After six years of approaching fighters in the locker room before their matches, Swayze Valentine can tell within a matter of seconds whether or not she's welcome.
If she doesn't know the combatant -- which, with an ever-shifting Ultimate Fighting Championship roster of more than 400 competitors, is often the case -- they are almost always initially taken aback. "I'm a woman," says Valentine. "I get that a lot."
Undeterred, she quickly launches into her pitch. She's wearing the black cargo vest of a UFC cutman, so she doesn't need to introduce herself. She just looks at the fighter and tells them that she is going to wrap their hands.
Sometimes they flat-out refuse. Other times, they'll hem and haw and question her until their coach or cornerman steps in and politely asks if someone else, a man, is available. Valentine knows the issue isn't always her gender. She's a relative stranger. Her brown hair pulled tightly back in a ponytail, she looks much younger than her 30 years. And, she knows, these mixed martial artists' hands are their livelihoods -- they're all just a bad wrap and a broken finger away from losing their jobs.
"In our sport, not only do you eat with your hands. You grab. You strike," says Joe Stevenson, a veteran mixed martial artist and trainer, who has come to trust Valentine with his and his fighters' most precious weapons. "And outside the Octagon, you need to pick up your kids, pick up a pencil, drive a car. Hurting them in the fight to get a win is cool and all, except you then have to live with that."
Says veteran cutman Rudy Hernandez, who's been working for UFC since 2005 and has mentored Valentine: "When you're the new person, nobody wants you to wrap their hands or work their cuts. You have to earn your spot and do such a good job that next time, they'll ask for you. And she's earned that. It wasn't easy. But it isn't easy for anybody. We all went through it -- it's not just because she's female."
Of course, being a woman hasn't exactly helped. But as Valentine continues to make a name for herself as the UFC's first cutwoman, she'll at least get the silent passive acceptance of an athlete in their zone, if not a nod or maybe even a smile, like the one she gets from lightweight Jeremy Kennedy before a recent UFC Fight Night deep below the Rogers Arena in Vancouver.
It's Kennedy's first fight in front of his home British Columbian crowd, and the 23-year-old is giddy and anxious. At 6 feet tall, he towers over the diminutive Valentine. But as the two sit down in folding metal chairs, they face each other on a level plane. She starts with the right hand, massaging from the wrist down each finger, loosening up the muscles and cartilage. Then she begins the wrap, again working her way up from the wrist, first with gauze, then a layer of athletic tape. All the while she's asking his preference, if he has any injuries or areas of concern, and how this or that feels. "They're my client," she later says. "I talk with them the whole time."
"Do you want the thumb wrapped?" she now says, essentially asking whether he's a grappler who'll need his thumb loose for grip or a puncher who'll want more support for the opposable digit.
"Can you cut the thumb out?" Kennedy says. Valentine knows that's not a sturdy construction. Instead, she wraps it separately in a layer of tape.
This is the part of the job Valentine dreams about, that she practices repeatedly for hours on her own hands, on those of her two young sons, and on the rough knuckles of any fighter who'll sit across from her. To Valentine, hand-wrapping is an art. Five minutes and two rolls of 2-inch tape later, she snips the end of the tape with her scissors and lets Kennedy flex and examine her latest work.
"Wow!" he says. "That feels awesome."
Valentine hopes the validation is sincere, that she has not only earned a repeat customer in Kennedy, but in some of the other fighters looking on too -- that Kennedy's grin will take some of the pressure off the spiel she has to deliver twice more before she's summoned to the arena floor. There, from her cageside seat, Valentine will get to witness the durability of some of her wraps and, if necessary, clean up and repair some of the bloody damage that those carefully packaged fists will inflict.
Valentine has always looked up to healers and caretakers. Her father and older brother were emergency medical technicians in and around the Kenai Peninsula town of Homer, Alaska, where she grew up. At 16, she took the free, six-month certification course and got her EMT certificate, only to discover that she needed to be 18 to do the job.
She never got around to it. Valentine graduated from homeschooling a year later and went directly to toil at Burger King, where both of her parents worked in corporate. At 19, she married an Air Force cadet and followed him to bases in Spokane, Washington, and then to Anchorage. On Saturday fight nights, the couple would purchase an MMA pay-per-view and invite friends over to watch. "It makes me sick to see a street fight," she says. "I can't stand it, because I know it's not safe. But I knew MMA was regulated, that there were EMTs around. Watching was addicting."
