Cindy Hales: The Sleeper Awakens

Fightland Blog

By Nick Wong

​Photos by Nick Wong

Cindy Hales is one of the best-kept secrets in women's MMA. What qualifies that statement is not her record (she only holds a professional ledger of 2-1), and at age 41, it is unlikely that she will make much more noise in the industry. Instead, what warrants a closer look is her story and her skill, her attitude and her outlook, and that after an 8-year layoff, she is returning to the cage this weekend.

In competition, Hales is known as "The Sleeper", and there are two reasons behind that moniker. The first references her ability to render opponents unconscious through a variety of chokeholds. The second is the unassuming nature in both her demeanor and appearance as a mixed-martial-artist. To the untrained eye, Hales appears thin and has a bit of a nervous step to her gait. She sports a mop-top cut that she's had since childhood, and speaks with a soft, almost gentle, tone of voice. In another lifetime, Hales could have been an elementary school teacher, and in some respects, very much is one today. She is the lead instructor for the kids' program at two Gracie Barra academies in Washington State, and is widely known as the best youth instructor in the Pacific Northwest. When tracing her martial roots back even further, it's quickly seen that she's also one of the pioneers in women's BJJ.

In 2015, Hales became part of the infamous "Women's BJJ Dirty Dozen", an ode to the first twelve women to receive their black belts outside of Brazil. It's important to keep in mind that during that time, women participating in martial arts was a practice frowned upon in many circles, and there were a number of obstacles to overcome in order to achieve such a feat. When speaking about the accomplishment, however, Hales thinks of it with a noticeable humility.

"I thought they were joking [when I made the list], and then I was convinced for maybe 6 months that they're gonna find the next person to bump me cuz I'm #12. I'm still convinced that there's some girl in Mongolia that's gonna bring her piece of paper and just kick me off the list," Hales laughs. "To me it's kind of a big honor, cuz like all my heroes are on that list, so I don't really put myself on it, you know? It's kind of weird."

The other names included on the list are indeed the who's who of women's BJJ. In fact, Hales fought and beat a few of them, including BJJ legends Gazzy Parman and Felicia Oh. The one that turned out differently was of course the showdown against Megumi Fujii.

Before the current incarnation of women's MMA, before Ronda Rousey or even before Gina Carano, there was Megumi Fujii. With a final record of 26-3 with 20 wins inside the distance, and an unbeaten streak between 2004-2010, Fujii arguably was and still is considered the best women's mixed-martial-arts fighter in the history of the sport. By the time the two had faced off against each other, Fujii was 14-0. For Hales, it would be her second fight.

While the suggestion of such a contest appears ridiculous on paper, there was some reason behind making the fight. The fruition of the match traces back to Hales's first professional bout against Shawn Tamarabuchi, who at the time was being managed by another fighter named Lana Stefanac. Hales and Stefanac had become familiar with each other through a number of grappling tournaments, and for that reason, Stefanac tried to protect her charge from facing off against Hales. The only reason the fight came off was because during negotiations, Hales's management team gave the name "Cynthia Hanes" instead.

Hales won the fight via armbar in the second round, and one month later Stefanac won the open weight division of an event put on by a Toyko promotion called "Smackgirl". At the time, "Smackgirl" was one of the top, if not only, fight promotions that actively promoted female competitors, and their star attraction was Fujii. On the same night Stefanac won her fight, Fujii also won hers, and during post-fight interviews Stefanac was asked if she thought anyone could beat the promotion's star fighter. She replied, "Cindy Hales."

The bout between Hales and Fujii was set at 115 pounds, about 10-20 pounds north of where Hales was accustomed to campaigning, and to make matters worse, she had been putting on weight a few weeks prior to fill a potential opening in the 145lb slot of another event. Unlike tradition, weigh-ins for the fight was also set a mere four hours before the match rather than the day prior. What ensued was a training regime that was nothing short of insane.

For a more in-depth description of the ordeal, I suggest reading this feature from the Seattle Weekly, but to highlight some points here, Hales endured six weeks of consuming a mere 500 calories a day, while training twice daily, and working a full-time job. To help further with the cut, she enlisted medical professionals that put her on HCG—Human Chorionic Gonadotropin—a hormone produced in human placenta during pregnancy that is theorized to help with weight loss. On fight night, Hales tipped the scales at 114.5 pounds, and suffered six failed attempts at rehydration through means of IV, bursting veins and spewing blood all over her hotel room. By fight time, Hales looked like a person in the midst of a zombie turn.

In perhaps an odd sense of karmic retribution, Hales lost the match via armbar early in the second round. She later found out that she also been unknowingly fighting with three stress fractures in her right foot, and to this day contends that had the weight and injuries been different, she would have beaten Fujii. Overall though, she regrets little from the experience.

"I learned a lot from that. I learned more about what I wanted to do with myself," Hales recounts. "It taught me what you could go through to do something."

In perhaps what may now feel like another lifetime, Hales was once a manager at the customer relations department for Starbucks in North America. The progression behind landing that position is the typical storyline of how many working Americans somehow end up a doing job that they hate.

