At the start of 2017, I launched my website and published my first blog. I had been frustrated with life but through the process of writing and reflecting on my lot. I gained a new perspective and was able to appreciate how far I had come. I realised what was important to me and this lead to the greater discovery of what I needed to be happy; the freedom to pursue my dream.
Similar to my earlier experience of living and fighting out of Muay Thai gyms in Thailand. I wanted to live the life of a fighter again; training, sleeping and breaking bread with people on the same mission as me. After juggling my work, training and personal life in Sydney. The desire to solely focus on MMA was natural but not as practical due to the issue of funding. Whilst rehabilitating the UCL in my elbow, I had 12 months to save up and research my next training camp. The new Jackson Wink MMA Academy in New Mexico (NM), looked like the best choice at the time, due to its large roster of active female fighters.
Prior to my first visit to Jacksons, I was apprehensive as to how I would fit in. Could I keep up with the legends I had admired for years? When I first started boxing, I looked up to Holly Holm. I discovered Michelle Waterson on a rerun of the TV show, Fight Girls as I was getting into Muay Thai. Cyborg fought Carano in 2009 and it was this fight and trailblazers like Julie Kedzie, who opened my eyes to the burgeoning women's mixed martial art (WMMA) scene. I didn't realise at the time that a lot of fighters I looked up to, were all from the same team.
I arrived in Albuquerque NM, late Monday night so my first session at Jacksons was on Tuesday morning which ended up being ‘big gloves sparring'. It was affectionately known as ‘hard sparring' so there were no surprises in that respect (personally, I felt the MMA gloves sparring was harder as people weren't controlled) but I was shocked to have my first round with Michelle Waterson. I wasn't sure if the big name fighters, would actually be doing the classes on the timetable.
My apprehension as to how I would fit in was not unfounded. The team as a whole is used to having people come and go. It is not uncommon for some coaches or teammates to differ judgement until a fighters second visit. There is a long history at this camp, these people built the gym and reputation over time and championship careers; a place on the mats needs to be earned. However, for those that train hard and contribute, doors will open.
The solidarity of the girl's team was something that I had hoped for but not expected. Many of us came from different countries to Albuquerque because at home we were the only girl in the gym or the smallest.
At Jackson's, we were spoilt for training partners, especially as an Atomweight or Strawweight. The variety in training partners enabled us to simulate different fight scenarios which were excellent preparation and a priceless experience.
With a large roster of fighters, there were fights every weekend and the momentum of fight camp was infectious with everyone wanting to help their teammates get ready.
Initially, I guessed there would be an adjustment period whilst I acclimated to the altitude and other variables in my training. My first couple of days I felt surprisingly fresh but before I could get comfortable, the delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) set in and the altitude seemed to wear on me. I got headaches which worsened at night time. I spent as much time high in the mountains as I could, doing runs for conditioning or hikes as active recovery. The general consensus is that it can take about two weeks to adapt. I noticed my recovery time in between rounds improved after a week but it took another week for me to settle completely into the new regimen.
I didn't know what to expect from the set location of Breaking Bad. On my first night in dorms, located downtown. I was in the close vicinity of a hostage situation that I could hear from my room. I watched live updates with footage of the building I was in, taken from a news helicopter. The mountains are beautiful but Albuquerque wouldn't have been my top pick for a holiday destination if it wasn't for the gym.
The State nickname for New Mexico is the ‘Land of Enchantment' and this place really did bewitch me and other newcomers. In my dorm room, designed in a whimsical prison cell fashion; four of us lived, literally, on top of one another in bunk beds. We bonded instantly, in these close quarters and through our common stories and formed ‘Team Wild Pony' which read like a terribly cliché screenplay. Each of us had broken out in our own way, leaving relationships, home towns or bad situations. Forgiving cringe-worthy beginnings, the ponies were loose and we started using the motto ‘no reins' in a light-hearted way as a metaphor for our new found freedom.
I was given the nickname Mama Bear as at the time, I had a teenage stepson and suburban life back in Sydney. Also due to my habit of mothering everyone. There was Micol DiSengi as Sex Kitten, Nadia Chmil as Nasty Nadia and Lanchana Green as Ab Fab. The names were terrible and soon changed but we didn't take ourselves too seriously and were in hysterics every day.
I received fight news from One Championship, my next match would be against Gina Iniong (Team Lakay).
When I tore my UCL in April 2016, against another Team Lakay fighter. My physiotherapist advised me, it would take 12 months to heal. The proposed bout was right on time, set for April 21st, 2017.
Joey Villasenor was acting as my head coach, he helped piece together my game in preparation for my upcoming bout. I had a habit of solely playing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu when the match hit the ground so my MMA game was broken in parts. I mainly worked on my transitions during my time at Jacksons, drilling with full-time fighters improved my reaction time and the fluidity of my overall MMA game. I also did a couple of sessions with the much sought after Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn.
Despite the normal ‘fight week fuckery' and being out of competition for a whole year. On fight night, I was not nervous. The gym battles had prepared me to the point that it felt like just another day in the office. I believed the next step in my development as a fighter was to work on my composure. During the fight, I was able to control my emotions better, perhaps scaling back too far and not pulling the trigger.
The first round was a battle for control against the cage. My opponent did not react as anticipated and Gina was able to keep me pinned here, looking for a belly to belly suplex, while I tried to create room and get out. In the second round, due to eating way too many overhands rights, my vision was blurred. I could see three Gina's who all looked like they were firing. One Gina was definitely landing so I hedged my bets and aimed for the middle one. I remained calm enough, despite my impaired vision to fight through until the final round but my ability to adjust or find an answer was too little, too late. I lost the fight by unanimous decision.
In hindsight, I can see that I was stuck between styles, having changed camps and hesitated too much, it took me until the third round to wake up and flow. However, my resilience is a testament to my preparation. I could hear my corners voice clearly and the improvements I made were evident. Every time I was down I got back to my feet quickly and I got stronger as the fight went on.
Prior to this trip, I had layered a lot of expectations onto the result of this fight. My reality check came whilst I was sat in Manila hospital for the second time, this visit for a broken orbital. I had not been winning, making money and on top of this, I was getting hurt.
Did this deter me? No, you can't help what you love and at the core of the decision to keep pursuing this, was the belief that I could and would do better.
I headed back to Sydney, creating a timeline in mind for my return. I was infused with a new sense of purpose and an unparalleled desire to make this my day to day life.