Words

Life, Death, and Cool Girls

Fightland Blog

By Aurora Ford

At Invicta FC 5 last April, after Lauren Taylor won her fight against Kaitlin Young, Lauren, her boyfriend Joe, and I spent some time wandering around the bar at the hotel where all the fighters were staying. I talked with other writer people while she talked with other fighter people, some of whom complimented her on her win. But there were a few mean mugs in there too. Had it just been her perception of events I might have tried to offer alternative explanations, but it wasn’t; I saw them too. Since then we’ve taken to calling it ‘the cool girls club’ because it feels oddly familiar to being two people who weren’t in with the cool girls growing up. It doesn’t matter how much Lauren admires and wants to fit in with these girls; some of them aren’t having it.

Women’s MMA, in the public’s eye, is still in its infancy. The fighters who’ve been around since the beginning, who know each other well and have forged friendships, are at the heart of the scene. They are as integral to the development of Invicta FC as the promotion’s president, Shannon Knapp. More so, if you ask Shannon. They worked for years, struggled, and put up with vastly greater challenges than men have, from the annoying to the disgusting. So, it’s understandable that a sort of exclusive camaraderie has developed. And, in the end, people are just people. We run in packs, we establish allies, we defend the honor of our friends. “And here you are,” I tell Lauren, “coming out of nowhere, with zero athletic background, training for a few years, and you’re beating them. You can’t really expect to be welcomed here with open arms just yet.”

During the course of that evening, and late into the night, I started wondering aloud who Invicta would choose as Lauren’s next opponent. I assumed it was anyone’s guess at that point, but she answered me immediately. “It’ll probably be Sarah D’Alelio,” she said. “That’s the only match-up that makes sense.” I looked around to where Sarah was standing. She’d been at the top of the stairs as we made our way up and she’d given us a smile and a nod as we passed her.  She was wearing a rabbit on her head (at least, I think it was a rabbit; Lauren thinks it might have been a panda). Silly hats, especially worn by people in a fancy environment, are a quick way to put yourself in my good graces. I love a good silly hat. I had decided that I might just like Sarah.

Within a few days, Invicta’s matchmaker Janet Martin called Lauren’s manager and confirmed her suspicions. The fight with Sarah was set for Invicta FC 6 on July 13 in Kansas City. I decided to go with her.

A few years ago, back before Lauren fought her first title fight with the Alaska Fighting Championship’s Willow Bailey, I remember fielding panicked phone calls at least three times a week. Willow was a megalithic force hovering over Lauren’s head back then, a terrifying force. But since that fight, Lauren’s confidence has grown, and those phone calls have become fewer and farther between. I don’t know if that’s because she’s actually having fewer moments of panic as she becomes more experienced as a fighter, or if she just calls on me less often to help calm her down because I am, in truth, not the best candidate for that job. I don’t fight. I can’t understand the pressures she’s under--the hunger, the long hours lying awake at night focusing on the next woman who stands in her way. There’s a part of me that feels like she has started to shield her family and friends from the fear she faces because she knows that exposing weakness will make us worry, which will in turn cause us to heap mounds of well-intentioned but ineffective praise on her that she’ll then have to pretend was effective in order to ease our minds. The last thing you need when preparing for a fight is to have to worry about the peace of mind of your fans.

The Friday morning before weigh-ins with Lauren is always bleak. She’s starving. Literally. And she has to wait until late afternoon or early evening to eat or drink anything. Waking up hungry and realizing you have eight or nine hours to go until you can consume anything sucks. As she’s gotten to know her body better the weight cuts have become easier, but I remember one particularly long six-and-a-half-hour drive to Fairbanks with a pitifully depleted version of Lauren doing her best to stay comfortable in the back seat of the truck. She said her kidneys felt like sacks of bruise, she looked like a zombie, and the rest of us ate hardly anything on the trip because it just felt too mean … which only made her feel worse. No matter how grumpy she is on the morning of weigh-ins these days, she’s a peach compared to that trip.

This time was a breeze. Joe is great for getting fighters to make weight, and I was glad it was him in the sauna with her this time around. I don’t mind, but I’m too tempted to tell Lauren she can take breaks when she looks miserable. Joe doesn’t have that problem. Love of his life or not, he will make Lauren hate him if he has to. “As awesome as Joe is, he's a total cock head to cut weight with,” she says. “If you are over weight and it's almost time to go, he will make you bundle up in layers and do exercises in the sauna until you are on weight. He doesn't care if you cry, whine, or pretend to pass out; if you're with Joe, you're making weight no matter what.” For the record, it was another fighter who had once pretended to pass out, not Lauren. And he passed out for real a few minutes later. Joe woke him up and put him back in the sauna.

