When Shayna Baszler starting fighting on fly-by-night shows for no money years ago, she never even had a dream of fighting on television, let alone on a UFC pay-per-view event. But after a series of near misses, the Horsewoman talks about her journey, her and Ronda Rousey's place in history, and having two dreams fulfilled in a two week period.
With the UFC's expanding the number of shows, and thus, bringing in more new fighters than ever, every show seems to feature the debut of several fighters who grew up and started training with the idea of someday making it to UFC, and becoming a champion.
For Shayna Baszler (15-8), who makes her UFC debut against Bethe Correia (8-0) in the No. 3 fight at UFC 177 on Saturday night in Sacramento, Calif., when she started fighting, there was no such aspirations or dreams. It would be five years after she started that she had her first thoughts that maybe some day she could fight on national television. Her long journey to a pay-per-view slot saw her and the women's side of the sport go from the equivalent of hunters trying to kill prey with spears to a world filled with the most sophisticated hunting equipment in the world, except the evolution only took a dozen or so years and she lived through every stage of it.
"It was show up at the door (where a fight show was being held), sign your name on a piece of paper, say your weight, they didn't even do weigh-ins, and you just hope another girl would show up," she said about her less than modest beginnings driving around the Midwest after hearing about potential weekend shows. "They'd match guys up that night just by looking at them. Someone would just go, `You're the same size as him.' There was a night where I fought three times in one night. Three other girls signed up. They could have put on two female fights with four girls, but they kept asking me if I wanted to fight again. I fought three times in one night before a standing room only crowd. I fought in a ring broken in the middle. I fought in the middle of a piece of land, something right out of a movie, in the middle of a cornfield with cars surrounding the ring with their headlights shining to light the ring. I've fought with no medicals, people bleeding all over the place and nobody got tested for anything.
"From those days to now, where they're selling UFC stuff in the mall, it's crazy to think about it," she said. "I'm really blessed to be active. I'm just not active, but still competitive. I've not just witnessed the boom of MMA and womens' MMA, but I was active the entire time."
This was not part of a plan, or a vision or some kind of sense of being ahead of the curve on something. She was living in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and there was somebody that she didn't like, and that's how it got started
"I had my first fight and there was no plan to have more," she remembered about her start, long before things like records were being kept. "I didn't like a girl at this poorly-run underground cradle-to-the-grave fight club like place. I had my first fight, and a whole part of me got awakened. I fell in love with it for the simple fact it's fighting. It wasn't the fame. Back then there was no fame, no money, not even a shiny gold belt. I saw the beauty in the art form of fighting. That's hard for a lot of the general public to understand. I enjoyed educating the audience back in those days. It was common for people to sign up for these fights because they thought they were tough from having a scuffle or two. I was with the only group of people in the area who were training, and I use the word training in quotes. We were ordering books off the Internet. This was even before there was much of YouTube. We were in a garage training. I felt it was enlightening to show what a skilled fighter would do to street thugs."
Baszler worked two part-time jobs in that era, because she said it was easier to ask off work to go out of town for fights working part-time. She'd get up, train, spend her days dressed up like Wilbur the Coyote at an arcade, rinse off, train again, and then work at night at a group home for at-risk youths. She would wake them up, cook them breakfast and get them ready for school, and then sleep. As she started to make a name, she gave up those jobs and was working one part-time job at UPS, a job she kept until being chosen for The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) reality show. Before leaving for the show that was filmed during the summer of 2013, she was starting to think about life after fighting and maybe going full time. Instead, she never went back.
She had been fighting with Invicta, and saw that woman she was competitive with were being signed by UFC and told her manager to get on this. When she found out about the first season of TUF for women, she remembered back on how the fighters in the first season for men became big stars from the exposure.
"Everyone remembers the season one cast and I thought that, `I can't pass this up.'"
