How did you get involved in Jiu-Jitsu and grappling?
I was inspired by Bruce Lee and Ninja movies. My brother and I would watch movies and he started taking Kung-Fu classes in So-Cal. He got the bug and had our mom take us to a martial arts surplus store—and we bought ninja gear. We were really inspired by Bruce Lee and the Last Dragon.
How did you go from being a childhood female ninja to one of the top female grapplers in the world?
I was in Community College and working at a coffee cart. I bumped into a guy I grew up with and he told me his Dad opened a gym around the corner. It was a huge gym with tons of classes. He told me to come by because he knew I was into martial arts. I told him I would love to, but whatever tips I make go to my gas tank. We made a deal and I started folding towels for classes.
One of my instructors invited me to watch an in house BJJ tournament. I went to support my instructor and I saw all the people in GI’s and rolling around. I started taking BJJ classes and my first class, I had socks on. Apparently I did a good job, because Joe Marera, my BJJ instructor, asked me (after the free intro) when I was coming back. I told him I was a broke student and couldn't afford to come back.
He said "I’ll make you a deal: You train every day for one year straight without missing a day and you can train for fee. If you break our deal and miss a day, then our deal is off."
I was like “heck yeah!”
I went from training once a day to twice a day. I found myself sitting in anthropology class thinking about training and not listening to my teacher. I just became absorbed with BJJ and started teaching it one and a half years into it. I had taught Kempo after years of training, so I had teaching experience.
What has been the hardest martial arts discipline for you to learn?
That’s a great question. I would say Jiu-Jitsu because of how tough it is and the closeness of combat. That and I am a smaller-framed female and finding the right-sized training partners has always been a challenge. I am now feeling all the injuries from years of rolling with guys that are heavier than me.
How many years have you been involved with BJJ?
I have been involved with BJJ since January 1998. I started competing three months after I started training. My first tournament of competition, there were maybe three women competing—total—and that was a lot. Nowadays you go to a tournament and there are women all over. It’s very rewarding to see all the time and hard work that you have put in has helped the girls today and they don’t have to take the hard road. They can train with each other and compete with each other.
What type of barriers did you face and overcome to get to this point of where you are now?
I was broke the entire time I was training. I slept on mats in warehouses and on concrete floors and in gym locker rooms. I lived in Las Vegas and trained with John Lewis and Mark Layman for three years. I lived in John Lewis’ academy for a year and three months. I lived there and brought food in to eat. The food attracted mice and several times, I woke up with mice running across my chest. I have woken up with bloody noses. For a long time, I had fear of sleeping in the dark. I had to have a noise going. I slept in an attic with no door during a tropical rain storm in Brazil.
How were you received and treated in Brazil?
I was received politely. Myself and Leticia Reberio were going to be the first-ever female match in the history of Abu Dhabi. I went to Brazil to train for it with my team, because I could find high-level, lighter-weight training partners in Brazil.
One day, I heard some fighters talking about going on a run up Pena Agave and I asked to come along on the run and they told me to wait and I could go when they invited their girlfriends. I was devastated. Here I am, I spent all of this money to train in Brazil. The one thing that kept me going is that this is just who I am. I owe a lot to Dana and the UFC, because they sponsored me and gave me money to get down to Brazil and train.
I have an older brother that never let me play with him and his friends. So I grew up wanting to prove that I could do everything they could do.
Talk about what was going through your mind before your first tournament.
I was a white belt and there was a female blue belt from Brazil. Her instructor asked my instructor, Joe Marera, if we could compete and my instructor said no because she was heavier than me. I firmly voiced myself to him, letting him know that I wanted to do it.
I ended up winning the fight. I clearly won the fight, but they raised her hand instead of mine, because she was Brazilian and a higher rank.
The ref later came up and apologized and told me he was just doing what he thought was right.
What is the difference between training BJJ here in the states or in Brazil?
The level of No GI Jiu-Jitsu is much higher. Their GI Jiu Jitsu is much more advanced; keep in mind that I have not been there in several years. California has become a melting pot of top-level BJJ practitioners. The No GI in Brazil cannot even touch what California is doing; our level of wrestling has transferred over to our No GI situations a lot. We have a lot more access to extremely high-level wrestling, which can easily transfer to Jiu-Jitsu positions and can be tailored for BJJ.
What has helped women’s MMA in the US?
The support of men! There are some really good men out there that care and support and inspire their female counterparts. They care to see the women succeed and progress. They gave importance to the women and the females have done a fantastic job at pushing through and doing it anyways. Not to say that we couldn’t have done it on our own, but it took the men’s support to make it all manifest in to what it is today.
What were you like in High School?
I was a weightlifter. My electives were always weightlifting. I tried out and made the JV Basketball team, but I never left the bench; they never let me play.
Do you have any desire to compete in MMA? Is that an avenue that you thought about going down?
Here’s the thing. All these years I have been looking in the face of adversity and I have done fine and kept going. I am again faced with adversity, just in another form; I am getting older. I have injuries, I need to be a self-sufficient woman, my biological clock is ticking and I need to have a child soon. I also need to support myself and make money.
The amount of training required for an MMA fight with a person who has injuries that will need constant rehabilitation and treatment is very high. These things cost money; eating healthy and supplements cost money. I’d have to train, then when would I work, to make money to pay my bills?
I own a business called Level5 in San Diego, I own it, I run it, I manage it and I am the janitor. I take care of my mother. That’s what I am faced with.
I would love to fight MMA; I think I would do really well. I have a stand-up background people don’t really know about. My stand up is good and can only get better. I learn quickly and have a competitor's mind.
It would take a lot of support, financial and physical. In a perfect world, I would get a reality show and be given all of the support to challenge myself and compete in MMA.
How important is the fighter’s diet?
Supplements and nutrition are vital to a fighter’s performance. It’s like a motorcycle without wheels.
Where do you come out on performance enhancing drugs? I am sure you have rolled with men who were on them?
I have rolled with men and women and competed against women who used that stuff.
Can you notice a difference? Can you tell by the way they grab GI? Can you tell instantly?
Yes, their strength levels, the way their eyes look. You can tell by their interaction that something is up with them. For the most part, it is easy to detect. I think it’s a joke. What’s going to happen is you are going to become addicted to those things and by the time you are in your late 30’s and early 40’s, you will have inner organs that are useless. PED’s might give you power and strength, but BJJ is about fluidity and flexibility.
How important is the mental aspect of your game?
Mental training is 100 percent of your game. Without mental training, you have nothing. I train my students at such a high level of stress that when they go compete, the matches are extremely easy.
Are you a lifer in this sport?
I have taken the cerebral route to Jiu-Jitsu, meaning I am the most experienced female referee in the world. I love the science of Jiu-Jitsu; because of my injuries I cannot be on the mat constantly, but I can sit back, analyze and game plan.
Do you feel like a pioneer that doesn’t get the recognition that you deserve?
Yes, but I am doing for the generations to come. I hope to be a women’s legend when I’m gone, but also appreciated while I’m here.
Any sponsors you want to thank?
Ringside, Zebra Mats, OnTheMat.com and of course Dana White.