Television was just the gateway fix for Valentine. In 2006, her husband and a few friends bought her a nosebleed seat to an Alaska Fighting Championship event in Anchorage. There, watching from the back row as these amateur and semi-professional fighters went at it in the cage, she got hooked. "It was [a] rush," she says. "It was just this crazy atmosphere, with the music. I knew I just had to be part of this, but I didn't want to be a fighter."
On a whim, Valentine looked up the promoter of the event and called to ask how she could get involved. "If you look good, you can be a ring card girl," she recalls the man saying. She decided to give it a try. The promoter signed her up to work a two-night tournament around Halloween. She put on a skimpy Tinker Bell costume and, between rounds, strutted around the ring apron holding a sign that no one was looking at while the whistles and catcalls rained down from the darkened audience. She wasn't paid a dime. It was Valentine's last gig as a ring card girl.
She doesn't regret it, because while backstage with the other card girls, Valentine got her first glimpse of the MMA world up close, brushing shoulders with the fighters, trainers, coaches, referees and officials she had previously only seen on TV or from the cheap seats. She was in awe. And it was back in the locker room that she caught a glimpse of a man wrapping a fighter's hands. "It just seemed to me that there would be no greater honor than wrapping the hands of the athlete," she says.
Valentine had no idea what a cutman was or what they really did, but at that moment, she knew she wanted more than anything to be one.
It's early evening, and fans are still filing into Rogers Arena for the nationally televised UFC Fight Night. Before the cameras go live with the featured fight card, the early fans scattered across the darkened arena are entertained with the preliminaries between younger, smaller and less-experienced fighters trying to maneuver their way up the ranks.
Two years into her tenure with UFC, Valentine is also paying her dues. She's worked main events and many undercard matches, but the majority of her cageside time is during these prelims. Greener combatants typically have less-developed defenses, which translates to a higher likelihood of injury -- plenty of practice for an aspiring cutman.
NOW FOR THE MOMENT YOU'VE ALL BEEN WAITING FOR ... IT'S TIME! booms the ring announcer, who then introduces the first contestant. Raucous rock entrance music blasts through the PA, almost undecipherable as it bounces off the metal rafters and empty sections of seats in this 19,000-capacity facility.
Valentine meets the fighter just outside the cage, stands before him and wipes his face with a towel before wiping petroleum jelly across his cheeks and forehead with her blue latex gloves. This makes the skin more slippery and elastic to minimize chances of tearing. Part of the reason MMA cutmen work for the promotion rather than the individual fighters (like they do in boxing) is to eliminate suspicion of greasing -- or rubbing gel on places other than the face for an unfair grappling advantage. Rather than being assigned to a specific athlete, Valentine is simply manning the blue corner, where she retreats once the match has started.
After the air horn sounds, Valentine is on call. She leans forward in a red folding chair, elbows on knees, craning her neck to watch her fighter closely for any signs of injury. Tucked into her black wristband are long cotton swabs that she hand-rolled in the hotel room last night. Both of these combatants are grapplers, spending most of the time hugging in against the chain-link or rolling on the mat. Few blows are exchanged. After five minutes expire and the horn signals the end of the round, Valentine doesn't even rise from her seat.
One of the Octagon Girls does get up and carries a large sign that reads "Round 2." The tall, slender blonde, in a black bikini top and matching hot pants, flashes a smile. Valentine hears the catcalls coming from the seats behind her but is plenty comfortable in her slacks, polo and cargo vest, all black to blend into the scenery and minimize distraction.
That's not to say Valentine goes unnoticed. On the contrary -- before and after fights and even between rounds, male fans come down to cageside to flirt and say hi and try to grab a selfie. Throughout the night, her fast-expanding Twitter fan club chimes in as they spot her at the event or on TV.