"I went to college, then started nursing school, decided I did not want to do that and then I got a job cuz I got married. Then I was doing the job and was like 'I hate this job' and so then that's why I started jiu jitsu. It was like maybe I should go do this thing because I might try to kill my boss or something," Hales laughs. "Not literally, but I hated that job so much."

Every morning on her commute to work, Hales would pass by Marcelo Alonso's jiu jitsu academy, and previous to that a friend piqued her interest to watching the UFC. She eventually put the two together and fell in love with the whole thing. She later exchanged her corporate position for labor-ready ones to help facilitate her training schedule, and after further whittling down her work obligations over time, Hales now works as a full-time jiu jitsu instructor. The exchange did come with its costs, however.

"I think it's definitely a trade off. Like maybe I don't make a ton of money, but I pretty much get to do what I wanna do everyday," Hales tells me. "It's funny, I have the guys coaching me now, and they're like, 'Do you have a 401k?' I have like...30 dollars. They kind of laugh, and it's like I could get another job, maybe I should get a real job, but then I think about when I had that job. I don't think I would want it, so I at least enjoy my life."

To coordinate our meetings, Hales sent me a copy of her training schedule, which are essentially 8-9 hour blocks oscillating between training and teaching fives days out of the week, and 2-3 hour training sessions on the weekends. In between she lives out in rural Washington, spending time with her dog and tending to her chickens. The only real social interactions she has are between her and those at the school, but for Hales, isolation is part of the job.

"I think it relates to anyone who is hyper-focused in one thing. Be it music, art, fighting, business whatever—there is an amount of isolation/loneliness in the mastery of an art. Actual real isolation or mental isolation. It's just countless hours working on something. The grind of the mundane. I enjoy it. It's calming," Hales tells me. "Fighting strips away fake things. I like that. Lots of things in life are fake. Fighting is real. Being outside sitting in the sun is real. Social media/selfies are not. So much of life is fabricated. I like living in the country doing what I want, feeling real feelings. It's not always exciting. Most the time it isn't. But it feels better than many other things I've done."

There are two things that have plagued the career of Cindy Hales. First is being in the unfortunate circumstance of being too good for established fighters to take a chance on, yet lacking the name to draw in an audience alone. The second is injuries.

Before Hales started competing in the MMA circuit, her first major injury occurred when she beat out Gazzy Parman at the Grappler's Quest tournament in 2008. Weeks before competition, Hales had been experiencing full-body stingers that could be induced by things as miniscule as sneezing or going over a speed bump, but postponed a doctor's visit in lieu of the tournament. After capturing first place, diagnosis later revealed she had herniated a disc in the spinal cord so severely that even the slightest mishap in the reparative surgery could have made her a quadriplegic.

X-Ray shot of Hales's herniated disc. The black indenture shows where the disc ruptured into the spinal cord.

Luckily, Hales recovered successfully and went on to compile a humble record of 2-1 in professional MMA, the sole loss of course being against Fujii. She would have gladly continued had another series of injuries not occurred shortly after. First was the re-aggravation of an old knee injury she had first acquired in her youth as a high-level competitive racquetball player. Then on the way to pick up a friend in 2010, Hales crashed into a car driven by a cheerleader from the Seattle Seahawks, and suffered another series of stress fractures in her spine. The "Sea Gal" says she was innocently parked sideways on the freeway and that Hales had carelessly T-boned her. Hales contends that the car was spinning towards her in the wrong direction. A court found Hales not at fault, but she is unsure of the exact legal terms in the official verdict. This all occurred when Hales had just opened her own school and had teaching duties amid all the injuries.

The stacking injuries, the year-long court case, and the overall grind of earning a livable wage as a martial artist eventually took its toll. Hales entered into a two-and-a-half year emotional downturn that involved considerable amounts of drinking and going-out, basically the lifestyle she vowed to leave behind when first started training. A job offer to teach full-time eventually pulled her out.

"I was starting to backslide into a lifestyle that I had left when I began BJJ. I was starting to be very depressed and unsure of what my next move was. I reconsidered my career choices, thought about getting a corporate job," says Hales. "Fortunately, I reconnected with Rodrigo, [the head instructor at GB Seattle], and he offered me a job opening a school in Bothell/Kirkland. I took it. Since then I have just fully refocused myself on BJJ – teaching, training, growing the school and the GB team as a whole. I feel fortunate where I am now, living in the woods, running a strong school, getting back to competing."

But the return to fighting did come with its tests. Soon after returning, Hales detached her subscapularis, coracoid brachialis and teres minor, as well as a partial separation tear in the labrum. To put that in layman's terms, it basically required a full shoulder rebuild that forced her to teach one-armed for nearly 8-months. During the rehab, Hales then tore her meniscus, and ended up combining the PT for both surgeries. Throughout all of this was also a litany of smaller injuries that didn't require surgery. For most people, such a concurrent string of setbacks would be enough to halt any notions of further competition, but pressing on in the pursuit still made the most sense for Hales.

