Before Ronda Rousey ever stepped onto an Olympic judo mat – much less into the Octagon – Julie Kedzie was a mixed martial arts fighter.
Before Gina Carano parlayed pugilistic fame into a Hollywood career, Kedzie competed in old-school, one-night tournaments.
Before current stars Liz Carmouche and Cat Zingano ever set foot in an elite gym, Kedzie accepted fights anywhere she could find a promoter willing to give women an opportunity to participate.
Finally, 27 fights and almost a decade into her MMA journey, Kedzie's trailblazing work will pay off with her debut on the sport's biggest stage. Kedzie meets Germaine de Randamie on the FX-broadcast portion of the July 27 UFC on FOX 8 card at Seattle's Key Arena.
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"All those years, Dana [White] said he'd never have women fight in the UFC, and I didn't believe it," the 32-year-old Kedzie said. "I'd tell people: 'I'm going to fight in the UFC one day,' and people would say 'yeah, sure.' You can call it destiny or fate or whatever you want to call it, but I always believed this day would come."
The dream was set in motion when Kedzie, as an English literature major at Indiana University, watched a women's fighting DVD. As someone who had studied tae kwon do and jiu-jitsu, she was immediately intrigued. And little did she know that the promotion which produced the compilation, Hook 'n' Shoot, put on shows a couple hours down the road in Evansville.
"Once I saw the fights, I knew that is what I wanted to do," Kedzie said. "I knew it was destiny. I got my degree and then I went out to California and started training. Hook 'n' Shoot being in Indiana was just a happy accident. I came back home and knew I had to give it a try."
Though she dropped two of her first three fights, Kedzie made her mark by winning three fights in one night to claim the 2005 Hook 'n' Shoot Women's Grand Prix.
"It was such a crazy night," Kedzie said. "I just remember wanting to go out there and finish all my opponents. Ultimately I knew my cardio was strong enough that I was going to be able to go out there and outlast everyone.
"Hook 'n' Shoot was ahead of its time," Kedzie added. "The promoters were the first to realize that there were women out there who were able to fight and there was an audience out there willing to pay, so they treated us with respect."
It would be nice to say that one-night tourney fame made Kedzie an instant star, but it wouldn't be true. Few other promoters were willing to make room for women on their fight cards. The UFC certainly wasn't. Kedzie recalls a host of indignities.
"Some [male] fighters would act like you didn't belong, or were taking a guy's spot," she said. "Sometimes fans would grab you on your way out to the ring. Some fly-by-night promoter would put your fight on at the end of the night, after everyone went home, and you'd fight in front of a bunch of empty chairs."
The mere notion of women's MMA was still such a touchy subject by 2007 that the fight which put the sport on the map almost didn't air. Kedzie was slated to meet Carano on the inaugural Elite XC card in Southaven, Miss., Showtime's first venture into mixed martial arts.
Showtime officials were skittish about placing a women's fight on live television. Promoter Gary Shaw insisted on it, and ultimately the fight aired – but not before the bout was arbitrarily changed from standard five-minute rounds to three.
"That was the thing that bugged me," said Kedzie. "I didn't care about the other stuff. I fought three times in one night and now you're telling me because I'm a woman I can't fight a five-minute round? Are you serious?"
Even with the restricted parameters, Carano and Kedzie stole the show, putting on a thrilling battle. Carano won via unanimous decision in a match remembered long after the men's results on the evening have faded from memory.
The fight taught Kedzie a lesson about stardom. All the bout's promotional hype went into building Carano. Kedzie was an afterthought. Carano soon thereafter was pulling big ratings for her fights on CBS. It was a small-scale precursor to Rousey's ascent several years later.
While she might have resented MMA's star-making system in the past, Kedzie has learned to accept the big picture.
"Here's the thing: when they say 'Ronda is the face of women's MMA,' people don't understand how much more goes into that than just fighting," Kedzie said. "It's hard work. Yes, Ronda is marketed because of her looks, and Gina was, but there are so many demands on your time and so many responsibilities. They earn it. It's not just women, either, that goes for Jon Jones and Georges St-Pierre and every other star in the sport. Maybe you can get mad at the system but you have to respect what they do to earn and keep their spots."
The Carano fight was also a valuable lesson in another way: The loss made her re-assess her approach to the sport. The self-evaluation led her to Greg Jackson's famed gym in New Mexico.
Kedzie's reputation as an exciting fighter, win or lose, was already etched in stone – a rep since bolstered in her third-round submission loss to Miesha Tate last August, which many observers consider 2012's best women's fight.
But going to the team which has worked with champions from Jones to St-Pierre to Rashad Evans was a night-and-day change.
"I went out and visited New Mexico and instantly knew this was the place for me," Kedzie said. "You train with not just the best fighters in the sport, but the best coaches, and yeah, it really was a career-changing experience."
Which brings us to 2013, the year women's MMA went mainstream. Kedzie was sitting cageside for the historic Rousey-Carmouche bout at UFC 157 in Anaheim, which was when she found out her contract had been picked up by the UFC.
"I got emotional that night, I won't lie," Kedzie said. "Of course I wanted to be in there in the cage, but to see them headline after everything I went through, and to find out I'd get my chance, all in one day, yeah, I was overwhelmed by the moment."
Can Kedzie make a run at Rousey's UFC bantamweight title? Maybe, maybe not. The way Kedzie views it, though, that's beyond the point, because her place in the sport's history is already secure.
"This is going to sound arrogant, but my legacy has already been made," Kedzie said. "I was one of a group of girls who helped push this thing forward and fought when no one wanted us fighting. Anything from here, my wins, I'm doing it for my teammates and all the faith and hard work they've invested in me. My legacy is already there."
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