By reputation, Baszler was the odds-on-favorite to win the tournament, and was by many considered the ringer in the group. Instead, after winning her fight to get into the house, and being coach Ronda Rousey's first pick, she lost her next fight, to eventual champion Julianna Pena, via second round choke.
She was actually going to go back to South Dakota and work at UPS, but she suffered a broken ankle and couldn't return to work. She stayed in Southern California to help teammate Jessamyn Duke prepare for her next fight, and both ended up living with Rousey in Southern California, which led to the birth of the Four Horsewomen.
While most credit Baszler, a lifelong fan of pro wrestling, with the Horsewomen, a takeoff on The Four Horsemen pro wrestling faction of the 80s and 90s, it was actually the idea of a fan. He contacted them with the suggestion of having Rousey, Baszler, Duke and Marina Shafir pose together holding up four fingers similar, recreating the publicity photos of Ric Flair, Barry Windham, Arn Anderson, Tully Blanchard and J.J. Dillon from the 80s. The photo took on a life of its own, including a huge feature story in the Los Angeles Times.
While all have heard criticism of the idea, Baszler got endorsed by Anderson early on. A few months back, Flair, the biggest name in the group said that he loved what they were doing. She was like a little schoolgirl a few months ago at a World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) show in Ontario, Calif., when Daniel Bryan, one of pro wrestling's biggest stars, raised the four fingers to them as they sat at ringside. But that was nothing compared to two weeks ago.
"Oh man, that whole day was something kids dream about," she said about the four of them sitting front row at SummerSlam at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. "The 12-year-old in me was so jealous of the 34-year-old me. Just getting Ric and Arn's blessing, all the wrestlers taking pictures with us holding up the four fingers, Stephanie McMahon (a major executive and daughter of Vince McMahon, who also performs), holding up four fingers to us at ringside when she came out for her match. That was unbelievable."
Stephanie McMahon even picked the four to douse her backstage after her match in her ALS Ice Bucket challenge backstage, hosted by Maria Menounos, which has been viewed nearly 1.2 million times on YouTube.
"The only thing that would have made it better is if my fight had already happened and I could have drank beer that day."
It's been a long wait for this debut fight. The broken ankle kept her from fighting on the TUF finale last December. She was then going to face Sarah Kaufman in April, but her back went out a few weeks before the fight.
"It was really weird," she said of the painful back spasms. "I was training really hard at the gym. I was sitting down on a bench and I stood up. When I stood up, maybe something happened. I think the training did it, but the standing up was the straw that broke the camel's back. I was a lot more mindful of it this camp. I'm good to go, but every week I went to the chiropractor, whether I felt sore or not, just to maintain, because I didn't want that happening again. I felt fine, but before, I felt fine, and just stood up, so I was making sure that didn't happen again."
Then she was to face Correia on Aug. 2, at the Staples Center, but that show got canceled when Jose Aldo was injured and they couldn't put together a substitute main event, so her fight was moved to the next pay-per-view show.
Baszler vs. Correia ended up as a natural story for a match, as Correia defeated teammate Duke, and made a hand signal mocking the Four Horsewomen, with the idea she's going through them one-by-one. Whatever Correia thought she was doing and why, and while many took it as a slight, both Baszler and Rousey liked her apparent ingenuity, knowing it would help build future fights.
"I think her biggest strength is she's able to lull people into her pace of a fight," said Baszler. "She's not a finisher. All but one of her wins have been by decision. However, she is very good at getting people to fight at her pace. I'm friends with Julie Kedzie, and she's a seasoned veteran who has been fighting even longer than me. To suck a veteran like that into her pace says a lot about her ability to control pace. Usually you think of someone overly aggressive as one who controls the pace. But she sucks you into this grinding pace. Put it this way, if I block every shot but she's always throwing, they won't give the points to the person blocking, they give it to the person throwing. But her opponents don't feel pressured or feel in trouble, and they get sucked into that pace. I don't know if she even realizes that's her biggest strength. There was no sense of urgency for Jess (Jessamyn Duke). She's young and green and learning her way and people forget about that. But there was no sense of urgency for Julie Kedzie.
