Mixing MMA and Romance: Inside Life as the Better Half of a Cage Fighter

Jeremy Botter@jeremybotterMMA Senior WriterAugust 13, 2019


For a mixed martial arts fighter, the night of an event is the culmination of a process.

By the time they step into the cage, they've been through four, eight, 12 weeks of training camp, usually on a seven-days-per-week schedule. A typical day for a typical fighter might have consisted of multiple sessions of wrestling practice, jiu-jitsu, cardiovascular and strength work, and sparring, where fresh opponents were rotated in each round. And even though every hour of every day has been spent ensuring the goal of defeating a human being in physical combat, if they've made it to the cage, it means they have emerged from camp without injuries—or at least without injuries that would prevent them from fighting, because, truth is, no fighter can go through this and emerge unscathed. They may say they're healthy and ready, but they aren't. They've got nagging injuries from head to toe. They've had to starve themselves of food and water for three or four days in order to make a barbaric weight cut. They're exhausted.    

For the fighter, the hard part is over. This moment, when the lights are shining and the people are cheering? This is the fun part.

But for the people sharing their lives, after weeks or months of watching the brutal preparation and long hours and the toll of the training, the culmination is the hardest part of all.

Ivette Rojas married Ike Vallie-Flagg in 2016. They'd gone to a Journey concert on their first date. That they would have a first date at all was never a guarantee. Ike told her he was a professional fighter, and she didn't believe him until she Googled his name and, well, he was telling the truth. Then she did the next logical thing: She searched for his name in New Mexico's online court records database.

"My perception of fighters was that they are angry," Rojas says. "I wanted to see if he had any battery charges or anything like that before I met him in person." Ike's record was clean, so Ivette went to the Journey concert and—if you know Ike at all, this won't surprise you—he was sweet and charming and kind.

They started dating and then married. Ivette went to Ike's fights in the UFC. It wasn't easy to watch, and all the fans screaming obscenities at Ike was tough to handle. But it wasn't that bad, she says. She could handle it, and she taught herself how to block out the audience and focus on Ike.

Isaac Vallie-Flagg takes a punch from Takanori Gomi at UFC 172 in 2014.
Isaac Vallie-Flagg takes a punch from Takanori Gomi at UFC 172 in 2014.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

But when Ike later opted to transition into BKB (bare-knuckle boxing, which is exactly what it sounds like), Ivette found it wasn't so easy to watch anymore.

She hasn't gone to one of Ike's BKB fights. Not yet. She watches at home on television. Kind of. She makes sure she's doing something else while watching so she's half-distracted. It helps the anxiety subside. So she was watching intentionally half-distracted Saturday when Ike scored a stoppage win over fellow UFC vet Melvin Guillard.

She was relieved he'd won, and even more relieved when the post-fight interview revealed no signs of damage to his face. He'd hurt his hand during the fight, but he refused to go to the hospital to get it checked out. "Why don't you just go?" Ivette asked. "They're just going to keep me there all day," he said, but he promised her he'd go to the hospital when he got home to Albuquerque.

Ivette is always grateful when Ike can escape a fight without serious injury. But even when he does, an attempt at hugging her husband can serve as a reminder that, sure, he didn't take much damage, but he's still in pain.

"It's hard to see Isaac being hurt," Ivette says. "I don't know. It's hard to explain. I understand this is his passion, and the bug isn't out of him yet. I know what to expect. So what can you do? What can you say?"

Josh Gomez is not only husband to Michelle Waterson, the popular and marketable UFC strawweight contender with the effervescent smile and serious combat skills. He is also Michelle's agent. And he handles her public relations efforts, trying to get Michelle as many interviews as possible to further the Karate Hottie brand. When she's in training, he's in training, going through camp together, even eating the same things.

Michelle Waterson and Josh Gomez
Michelle Waterson and Josh GomezMike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

He knows precisely what she's capable of. And when Michelle steps in the cage, Josh should be prepared for what ensues—especially being a fighter himself. He knows there might be blood, that his wife might end up unconscious from a choke or a nasty strike to her head. It's the life they have chosen to live together. He's ready for it.

What he isn't ready for, and what he's trying to come to grips with, is what comes a few days after the fight, when the painted brutality of a cage fight begins emerging on her face.

The training and the fight, he can handle, because it's what they do. But after the fight, he sees Michelle's face turn black and blue and puffy, and it hits him.

"She's going to get so mad at me for saying this," Josh says. "But that's tough for me, seeing the damage from the fight. I know I shouldn't be like that, and I'm trying to be better about it. I can't treat her differently than I would someone else who fights. She's a professional. But it's hard for me to see my wife that way and not react."