"Well when I stopped fighting I ran into a Sea Gal…in a car…then it's like, 'Uhhh…you can do anything and get hurt,'" she says. "I was doing everything safe. I was training children. I was not doing anything bad; I was actually helping a friend and I got hurt, so it's like, 'Well, fuck it.' Now I'm just going to go back to my original plan of doing what I want to do and throwing caution to the wind, because [the accident] was so ridiculous that I can't really base my life on things that could happen."

Since fully recovering, Hales hasn't lost much of a step. She's won both a gi and no-gi divisions at a regional jiu jitsu tournament last year, both matches against competitors more than a decade younger, and one who had a 20+ pound weight advantage in the open division. Now, after nearly an 8-year layoff, Hales will be reentering the cage this Saturday night at a local event called Cagesport, this time against a 1-1 fighter named Liz Tracy who is 19-years her junior. Because of her age, Hales is subject to a mandatory MRI scan, and to cut costs, Hales flew down to Las Vegas for the procedure since a group of researchers were offering the service free-of-charge for participants in an ongoing study on brain trauma in competitive fighting. Without medical insurance, the plane ticket was actually cheaper than having it done locally.

In fact, the entire training camp has been done on a bit of a shoestring budget. She trains where she works, and as for coaching, she defers to a couple of student teammates, both of which are ranked below her in BJJ. The first is Seth Miller, a traditional martial arts veteran of 40+ years who was on both the US National Karate team, and the karate team in the army. Then there is Eughenii Cuimac, a judo blackbelt and sambo veteran from the USSR. He studied Cuban-style boxing in his youth and is in charge of the striking. Though he's insistent that he doesn't know much about fighting, both his attention to detail and ability to analogize fighting to other forms of movement reflects a refined understanding of the art. He holds Hales in a similar light.

"She can explain, she can teach, and she can learn. People after some age lose their ability to learn. Many people. I would even say maybe after 30, they just repeat things which they trained before that. She's able to learn and she learns everyday," says Cuimac. "There are many people who can do something, but they're not able to explain to others. She can. She can execute any kind of technique, and she's able to explain how things work. This is very high level of understanding."

Though both Miller and Ciumac insist that Hales is not in need of a trainer, Hales carefully chose each member for their attitude and technical knowledge on fighting. And neither man would have signed on for the assignment had it not been the level of respect they hold for Hales, a sentiment shared by many in the local fighting scene. Amongst her students are a group of loyalists who have followed her around the state as she's changed schools over time, and most of that is due to her teaching approach.

"I've been in MMA schools and it's still a dude environment. Girls definitely need to be more like a dude and I don't think those things go hand in hand. I'm trying to reconcile that," says Hales. "I don't think you need to be like a lecturistic fucking scumbag heathen to be tough. I think you can be a well-spoken, thoughtful, caring person and still be aggressive. I try to teach kids and keep perspective on it."

In fact, teaching is more the goal for Hales. Through a considerable journey of trial-and-error, she's now getting closer to making teaching into a viable profession, and her upcoming fight is more of a vehicle to promote her jiu jitsu seminars than her competitive fighting career. When she first mentioned this to me, I comically (and perhaps foolishly) mistook them for the "self-help" variety and thought she also doubled as a life-coach. She hasn't let me live down the comment since.

"I don't really see myself as like an inspirational figure. I was even telling people like, 'Man this fucking guy actually thought I was doing some kind of self-help?' I was telling my mom and my coach that, and I was like, 'Dude would anyone actually pay for fucking self-help advice from me? I wouldn't,'" she laughs. "I sort of had some stuff come up where someone was writing something on Facebook like, 'Oh I look up to my professor,' but for more than like…sport advice? And I don't agree with that. I think that that's like dangerous, you know? I have people who are like, 'Should I call you master?' and it's like, 'Uhhhhh….no…?'

"Cuz I'm just good at jiu jitsu, like I can show you some jiu jitsu stuff but I don't think that has any moral basis for my character. I would like to think that I'm a nice person, but I don't think me being a black belt in jiu jitsu correlates to that. I maybe could be both, but those two have absolutely zero to do with each other. I know other black belts are like 'Ohhh you need to defer to me to this other life questions.' Yeah no, I think that's a bunch of shit. Anyone who tells you that is crazy."

In the time I've spent with Hales, I can safely say that it is unlikely she would advise her students to emulate the way she has gone about living her life, but in many ways, her life represents exactly what many of us are told to do. We are often told to "follow our dreams", to find our vocation, to live life in accordance with what it is that we love. What is less often spoken about is the incredible amount of pain and sacrifice such a pursuit requires, and all the harsh realities laden on that path.

Every fighter is asked that inevitable question of quitting; in fact, that is the actual purpose of a fight—to test the limits of when one will give up, whether that be by conscious choice or physical impairment. In everyday terms, that might mean something like raising a family or the lure of stable employment. But from gendered stereotypes to struggling wages, from emotional turmoil to debilitating injuries, Cindy Hales has never stopped fighting. She embodies the story that many dream of, but are too afraid to actually live. She is, in essence, the rare example of a fighter who has endured.


Check out these related stories:

Kathy Long: Defying the Boundaries

The Sacrifices of a Jiu Jitsu Professor