"I'm a finisher (of Baszler's 15 career wins, 14 are via submission). I just need to keep in my mind that I have to finish the fight or I'll lose. If I start feeling comfortable, she's going to win."
Unlike so many other best friends and training partners in the sport, both Rousey and Baszler have said they would have no qualms fighting each other, if Baszler earned the shot.
"If the opportunity comes up, if they offer it to me, if I earn the shot, she won't deny it because we're friends."
But at 34, Baszler recognizes her career is heading down its last road. She senses the importance of this fight, but she said it's not the size of the stage, but the history of what fighting in UFC means to her.
"It's not so much any nerves or being on the big stage," she said. "I've fought on CBS and had the worst fight of my life (losing to Cris Cyborg in 2008). It's not the lights, the sound, the media, none of them. The nerves are what this fight means to me and the history of me. If you think about how long I've been fighting, I'm realistic. The fights behind me outnumber the fights in front of me. I'm not saying I'm ready to retire. But this is the pinnacle of the sport. This is probably the first page of the last chapter in the book of my career. It's a really pivotal moment and that puts more pressure on me than all the lights and the sound of being on the main card in UFC."'
She points out that to a lot of people, they think women's MMA started out with Rousey vs. Miesha Tate or Rousey vs. Liz Carmouche. Still others think the start was the Gina Carano vs. Kedzie fight on Showtime.
"Josh (Barnett, one of her main trainers) always told me that, `If you want to make history, you have to know history.' Any girl that comes up, whether they be the next champion after Ronda retirees, or if they dethrone Ronda, however it happens, I will have a place in the history of the sport. Nobody knows Tara LaRosa's name (LaRosa was considered the best woman fighter in the world when Baszler was starting out), but Ronda knows Tara LaRosa's name and that she came before Gina or any of us. Josh said it to me to search the history of catch wrestling. But I've cemented a place to anyone who matters on the women's side. I'm proud of what I've accomplished. That history isn't as visible because it was a during a time it wasn't on TV. But especially now, I just want to fight, so that people will see me, and some will want to find out who I am, do the research, and learn the history."
As a history buff, she recognizes the role of both Carano and Rousey when it comes to the women's side of the sport.
"Gina showed you can be beautiful and still whip the crap out of someone," Baszler said. "People don't know it, but she was very technical, especially back in those days, when she was one of the best strikers out there. Ronda showed, and this is what people don't understand with MMA, that being a star in UFC is a lot harder than just winning fights. Winning fights is the hardest part, but Ronda showed that a female could sell fights, and not just based on her looks. She has charisma. She has a character, and I think that was the final push to get us in the spotlight. Love or hate Ronda, and she's got a lot of people on both sides, you have to give her the credit for being that last final person that opened the rest of the world's eyes to us."
She noted that right now, Rousey is too busy living it to really think about the fact she's going to end up as a major historical figure in the sport.
"I don't think she thinks about it too much, but I remember after the second Miesha Tate fight, when the people booed her, she didn't want to admit that it bothered her. She thought the handshake from Tate was fake in Ronda's eyes and she didn't want to do that. It (the booing) bothered her more than she wanted to admit to herself. I remember eating breakfast (with their group) after the fight and I said to everyone, what do you think when I say Muhammad Ali?
"The other girls said, `Greatest of all-time,' 'Legend,' and I said, 'None of you talk about the fact when he was fighting, people thought he was the cocky jerk. He was the heel. He would say things like he was so fast he'd hit the light switch and be in bad before the lights went out. People thought he was arrogant.'
"Heroes die heroically and heels become legends," she said. "It doesn't cross her mind how she'll be viewed. I don't think any of us think about our place in history. She's just fighting, but she's going to be the legend."
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