Lauren felt good, relatively speaking, when weigh-ins finally rolled around Friday evening. She walked confidently across the stage after weighing in at 134.8 pounds and somehow managed to retain her composure when Sarah D’Alelio came out to the scale wearing a sock monkey costume. At the time, Lauren seemed cranky about it. Then again, I imagine it’s hard not to be cranky at everything when you haven’t had cheese in six weeks--a situation we soon rectified with our traditional enormous post-weigh-in Italian dinner.

Lauren’s coaches and the rest of us met up for breakfast on fight day. We were talking game plan and likely outcomes and taking our time at the table. After a few hours, I could see the gravity of the situation starting to sink into Lauren’s mind. As I get older and turn more into my mother, leaving Lauren alone to battle demons like this gets harder and harder, but I’ve learned to wait for her to ask for what she needs. She went upstairs to get her headphones and prepare for the traditional long walk alone around town. A lot of time passed, but she finally made it back downstairs and out onto the streets of Kansas City . We let her do her own thing for a while, and when we met up to take her and the crew over to the casino around 4, she was back to normal. We got in the car and Lauren made a short video update to send to our friends at The Raven Post back home who were posting a series of vlogs from her over the course of the weekend. Smiling at the camera, she said, “Well, we’re gonna go to the arena, I’ma fight this chick real quick, hopefully get my hand raised--probably get my hand raised--and then go eat barbecue!” All seemed well.

Sitting in the arena at the Ameristar Casino, I watched the fights crawl by. Even the exciting ones—like the three-round wars between Bec Hyatt and Mizuki Inoue, Rose Namajunas and Tecia Torres, Jennifer Maia and Leslie Smith--were torturous for me. Joe came out of the locker room about an hour before Lauren’s fight looking uncertain. She had a ton of time to kill and had decided to take a nap. When she woke up, he said, something was off. All day she’d been on point, absolutely on fire, throwing and landing head kicks that she rarely even attempted in practice. But after the nap it was gone. Joe said she’d had this weird vacant look on her face that he didn’t like. She was going through the motions warming up. She had lost her intensity.

I started to get a bad feeling. Once, back home, it had been fight night for Joe at the Alaska Fighting Championship. He’d gone to train at Wanderlei Silva’s gym in Vegas and come back in the best shape of his life, full of confidence, headed into a fight to challenge the welterweight champ. Out in the seats we were all relaxed, looking forward to a night of celebration with our friend. Until Lauren came out of the locker room with a worried look on her face. “Something’s wrong. He’s just… off,” she said. “I don’t know how to explain it but I can see it in his face.” Sure enough, whatever internal demons had appeared in Joe at the last minute lost him that fight. I struggled to avoid the feeling of déjà vu I was having when Joe came out making those same kinds of comments about Lauren, and I refused to confide my fears in him. The poor guy may be the only person in worse shape than I am on Lauren’s fight nights.

(A week later Lauren sent me this text: "You know what I was thinking in the locker room? 'Who the fuck locks themselves in a cage and tries to fight another human being? Why this hobby? Why not rock climbing or basket weaving or snowboarding? Why this, Lauren? Wtf is wrong with me and the rest of these women?'")

Glimmers of hope started returning when the raunchy guitar riff from “Bad to the Bone” filled the arena. Lauren was walking out with her familiar grinning swagger. That had to be a good sign. The crowd, now more familiar with her than at the last Invicta event, started cheering. That would pump her up, wouldn’t it? “You don’t believe in omens,” I said to myself. Until round 1 started.

Punches were exchanged, but something was off. It might not have been visible to other people, but Lauren looked sluggish. She took Sarah down, but Sarah quickly transitioned into a rear naked choke attempt that, from where we were sitting, looked like death. When Lauren popped out of Sarah’s grip I threw my hands together so hard that I bruised my fingers on the rings I was wearing. She took Sarah down again late in the round but ended up defending against a triangle instead of doing any damage. “Well, that round was Sarah’s,” I thought, “but she’s come back before.”

From there, the fight was largely a standup battle. Lauren landed combinations and Sarah landed uppercuts and some leg kicks. Lauren had the takedowns, but Sarah had the aggression. Control of the cage shifted fairly evenly between the two. The first half of the last round, Sarah seemed to land more punches. The second half of the last round, Lauren finally started to let her hands go and she was the one landing more punches. With little time remaining in the fight, Sarah’s face was red and her nose was bleeding, and Lauren had that characteristic grin plastered wide on her face.

