My Best Friend Is Champion of the World
Photos by Jade Kimmel for Women’s MMA Roundup
I had just arrived at the Phillips Hotel in Kansas City and plopped myself down on a couch outside the room where they were taping an interview with my friend Lauren Murphy when Miriam Nakamoto came walking down the stairs. It’s a really weird thing, the split-second indecision over how to address a woman who is, in a matter of 48 hours or so, going to try to knock the teeth out of your best friend’s head, but it’s not in my nature to be snarky or mean unless given a good reason, so I smiled and we made small talk … and it was really weird. Pleasant but weird. It was even weirder when Lauren emerged from the room she’d been filming in and the two started joking around with each other.
When they’d first announced that Lauren would be fighting Miriam for the inaugural Invicta FC bantamweight belt, I’d brushed it off. All of Miriam’s opponents in the cage up to that point had known that to stand and bang with her would be folly--she's an eight-time kickboxing champion, after all, who'd knocked out all three of her opponents since making the move to MMA--so they’d basically shot for a takedown right away, in the process running straight into what her fans call "Miriam's Pimp Knees." I knew Lauren wouldn’t make that same mistake, and I figured there was no way this fight could be as tough as her last one, against Sarah D’Alelio. But standing there talking with Miriam in that hotel lobby and realizing for the first time just how tall and strong she is, I started to have doubts.
The rest of Thursday and Friday before weigh-ins passed in a blur of activity, leaving us little time to dwell on potential bad outcomes: photo shoots, open workouts, running back and forth to the store and the airport, and one incident where the hotel kitchen told us they couldn’t give Lauren boiled water to shape her new mouth guard with, so instead they gave her a small machine similar to a portable camping stove and a metal pitcher and told us to boil it ourselves.
The day before the fight I drove to the Kansas City airport to pick up our friend Jen, who’d flown down from Alaska for the weekend, and due to a delay on the tarmac we ended up sliding into the weigh-ins at the Ameristar Casino at the last possible moment. We snagged the only place left to sit, which just happened to be right next to the original MMA referee, Big John McCarthy, who told me that he is a huge fan of Lauren’s grit. Lauren came out smiling and looking in even better shape than at the last Invicta event, which I hadn’t thought possible. Then we rounded up the whole crowd of near 20 and went out to eat too much Italian food.
This is one of my favorite parts about fight weekend. Not because of the food, but because the hard part is over, everyone’s spirits are high, and we all get to be together. I like to sit around the table and ask Lauren's coaches what they predict will happen. “Hey coach Pat, what does the crystal ball say?” I always ask. And Pat, Lauren’s MMA and jiu-jitsu coach, runs me through the whole fight, sounding almost bored because the answer is so obvious to him. To this day, he’s never been wrong. Knock on wood.
At one point in the afternoon on fight day while everyone else was out running errands and I was getting ready in the bathroom of Lauren’s hotel room, I heard Pat and Lauren talking on the other side of the door. She was deep in the grips of fear, something she dips in and out of on fight days. They’d gone over the game plan, gone over what she needed to avoid, gone over and over and over the fact that she had worked as hard as she possibly could have, had prepared in every conceivable way, and that the rest was pretty much up to the universe. She was still not calmed.
“Dude, I’m so scared. What if I lose? What if she knocks me out?” she asked, probably for the millionth time.
Before I come answer her, I heard Pat say, “Who’s the scariest fighter in the world?” My ears perked up because I didn’t know the answer or where in the hell he might be going with this.
“Mike Tyson,” Lauren quickly replied.
“And why does Mike Tyson fight the way that he does?”
“Because … he’s terrified,” she said, with realization dawning in her voice.
That was it. A few words from from Pat and Lauren had no more questions. Though it was not his intended purpose, it steadied me as well. It stopped my maternal urges to soothe Lauren's fears dead in their tracks. Maybe I’d always had it wrong: Maybe Lauren’s fear is one of her strengths.
Soon it was time to head over to the hotel. By now the routine is familiar to me. Lauren goes early so she can get in the cage and move around. We always sit in the same place, in the stands to the left of the cage. She chats with us awhile and then disappears backstage with her coaches and her husband, Joe. My friends and I watch the first few fights and then around two fights out, Joe joins us, leaving Lauren with her coaches because, while he's great at keeping a poker face over his mounting nerves, when it gets that close to fight time Lauren has to focus and he knows he probably isn’t helping.
When Joe finally sat down I asked how she was doing, expecting bad news because I always see the worst outcomes in everything. But he was smiling. “She feels great,” he said. “She’s still scared, of course, but she’s bouncing around. Really happy.”
