The rapid ascension of women’s mixed martial arts has undeniably stood out as the biggest combat sports success story of 2013 thus far. After years of being told they would never make it on the grand stage, women are finally part of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and they are quickly becoming an integral asset to the organization.
So far we have seen three female fights in the Octagon and in those three bouts we witnessed a dominant champion overcome early adversity from a former Marine to retain her crown, a hard working mother rise up and slay a former champion, and an Olympic silver medalist thoroughly dominate a heavy handed knockout artist from across the pond.
The early success of the UFC’s women’s division might come as a surprise to those who didn’t follow these girls very much beforehand but to those of us who supported these incredible athletes from day one we know that this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as what’s to come. Fighters like Ronda Rousey, Cat Zingano and Sara McMann are just the beginning of what will soon be known as one of the most talent rich divisions in the UFC.
Many females are going to start smashing through the glass ceiling and branching out into massive superstars. Every week here on AlchemistRadio.com I will highlight a rising WMMA fighter and detail just why exactly you should be looking out for her. We will kick off the first edition of “Phoenix Rising” with one of Hawaii’s top female fighters, Lia Mata’afa.
A Beautiful Ass-Kicking Machine from Day One
Born and raised in Honolulu, Mata’afa is the oldest of seven children and the sister-in-law to UFC veteran Kendall Grove. This half Samoan, half Italian bombshell has never been one to listen to the ignorant doubters who claimed women should not be involved in combat sports.
From a very early age in high school, Mata’afa competed in amateur wrestling and roughed up both the women and men. A big pro wrestling fan as a kid, Mata’afa decided to jump on the mat in 9th grade and hasn’t looked back since.
“I grew up watching WWF wrestling and I loved it so honestly even though folk style wrestling is much different, that is where my interest started,” Mata’afa told AlchemistRadio.com.
“During my freshman year of high school in P.E the boys were supposed to do two weeks of wrestling while the girls were supposed to have an additional two weeks of basketball and I asked my teacher if I could join the boys instead and she agreed.”
Mata’afa was the first girl in her school to ever wrestle and one of the very first in the entire state. There were certainly some doubters along the way but she picked it up fast and stuck with the sport throughout all four years of high school.
“I competed mainly with boys in high school and beat a lot of them. My coach always entered me in both the female and male sides of the brackets at tournaments. I went undefeated against females through all four years of high school and won a State Championship at 140lbs in the first ever official Hawaii State Wrestling Tournament for girls,” Mata’afa said.
“I actually preferred wrestling the boys because it was what I was used to in practice. I'll always remember the first boy I beat from a rival high school during my freshman year, I pinned him in the second round and I remember the entire gym cheering. The very next day there was a picture of me pinning him in the paper.”
Transitioning to MMA
While she didn’t wrestle in college, Mata’afa played women’s rugby at Boston University since there weren’t any women’s collegiate wrestling programs at the time. To this day the gorgeous Hawaiian still competes in wrestling for the American Samoan National Team where she most recently qualified for the African/Oceania Olympic trials placing fifth overall.
Wrestling will always be her first passion and many of her younger family members have followed in her footsteps on the mat. But just like many wrestlers before her, Mata’afa made the transition to MMA two years ago and is hungry to dominate this sport.
She began training under the tutelage of UFC middleweight Chris Leben in 2010 where once again she was the only girl on the team. Mata’afa is currently 4-1 as an amateur and looking to make her pro debut sometime this year. She is driven by passion and the pure unadulterated competiveness that has been in her blood since birth.
“Whether it's wrestling or MMA I always have nerves up until the moment I step on the mat or in the cage and then suddenly I am at ease and comfortable. I definitely have the adrenaline rush, but it's funny because I never remember details or even getting hit until I watch the film later or someone tells me what happened,” Mata’afa said.
“I loved the feeling of being in the cage during my first fight and I actually broke my opponents arm with a submission. The feeling of getting your hand raised after a big win is like no other feeling in the world. Leben cornered me on that first fight and he has such a loud distinctive voice that all I could hear from my corner was his voice, completely blocked out the crowd and background noise, in his pre-game speech he managed to get me both hyped up and calmed me down in the same way.”
Leben was Mata’afa’s first MMA coach and she thoroughly enjoyed working with him, citing him as both motivational and inspiring. Due to Leben’s gym in Hawaii closing shop, Mata’afa now trains at B.J Penn’s UFC Gym alongside Brandyn Akamine and TUF 10 alumni Scott Junk. She also trains occasionally with brother-in-law Grove who she refers to as one of her idols.
“One of my biggest role models is my brother in law Kendall Grove who’s married to my sister Anna. He has always told me that he made it so far because from early on in his career he was willing to fight anybody and didn't handpick fights for easy wins,” Mata’afa said.
“Even though he is no longer fighting with the UFC he has been competing all over the U.S and even internationally, taking any fight that comes his way. I also admire the way he can balance his family life with training and fighting too, together he and my sister have five children, including newborn baby twin girls. His biggest advice to me before my first fight was, ‘just accept the fact that no matter how the fight goes, you're gonna get punched in the face and probably hard too so just be ready to return the fire’. It sounds so simple but has really stuck with me as I don't have a fear of getting hit because of it.”
When Mata’afa initially started fighting, UFC President Dana White was still strong on his stance that women would never compete in his organization. White has since seen the light and now Mata’afa’s dreams of one day becoming a UFC champion are within the realms of reality.
“I remember reading an article where it was said that women would never be allowed in the UFC, so to see that there was finally going to be a female division was awesome. There is now a place for women to compete at the highest levels and face elite competition,” Mata’afa said.
“Immediately it inspired me to train even harder because I want to be there one day too. I want to fight in the UFC and eventually take Ronda Rousey’s belt.”
Speaking of Rousey, the UFC’s first women’s champion will make history once again alongside Zingano as coaches on the very first co-ed season of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’. TUF 18 will feature both male and female bantamweights in a format that is bound to spike the ratings.
Mata’afa attended the try outs and while she cannot release any information regarding the results, she cites the experience as one of the coolest days of her career so far.
“Trying out for TUF was an amazing experience to go through. Being able to grapple and strike in front of Dana White and Joe Silva was awesome,” Mata’afa said.
“There were also a lot of big names in WMMA who tried out so it was very exciting. The fans will just have to stay tuned to see who made it on the show.”