Not that that helped me out at the moment. The judges had made several questionable calls that night, and with the fight being so even, I had no idea which way they would score it. I thought Sarah had round one, Lauren had round two, and I had no fucking idea who took round three. It looked like it should have gone to Lauren based on who was sporting damage and who was hopping around giggling, but I’m not a judge. The first judge scored the fight 30-27, but the announcer didn’t say in which fighter’s favor. My heart plummeted and Lauren looked down at the ground: There was no way they could have given her all three rounds; that one must have been for Sarah. The next two scores were 29-28, and I assumed those must also be for Sarah if it had looked to one of the judges like she’d taken all three rounds. I sank low in my seat. We all knew Lauren would lose eventually. I was already thinking about how to help her make a positive experience out of it when the words “And STILL UNDEFEATED” came from the announcer’s lips. I cocked my head and thought, “Wait, wait, wait… Sarah was 7-3 before this fight… that means he has to be talking about …”

“Lauren Taylor!” his voice boomed. Her hand went up in the air, her feet came off the mat, Sarah’s head sank toward her chest, and I launched out of my seat screaming so hard and so suddenly that my vision went fuzzy and black. Luckily I fell backward and not forward, landing in my seat and covering my face. I gotta learn to stop holding my breath so much. Whoever gave her all three rounds must have been high, but that didn’t matter. Lauren had the last two. She won.

Later that night at the bar, it was clear Lauren’s win hadn’t earned her a spot in the cool girls club. A few dirty looks popped up here and there and there was a lot of tension in the room. At least three fights that night had ended in questionable decisions and they were obviously brewing bad blood. One of those had been Tecia Torres’ win over Rose Namajunas, who happens to be UFC heavyweight Pat Barry’s girlfriend. At one point, Pat bought a bottle of Patrón from the bartender. “I don’t care how much it costs, just hand it over,” he said. Hopefully that helped ease some raw feelings, because they were almost palpable. His aptitude for comic relief was greatly appreciated, I’m sure. Lauren went over to thank Sarah for a great fight and wasn’t so well received, but then it’s hard to say how you’ll react when you lose a fight you thought you’d won.

Since the fight, things have been rocky. Arguments about who really won are all over Twitter and Facebook, which sucks if you’re Lauren. She’s not a judge, and obviously no one wants to win a fight that people think she didn’t win. UFC bantamweight Sarah Kaufman’s immediate response on Twitter was “WHAT!?!? Don’t know how that decision went to Lauren Taylor, especially 30-27.” That was hard to swallow. Kaufman has always been one of Lauren’s idols.

People followed suit all over the place and I was left feeling confused. If everyone had been watching the same fight I was, then how could it be so controversial? I thought it could have gone either way. Watching the fight over again on Ustream with the commentary cleared up my confusion. Announcer Mauro Ranallo kept saying that Lauren was a boxer, had pro boxing experience, was a known striker, etc. None of which is true, not really. She did one boxing match at a dinky promotion in Anchorage, but if that is on the books anywhere I’d be surprised. Striking, until recently, has been her Achilles Heel, and here Mauro was making her sound like Holly Holm. The longer I watched the more I wondered how he could lavish every punch Sarah landed with oodles of praise and stay silent when Lauren landed her own punches. Well, in an interview he did with Shannon Knapp a few days ago, Ranallo admitted the bias. “I think as commentators maybe we fell in love with the fact that Sarah D’Alelio was showing such a marked improvement in her stand up,” he said, “but that does not take away from the über toughness and the abilities and fighting spirit of Lauren Taylor, who also managed to land her share of shots.” No wonder the viewers at home responded the way they did.

It’s too late now. And besides, each fight Lauren’s had has taught her new lessons in the fight game. My guess is that learning how to be hated without letting it crush your spirit will be the hardest one.

Epilogue:

It wasn’t until I got home from Kansas City and was catching up on all the Internet buzz that I saw the last two installments of Lauren’s vlog on the Raven Post. That’s when I figured out what had been happening with her between breakfast and her walk on fight day, when she’d disappeared upstairs at the hotel. There, on the Internet for everyone to see, was the meltdown I’d been waiting for. Her face was red and her eyes were puffy. She laughed at herself a little in between sniffles and said, "You'll probably enjoy this ... I'm just super fuckin’ nervous. Really scared. I want to win this fight, I've worked really, really hard and I'm just really fuckin’ freaking out. Really scared."

My initial reaction when I heard about the vlog idea had been to tell Lauren to be cautious about showing any sign of weakness to the world wide web. Her fans, I said, would love it, but her opponents would try to use it against her. But watching those videos it became clear to me she was doing something unique. Last week before the event, when I asked Marloes Coenen if she was scared to face Cyborg, she said that if you’re scared you shouldn’t be stepping into the cage. And while I recognize that to her this is the obvious truth, I can’t identify with it. The crowds, the battle, the very first all-women’s televised pay-per-view card in history… to us normal folks, fear would be an inescapable reality. Lauren’s disinterest in hiding what she’s really going through is what makes her a people’s champion. She is only human: She works hard, she cries, she freaks out, and then she swallows her fear and fights anyway.

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