That was a shock. Lauren, god love her, is a wildly emotional creature, and "happy" and "excited" are two words I’d never heard used to describe her demeanor on fight night. Then again, as this whole wild MMA ride has wound on, she’s changed in ways I could never have predicted. Where she used to be insecure, she's now confident. Where she used to be scared for weeks before a fight, it’s now pretty much down to small episodes here and there (and, of course, on fight night). Where she used to have negative perceptions about her body, she now sees it as having a purpose. She doesn’t complain that her shoulders are too broad anymore, or that she isn’t thin enough.
Finally, it was time. Lady Gaga’s “Applause” started playing and Lauren came out bouncing and grinning. At her first Invicta appearance, when no one knew who she was, it was mostly Joe and me yelling. This time I heard it from all sides of the audience.
The first round of the fight both amazed me and scared the hell out of me. Lauren had not previously had much use for footwork, but there she was, bouncing back and forth, moving her head, largely staying out of Miriam’s comfort zone. But she was still getting hit here and there; Miriam was just too fast and too skilled for Lauren to dodge all of it. Sitting next to Joe during Lauren's fights helps me because he has a better eye for seeing exactly what’s going on, but it’s also terrible because when he starts to get worried, it scares me cross-eyed. During round one, Joe was worried. Miriam caught Lauren with hard shot after hard shot, managed to get a takedown, and landed several brutal kicks to Lauren’s lead leg. At one point I heard Joe say, “Miriam’s going to go for a head kick soon,” and I was suddenly convinced Lauren was about to lose for the first time. I wanted to cover my eyes. I didn’t want to see her crash to the mat like a sack of hammers. But though my confidence wavered, Lauren’s never seemed to, even though, as she would tell me later, Miriam had hit her harder than she’d ever been hit in a fight. When the bell rang, and I saw that Jen was as freaked out as I was, I leaned over and said, “She’s lost every first round in her Invicta fights, but she always comes back. It’s not over.” I don’t know if I was reassuring her or myself.
Round two unfolded a lot like round one, with Miriam getting the better of the striking. But toward the end of the round, true to form, Lauren started finding her range. As Miriam went back to her corner, I saw her corner people rush in to stop the bleeding from her nose. That was what did it. I wasn’t sure if that round had been Miriam’s or Lauren’s, but I knew things had changed. I could see that grin on Lauren’s face that means she’s locked in, and I’ve never yet seen her stopped once she gets that look on her face. Lauren said later, “I saw the blood coming from her nose, and I tasted blood in my mouth from where she’d hit me, and nothing gets me more excited to fight than two people beating the shit out of each other.”
Round three started out much more evenly, but when it shifted, it really shifted. They clinched several times and Lauren managed to avoid letting Miriam capitalize on the position. They reversed each other back and forth against the cage and Lauren landed a few of her own knees. Eventually, to my great relief, she took Miriam down and began executing some of the ground and pound she is becoming known for. The rest of the round was all Lauren’s. After the bell rang I was too focused on Lauren to notice that Miriam was limping on her way back to her corner.
I knew how it would go from there on. I knew rounds four and five would be just like round three. I knew Lauren was headed for the belt. What I didn't know was that 23 seconds into the round, Miriam would collapse on the mat, yelling out in pain, without Lauren having touched her. I had no idea what was going on. I saw Lauren rush in to finish her off and the ref jumping in between them. Then, suddenly, it was all over. Lauren went to Miriam, obviously concerned, and then spent the next several minutes wandering around the cage with a look of disbelief on her face. Later I learned that during one of Lauren’s takedowns in the third round, the two of them had gone down on top of Miriam’s right knee and tore her ACL, a fact that Miriam confirmed yesterday on Twitter. She had tried to tell her corner that she was done, that her knee was torn, but she had ended up going out for the fourth anyway.
That the fight ended that way was unfortunate. After Lauren’s controversial win over Sarah at her last Invicta fight, I knew that she really wanted for her performance this time to leave no questions, but it wasn’t to be. Still, here she was: the first-ever Invicta bantamweight champion.
The first thing I did when I got home from our 15-hour drive through a snowstorm on Sunday was to watch the fight again so I could see what the fans had seen from home and look over what was being said on the internet. Lauren had won the fight fair and square, but some of Miriam’s fans weren’t keen to look at it that way. But in true classy-lady form, Miriam’s responded to them on Twitter. “Lauren did nothing wrong," she wrote. "She came and fought her heart out, and literally, she was the last one standing. She deserves to enjoy her moment in peace.”
What I hadn’t been able to see from the stands that night in Kansas City, but what I saw when I rewatched the fight, was that when Lauren rushed for Miriam when she fell down, it wasn’t with any intention to cause further damage. Her instinct was to help, because that’s who Lauren is.
Check out the fight below, starting at 3:01:45.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.