There are more than a few unique stories about how fighters grew up or got involved in MMA. For Invicta FC competitor Norma Center, fighting was ingrained in her nature because she's been battling ever since the moment she was born.
To ensure that she was born as an American citizen, Center's mother literally swam across the Rio Grande river into Texas to allow her daughter to have the kinds of opportunities that are afforded in the United States.
While her family all became U.S. citizens, times were tough, so they were forced to live in Mexico to afford a home, but she walked to school everyday from Juarez to El Paso to get the right education.
When her parents separated, while she was in high school, Center was forced to start working at McDonald's while her sister did the same at a local 7-11 just to help make ends meet. She only grew up knowing how to work hard and fighting for every scrap she had, so anything else just wasn't an option.
"I like to believe I'm a hard worker. I don’t see myself as a victim," Center told Bleacher Report recently. "You get what you deserve, and I feel like I'm really blessed."
Despite the fact that she was working at a fast food restaurant as a teenager, so her family could afford a roof over their heads and electricity in the house, Center continued to work hard in school and was eventually convinced to try her hand at wrestling.
The sport came natural to her because, as any wrestler will say, hard work is the only way to survive on the mats. Through four years of high school, Center just got better and better, and by her senior year, she was a Texas state champion in wrestling and named athlete of the year in El Paso.
"All these accomplishments were great," Center said. "But I felt it was the beginning of my journey."
The road soon took her all the way to Kentucky where she enrolled at the University of Cumberlands to continue her wrestling career, but also further her education. She graduated college and was the first person in her family to reach that level of education, but she wasn't finished yet.
Center then traveled to Dayton, Ohio, where she then earned her Masters degree in education, but the fire to compete was still burning inside of her. With wrestling still in her blood, Center decided to try her hand at mixed martial arts.
It made perfect sense to her—she had to fight just to be brought into this world the right way, why not hone those natural instincts and unleash them in the cage?
So she put down her books and picked up the gloves and began training and competing in a number of amateur fights to see if MMA would be something she excelled at like she did in wrestling for so many years.
Her family couldn't understand where her desire to fight came from. Center was a college graduate with a Masters degree. She could have found a job in her field without a problem, but that just wasn't in the cards for her because fighting was something she just had to do.
"I'm the only one of my family to leave El Paso and they think I'm crazy. They think I'm crazy for fighting. I have a Masters in education and leadership, and they're like 'you have your Masters, what are you going to do with it?,' and I tell them I'm not going to do anything yet," Center said. "I have goals, I have different goals, and one of them, right now, is to keep going in my MMA career. I love fighting."
Center loved fighting so much that, despite her new life in Ohio and a husband as well, she knew that to really give MMA everything she had, it was time to uproot her life one more time and go all-in on her fight career.
So Center and her husband packed up the car and started driving cross country until they arrived in Albuquerque, N.M. At the time, Center and her husband didn't even know where they'd be sleeping once they got there, but the journey was worth it because, when they finally stopped driving, they were in front of the famous Jackson-Winkeljohn gym.
Center didn't know coach Greg Jackson at all, but she knew deep down that this was the place to go if she wanted to try to reach her goals of becoming a successful MMA fighter.
"We packed up our things in Ohio and just wanted to see where this thing would go. We got here, and we didn't even stop and look for a place to stay; we just came to the gym," Center explained.
"We got there and we had our two dogs in the back of the truck in the cage, and it's hot as hell, and we get out here and we meet Travis Marks and he's such a good dude. He was the first person we met, and he told us what we had to do train there and so on. A week later we were training at Jackson's."
Training at the gym, Center felt right at home.
She had a smile on her face every step of the way even when she was learning the ropes from fighters who had far more experience than her. Center sparred with fighters like Julie Kedzie and got punched in the face by boxing champions like Holly Holm, and she was loving every minute of it.
Center's work ethic was paying off because she was getting better, and the coaches in the gym were noticing. That's why, when the call came in from Invicta FC that they needed a late replacement to step in and face undefeated fighter Joanne Calderwood, Center immediately stepped up to the plate.
There was never a moment of hesitation because Center has seen far worse in her life than a tough fighter standing across the cage from her, and without risk, there is no reward.
With only two professional bouts, Center isn't favored to beat the much more experienced Calderwood on Saturday night, but she wouldn't have it any other way.
"She's a vicious fighter and I like that. We're a great combination for a fight. I feel I'm a very aggressive fighter, and I like her style of fighting, I really do," Center said. "I'm just really pumped to have this fight at her level. She has a lot of hype behind her.
"Another thing I love about this fight is that I'm the underdog. I love being the underdog. They don't expect me to win. It's going to be a very hard fight for her to win."
Damon Martin is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, and all quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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