F*** yeah love seeing @swayzevalentine on the tv doin her thang
Hoping to get a pic with my girl @swayzevalentine tonight at #UFCVancouver
@swayzevalentine wish we got to see u more regularly
She's been featured on sites such as babesofmma.com and seems to enjoy the attention -- as long as she's working. Right now, that's what she's trying to do. Halfway through Round 2, she spots blood on her man's forehead. When the round ends, she's on her feet, zip-close bag of ice and her swabs at the ready to jump in the cage. But she's waved off. The blood belonged to the other man, residue from a leaking nose.
Round 3 passes without incident. Her fighter wins by unanimous decision, but that means nothing to Valentine, who carries her ice bucket and bag of gear back to the locker room to wait for her next fight and, hopefully, a chance to get into the action.
Two weeks after Valentine discovered her dream job, she found out she was pregnant. Being a cutman would have to wait. She became a stay-at-home mom who worked nights at the front desk of a hotel on her husband's Air Force base. A second son was born a year-and-a-half later. The couple moved again, this time to Idaho.
It wasn't until 2009 -- three years after her first and only stint as a Tinker Bell ring card girl -- that Valentine turned her attention back to MMA. She emailed legendary boxing and UFC cutman Jacob "Stitch" Duran, who advised her to research hand-wrapping online and go to her nearest boxing, martial arts or MMA gyms and beg to wrap as many hands as possible -- the skill would be her key into the business.
The nearest gym was in Boise, 69 miles away. She squirreled away her money for gas and $5 rolls of gauze, ace bandages and white medical tape from Rite Aid. After getting the gym owner's permission, she set up shop in a metal chair in the corner, where she sat with her purse in her lap, waiting to approach each fighter who seemed amenable. The guys were all good sports.
"They'd all say, 'No it's good,' when they were probably dying underneath, their hands turning blue," she says.
Still, it was Boise. Business was slow. "After six months, I was 24," Valentine says. "I realized, 'Man, I've got to be in Las Vegas, the fight capital of the world.'" But she couldn't uproot her family. With airfare usually too costly, she'd pack her sons in her car and make the eight-hour drive to Xtreme Couture, the training center started by MMA pioneer and former UFC Champion Randy Couture, where Valentine had arranged to set up shop on weekends.
There, in 2011, she got her break by meeting longtime UFC cutman Adrian Rosenbusch. He took Valentine under his wing, helping her perfect hand-wrapping as well as showing her the art of the cut. Working on a mannequin, he drilled her on hitting the wound with an ice bag or an ice-cold enswell (a small metal iron) as quickly as possible and holding it as long as she could to apply pressure and reduce the swelling. He also taught her how to use a cold towel to clean and cool the laceration, before swabbing with epinephrine to reduce blood flow and then a coagulate to halt it altogether.
"My husband was not supportive. He thought I was selfish for doing what I wanted before my kids were 10 years old. I disagreed." Swayze Valentine
Unfortunately, she couldn't stop the bleeding back home. Her constant travel had put a strain on her relationship. "My husband was not supportive," she says. "He thought I was selfish for doing what I wanted before my kids were 10 years old. I disagreed. Our marriage crumbled."
After the two divorced in 2011, Valentine became desperate. She was now a single mother trying to work a job that was hundreds of miles away and still paid nothing. She donated plasma for $30 a stab -- sometimes twice a week. That Halloween, she couldn't afford costumes for her children. Christmas was coming fast.
She didn't quit. Soon, on Rosenbusch's recommendation, she was working small amateur tournaments. She made monthly trips to Vegas while the kids stayed with her parents on the weekends and with their father during the summer. She pieced together part-time jobs at Petco and Outback Steakhouse and continued to give blood. She started buying gauze and tape in bulk.
Finally, in 2012, Valentine landed a paying gig with a professional minor-league promotion, World Series of Fighting, when a senior cutman recommended her as a last-minute replacement. Word of mouth helped Valentine rise quickly through the ranks in different organizations such as Titan FC, King of the Cage and Bellator. She was the first female cutperson at every level.
That distinction came at a price. Some promotions didn't want her to work major events. She was repeatedly cursed out in the cage and told to "f--- off" when she tried to do her job. At one event, Valentine had jumped into the octagon to tend to a fighter when the coach came up from behind, told her, "We don't need a f---ing cutman! Get the f--- out of here!" and then threw her to the mat. After a colleague reported the incident to an official, Valentine eventually got an "apology" when the coach muttered, "Next time ask, b----," in passing.
