Grapple Girl

Fightland Blog

By Peter Rugg

Seven years after Michelle Farrow last walked out of a cage, she still sounds like a fighter--that voice dried and salted in the Arizona summer picks the competition apart, argues strategy, worries over the way it’s all going. Whatever "it" is.  

“There’s a thing that kind of disgusts me with girls now: those tiny push-up bras," she says. "You got back-mounted because you were worried more about your chest popping out than you were about getting choked. I understand sex sells, but, you know, know what’s appropriate for grappling.” 

Underwear is a longtime concern. When Farrow started fighting it was nearly impossible just to get decent gloves. She doubled up on sports bras to protect her chest. Forget about finding groin protection. 

In the last year there’s been a lot of talk about how women’s MMA is finally having its moment, with Ronda Rousey getting magazine covers and fighters with two X chromosomes being discussed as legitimate competitors instead of simple eye candy to distract crowds between real fights. Farrow is pragmatic about the developments. “Look how long it’s taken female boxing to get any respect. MMA is a thing right now. I’m sure they did market research making sure the audience was there,” she tells Fightland from her home in Phoenix. “Once people saw it, and realized it wasn’t what they thought it would be, that’s when it started earning some respect.”

It’s not that Farrow isn’t happy to see women headlining the UFC, just that her enthusiasm is tempered by the sense that this progress wouldn’t have been possible without a lot of anonymous girls being bloodied for little reward. Such is the curse of the trailblazer. 

The first time she saw an MMA fight, the now-closing-in-on-50 Farrow was 29 and the UFC was still in its infancy. Farrow had always been athletic and frustrated. In high school she had wanted to wrestle and play football, but the only teams girls were allowed to join were the track team and the gymnastics squad. 

By 1996, Farrow and her then-husband Dusty were running the American Martial Arts Center in Phoenix. That was the year the couple went to a local Rage in the Cage tournament to see some friends compete. One half of the night’s only female bout had no-showed and Farrow, belly full of Mexican food and warming beer from her own birthday party, volunteered to fill the vacancy. She won by TKO in the second round, fists wrapped up in borrowed gear. That was that. She called herself "Grapple Girl."

Farrow was never foolish enough to expect money or fame from fighting. She paid for her own medical expenses and travel costs. Sometimes it meant using vacation days from her programming job. If she found herself stood up by an opponent, she didn’t get paid. 

“We all knew each other, even if we didn’t fight in the same weight class,” she says. “There were no weight classes. There are women out there that would’ve killed me. I think the biggest one I fought was about 76 pounds bigger than me. I got a TKO, like, about a minute into the first round. I don’t know why some of them, and these are serious competitors, never got a chance in the UFC.

“I mean, instructors laughed at me. They’d tell me ‘There’s no way we’d allow a female in our club.’ They just weren’t used to seeing it. Once I showed them I was there to stay, and I was going to keep with it, I got a little more respect as time went on. You had to show them it wasn’t a one-fight fluke.”

Farrow would sometimes go more than a year between fights, depending on who was available and which promoters would book a match; still she managed to run up a 12-2 record over the next decade. The final five of those years were spent as the undefeated women’s champion of Rage in the Cage.

On the day of her last fight, Farrow found out Dusty had been cheating on her with a florist working on the same street as their gym. He still came, though; he was her cornerman. In the third round, as Farrow took shot after shot without response, the referee had no choice but to stop the fight.

Farrow and Dusty both still loved the students at their gym and they tried to make the business relationship work, like parents who stay together for the kids, but eventually Farrow had to walk away. 

“I basically gave him everything to walk out in one piece,” she says. “I walked out with the clothes on my back. So that kind of put a damper on me doing any training.”

Farrow doesn’t watch many fights these days; the divorce soured her on MMA. But when Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche broke through the UFC’s glass ceiling earlier this year, Farrow got together with a few students (she still moonlights with one-on-one training sessions) to watch. It was a good night, Farrow says, but tinged by something like sadness. 

“There were just enough of us in the 90s that stuck with it so that people could see it could be done,” she says. “All those girls out there that fought for it when nobody cared, hats off to all of them. The ones people forget were here before Ronda Rousey was putting on her black belt.”

Check out these related stories:

Tales of an MMA Lifer: My First Fight

Women's MMA Comes of Age