaving. I would always look over my shoulder -- I would wake up wondering if he would find me and kill me, like he threatened."
— Bec Rawlings (@RowdyBec) April 24, 2019
For his part, Hyatt called Rawlings' allegations "grossly fabricated," offering his version of events in a letter published in 2014 on an MMA media site: "While I'm not perfect, having never claimed to be, my estranged wife's story about domestic violence and abuse, mere allegations, mind you, that have zero criminal charges, restraining orders, police reports or credible, independent eye witness statements to back it up, was conveniently released over three months after our split to take attention away from her still widely assumed and now believed infidelity."
Rawlings did not press charges against Hyatt, although official police records show an Apprehended Violence Order Rawlings filed in January 2012. According to multiple reports, in 2018 Hyatt was found guilty of physically and emotionally abusing subsequent partners.
Today, Rawlings is happy, motivated and flourishing in the growing bareknuckle scene in the U.S. "It really is bitter-sweet ... my ex-husband was an MMA fighter and took me under his wing and as I fell in love with the sport, I fell into that abusive relationship," Rawlings says.
Bareknuckle is only legal in a handful of states in the U.S. but interest in the previously underground sport is rising, with Rawlings one of the sport's brightest prospects.
At 1.68m, 52kg (5-5, 125 pounds), Rawlings has the potential to be a household name, Feldman says, even if bareknuckle fighting isn't yet.
"As we [the organisation] are growing ... she's growing with us," Feldman says. "My goal is to make her a household name - I want people, the same [way] they talk about Ronda Rousey, they talk the same about Bec Rawlings."
With nearly 75,000 Twitter followers, Rawlings' appeal is apparent.
Feldman says Rawlings brings more to the table than just her boxing ability. She rocks extravagant hairstyles and colours and has many piercings and tattoos. Her looks help her stand out from the crowd.
The dramatic hairstyles began when she worked as a hairdresser as a young woman trying to straighten herself out after a misspent youth. A colleague needed a hair model for a competition, and Rawlings was quick to volunteer.
"I put my hand up and she went nuts - one side was shaved and I've just kept it crazy since then!" she laughs.
Rawlings has also had a fascination with tattoos from a young age. Some of the ink that adorns her slight but powerful body has meaning, but some have been added just because she likes bright colours. She is comfortable promoting herself, upcoming fights and the organisation she works for on camera.
But the real Rawlings is anything but Rowdy, as her nickname suggests.
"Bec is great at marketing herself and people do make judgements on her sometimes, with her hair and tattoos and [the fact she] fights but the Bec I know is completely different," her trainer, John Bastable of Brisbane's United Fight Team, tells ESPN.
"If you met her, she's nothing like what you'd think."
She sweats out two intense training sessions per day, six days per week. One of her training partners is April Adams, WBO Asia Pacific Super Bantamweight Champion and defending Australian Super Bantamweight Champion.
Since switching to bareknuckle boxing, Rawlings and Bastable have focused on toughening up the tools of her new trade - her hands. They practise an ancient kung-fu technique called 'Iron Palm training' - a sequence of slapping sandbags filled with increasingly hard materials. Rawlings then rubs a Chinese herbal liniment into her hands to help them recover.
"A lot of people think all we do is learn how to punch," Rawlings says. "You do have to worry about your hands the most ... but also your defence and making sure you're not getting hit. But coming from MMA, I'm used to small hands coming at my face."
For Bastable, that defence is the primary reason why Rawlings is so far undefeated.
"She's got a really strong defensive platform - she's not going in there and throwing bombs," he says. "She didn't want to go in there and brawl - she wanted to make sure she had great technique.
"She's had three bareknuckle fights now and hasn't damaged her hands at all."
For now, Rawlings is focusing on preparing for her next opponent, whoever and wherever that may be. She and Feldman are hopeful of setting up a bareknuckle event in Australia in the near future - "there's a lot of things in the works," Rawlings says -- but in the short-term she's focused on a simple goal: winning, adding her Bare Knuckle FC contract wouldn't prevent her from exploring opportunities in other areas of the fight scene.
"I've always wanted to test myself in [traditional] boxing [and I can return to] MMA - that's definitely in my sights."
"When you think of all the adversity she's had ... a lot of people with that sort of background can turn to drink, or drugs, or just use it as an excuse to not succeed," says Bastable. "But the admiration I have for her is, she doesn't dwell on the past and she's optimistic, she's always looking forward and trying to help people, to inspire other people in the gym."