Some thought a woman incapable of doing the job. Others didn't want their fighters distracted by a girl. A few were just superstitious. "I initially didn't want [Valentine] as my cutman," says Juan Archuleta, a featherweight who now counts Valentine as a good friend. "I've heard stories. Some people say it's bad luck to have a woman in your corner or anywhere near you before a fight. It's an old-school boxing thing."
Archuleta, like many fighters, only needed one session with Valentine to change his mind.
"When I've had a shitty wrap, I broke my hand," he says. "I've broken my hand twice in 13 fights. The time she wrapped my hands, I didn't have a problem."
In February 2014, Valentine got the call to the UFC. Hernandez remembers that, despite some initial unease in the brighter spotlight, the young cutwoman was quick to learn. "She was nervous," he says. "I told her 'You have to shut that off. You can't think; you have to react.' She understood that right away."
Behind the scenes, in the small rooms where the cutmen themselves dress and unwind before and after an event, Hernandez says it was the men who were a bit nervous. "We usually have that locker room mentality," he says. "Now we have to be careful what we say. When you're among all guys, it's not a big deal. She had to get used to a little bit of the talk. But she's a lot stronger than you might think. She fits right in. She rolls with the punches well."
The preliminary card advances at Rogers Arena, and the crowd grows along with the skills, size and experience of the fighters. Valentine is again working the blue corner, now occupied by a tatted-up South African middleweight named Garreth McLellan, who has more hair on his bushy chin than he does on this head. McLellan is a former rugby player, training as a grappler, but his opponent is an Italian striker -- so Valentine can hope to be busy.
The first round passes with more tentative wrestling than punches or kicks, so Valentine spends the round break seated, chin resting on her latex gloves.
Of course, it's not that Valentine wants anyone to get hurt, but she needs the experience and the chances to prove herself on this stage. Since getting the call up to the UFC, Valentine has needed to supplement this still-modest paycheck with a full-time job at a post office in her current home in Eastern Washington. It's a good job that provides for her and her boys, but it's six days a week and hard to take off for weekends in Vegas or New York or Vancouver. She manages, at best, one trip per month, so she has to make each one count. She can practice wrapping her sons' hands as many times as they'll let her -- but they only get so many nosebleeds.
A minute into Round 2, and McLellan's opponent obliges, leveraging his way out of a takedown and delivering an elbow to the right side of McLellan's bald head, opening up a gash just above the ear. Blood splatters onto his skull, trickling down into his beard and dripping onto the mat. From cageside, the cut looks deep.
The air horn sounds to end the round. Valentine goes to work.
Before McLellan even orients himself to find his corner, Valentine is in the cage, leading him to his seat by the elbow as she wipes the cut with a cold towel.
"I need you to sit down for me," she calmly tells the dazed fighter as she guides him onto his stool.
After holding the towel to the wound for a few seconds, Valentine grabs a long swab from her wristband and holds the tip, soaked with epinephrine, to the cut, holding the back of his head with her left hand to add pressure. McLellan is zoned in on his coaches, oblivious to her presence. His pulse is racing, the blood pressure at its peak. Valentine manages to stop the bleeding just in time to ask the cornerman to grab a towel to clean off the rest of the blood to ensure there are no other lacerations.
Then the minute break is up. The horn signals Round 3. Valentine is back in her seat at cageside.
It takes only a few seconds of striking and grappling to undo her work. The cut reopens, spilling McLellan's blood all over his head and chest, his opponents' face and shorts and the canvas below. By fight's end, the pair, exhausted, are bathed in red, rolling around on the ground. The final horn blows. Valentine has to pull the 6-foot, 185-pound McLellan off the mat, and again lead him back to his corner. Now that the fight is over, McLellan cares little for the cut or the person trying to work on it. He refuses to sit or be still.
Regardless, by the time McLellan is standing in the center of the Octagon to watch his opponent's hand be raised in victory, the only blood on his face is dark and old. The side of his head is relatively clean. Valentine stopped the bleeding.
She's done for the night. She takes her red-stained gloves off and makes her way backstage. There she'll watch the rest of the card on a TV in the hallway, see the senior cutmen ply their trade, take mental notes and imagine herself one day working the main event.