Though some fighters' significant others never fully adjust to life in the fight game, others can mentally accept the rigors and violence over time.

Salina Cormier and her husband, Daniel, are nearing the end of his run in combat sports. Daniel, who this Saturday will fight Stipe Miocic in the main event of UFC 241, says he is ready to reduce his travel and training time and wants to spend more time with Salina and their kids.

On Sunday afternoon, the whole family headed to the airport from their home in the Bay Area for a short flight to Los Angeles. Upon arrival in L.A., they will decamp into separate rooms—one for Daniel, one for Salina and the kids—and fight week will begin for Daniel with an onslaught of media obligations. This is the life of the world heavyweight champion, for now.

When Salina and Daniel first began dating, she had a rough time with all that went into making one of the best fighters in the history of the sport. She has come a long way since.

Daniel and Salina Cormier
Daniel and Salina CormierPhoto courtesy of Daniel Cormier

"I used to dread training camps. I would have to brace myself. I would have to be mentally prepared to go in," she told Bleacher Report in 2014. "But now I think about how far he's come and know this is exactly where we dreamed of being with all these opportunities. So I try to be positive about everything, and grateful."

Asked now how she handles fight night, Salina is dismissive, either not wanting to talk about the topic or genuinely used to it.

Others have similar reactions to the prospect, shrugging it off, again either defensively or with resignation. Amanda Nunes, herself a champion fighter, actually laughs when asked what it's like to watch fiancee Nina Ansaroff in the cage, though she once described the feeling as sheer "panic."

Albuquerque is the type of place you need a reason to live in, and the fighters who have congregated there over the past decade-plus have two: Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn, the trainers who have changed mixed martial arts and built world champions. Their gym, the Jackson Wink MMA Academy, is a connective tissue that can make the world in Albuquerque feel small.

But that's not all that connects Ivette Rojas with Josh Gomez. They served in the Air Force together and remained friends after, and then they both hitched their wagons to professional fighters who trained at Jackson Wink. That's a small world.

And both of these couples are happy. You can see it in the understanding Ivette and Josh have for what their respective spouses' careers mean and also in their struggles with the consequences.

These types of partnerships are not necessarily what one might associate with MMA, which has an earned reputation for employing violently abusive athletes.

Perhaps most infamously, Jon Koppenhaver (aka War Machine) was found guilty of 29 felonies, including kidnapping and sexual assault with a weapon, in March 2017 for the violent assault of his ex-girlfriend, Christy Mack. He is hardly the only MMA fighter to have committed or been accused of intimate partner violence, though. Anthony Johnson. Cody East. Abel Trujillo. Josh Grispi. Thiago Silva. The UFC signed former NFL player Greg Hardy despite previous domestic violence charges; and after initial attempts to PR Hardy as a reformed man, the UFC moved on to just ignoring questions about the subject. Jason "Mayhem" Miller, who has been arrested on charges of domestic violence multiple times and is currently serving time for vandalism and violating a protection order, told HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel in 2015 that his promoters always knew about his past arrests but didn't care. "There's no requirement, really," Miller said. "You don't get vetted. 'Hey, are you willing to fight? Can you pass this CAT scan? Do you have AIDS or hepatitis? No? OK, you're in.'"

According to Lucy McCalmont of HuffPost, HBO's reporting in 2015 revealed that, per the Bureau of Justice Statistics, "for every 100,000 American men aged 18 to 39, 360 are arrested for domestic violence. That number drops to 210 for the NFL, they said, using numbers from the USA Today database. Yet HBO's own research—delving into the backgrounds of hundreds of American-born MMA fighters since 2003 throughout various weight classes—found that the adjusted rate among top-ranked MMA fighters skyrockets to 750."

While HBO's numbers on domestic violence in MMA are not scientific, they remain troubling and emphatic. There is a domestic violence problem in MMA.

What we see of mixed martial arts on fight nights can be visceral and thrilling.

While aware of the danger of injury, both temporary and permanent, and even more dire issues that plague the sport, as a fan on fight night, you just hope your favorite fighter will win and that it will be an exciting match, two people throwing bungalows until one of them is horizontal—not a wrestling match.

It is a hard life, even for those who choose it. And the dangers, the emotions and the trauma aren't felt only by the fighter. For Ivette, Josh, Salina and others, the perils extend to the families who live with these fighters, cry with them, celebrate with them and support them.

It is said that only a special kind of person pursues becoming a professional fighter, because of the amount of determination, endurance, pain and grit it requires. This is true.

But this is also true: The people who love them—who aren't fighting but still go through all their partner experiences and so much more—are just as determined and tough as those they've chosen to share their lives with.


Jeremy Botter covers combat sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @jeremybotter.