Since its rise to popularity in the 1990s, mix martial arts has garnered fans worldwide. The founding of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Bellator in 1993 and 2008 respectively has catapulted the sport to unimaginable heights. MMA has a broad appeal because its athletes come from all walks of life. The sport is accessible, regardless of economic status and has the fastest growing women’s divisions of any game. Unlike other sports, women’s bouts are staged alongside men’s contests, and their battles in the Octagon are not restricted. Female fighters are often given top billing in UFC and Bellator. UFC 193 had record breaking attendance while being headlined by two women’s world title fights. As a fan of MMA, I have always been interested in understanding the appeal of the sport. My editor and fellow MMA fan, Conor, and I had the opportunity to talk with Bellator fighter Lisa “Insane” Blaine. Throughout our interview, we discussed Blaine’s journey in sport, why MMA attracts so many fans, and her plans for the future.
Grace: Hi Lisa, thank you so much for joining us today! Conor and I are huge mixed martial arts fans, and we’re so excited to chat with you. We’d like you to introduce yourself and tell us how you got involved in mixed martial arts.
Lisa: My name is Lisa “Insane” Blaine, and I’ve been a fan of the sport for a very long time. To be honest, the person who got me wanting to try MMA was Ronda Rousey. I’m a massive fan of hers. My goal was to have just one amateur fight and then call it quits. I never thought I would go pro, let alone fight in Bellator on live national television in front of millions of people. I did not envision getting this far because I started the sport at 35 years old. I feel very blessed to be in my forties and still training.
Mixed martial arts attracts a wide diversity of athletes and fans from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. Why do you think its international popularity has skyrocketed in the past few decades?
Lisa: When MMA first came out back in 1994, there were no rules. It was bare-knuckles, pretty much a dogfight or a backyard brawl. So, nobody really gave the sport any attention. Once they started to apply rules, people respected the sport. I think regulated rules were important, but the most important aspect was getting women involved in the sport. I believe MMA skyrocketed after women got attention as fighters. I think the sport will get bigger in 10 years from now.
Grace: Do you think that more people are inspired to get into MMA once they see someone like themselves represented in the cage?
Lisa: I can’t speak for anyone else, but at my gym, there are a lot of teenagers that are getting into the sport. I think that’s awesome to witness. I see a lot of young people start training and I think they like MMA because honestly, it’s fun. If you don’t want to become a professional fighter, it’s useful for self-defense, staying in shape, and getting out of trouble.
When was the first time you saw a fighter who really resonated with you?
Lisa: Honestly, Anderson Silva!
Grace: Really? The Spider?
Lisa: Yeah! Anderson Silva was the one who got me watching the sport. I said to myself, “Look at this guy. He can catch bullets with his teeth.” I started watching during the Pride FC days, and I was devastated when he lost the belt and got knocked out. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. Once I saw Ronda Rousey and her win streak, she got me motivated. I actually met her in person and took a picture with her. She is the nicest person ever. Her management team members were ushering her away, but she wanted to stay and take photos with her fans and sign autographs. I hadn’t started training yet, but I thought, “I gotta try MMA” after that moment. Seven years later, here I am, still doing it.
Grace: I feel like in regards to Ronda Rousey, the media paints her as someone who’s aggressive, but if you actually see footage of her, she really loves her fans.
Lisa: Exactly! And I’ve seen it in person. She would’ve stayed behind until she took pictures with every last person there. That was the most awesome day ever.
Conor: I’ve watched Ronda’s fights as well, and I agree with you. I think that the UFC, especially, would not be where it is today without her as a trailblazer. Regarding her portrayal, I believe there are two Ronda Rouseys. She has the character she plays, which is the “baddest woman on the planet.” Then there is an actual person behind the character. People can’t separate the character used to promote fights from the kind person outside the Octogan. I wondered if you could shed some insight into whether all MMA fighters have some sort of “character.”
Lisa: I’m actually friends with a professional boxer named Shelly Vincent. She said she will play the “bad boy,” and she doesn’t care as long she promotes her fights. And she does, she sells a lot of tickets. I hung out with Shelly, and she is the sweetest person ever. After I won my fight with Ana Julaton in Bellator, my coach wanted me to call out Heather Hardy. But that’s not me, that’s not my character. You are expected to portray a specific personality to sell fights. Still, some of these fighters in real life are the sweetest people ever. Me? I can’t do that. I don’t talk smack. I’m not that type of person. I’ll just take the fight.
Regarding women’s MMA, do you think female fighters have gotten the recognition and respect they deserve, or is there still a long way to go?
Lisa: There is definitely a long way to go! A lot of guys like the women fighters because they are women. I’m speaking from personal experience, but I don’t think we have the respect just yet. We get weird messages in our inbox, and I compare these messages with my other female fighter friends. I honestly don’t think we have the respect we deserve right now. Some guys like us because we are fighters, but they also see us as sex symbols.
Conor: I think that’s a really great point. As you said, there’s this perception that women fighters are still “only women” instead of understanding that female fighters are world-class competitors. Many guys think, “I can still beat them.” I was just wondering, how do you combat the “she’s just a woman” mentality as a professional athlete with a dedicated training regiment? How do you get away from that label?
Lisa: I’ve gotten comments like that to the point where I’m tired of responding. I realized that the more upset I get, the more entertained they become. I don’t even bother engaging with them anymore. Just say what you want to say. As of right now, let them be entertained. I’m just happy to be doing what I’m doing, especially at my age.
Grace: Good for you for sticking up for yourself. That’s a great segue into my next question.
What are some ways the MMA community can improve gym culture and behavior and attitudes to make the sport more welcoming and inclusive to women?
Lisa: As the years go on, the sport is really improving on its own. I have cross-trained at other gyms, and I get treated with great respect. It’s the people you don’t train with or the guys who never been to a gym themselves who don’t respect it. I personally get respect from my teammates, I love my teammates and the gyms that I train at. I wouldn’t change anything about it.
What would you say to an aspiring female fighter who feels intimidated in a male-dominated gym?
Lisa: Do not be intimidated! I did it, I started when I was 35 years old. It’s awesome! Again, if you don’t want to do it professionally, do it for self-defense. Even if you don’t want to do striking, do Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and vice versa. I would totally encourage it 100%. I will walk you through the first class and do it with you.
Grace: That’s a great answer. I always love seeing women supporting women in these male-dominated fields. It makes me so happy.
As a woman of color who started training MMA in your thirties, do you find that your background made you the “odd one out”? If so, how do you use that as motivation to become a better fighter?
Lisa: I have never had a problem being picked on or feeling like the odd one because of my background. Maybe I just grew up with the right people. My experience never affected my training, and I think I can say I’m blessed for that.
Grace: I feel like many people don’t have that perspective, so I’m glad that you feel accepted in your training environment.
In a broader sense, many of the most successful MMA fighters have faced some sort of adversity in their lives. How do these experiences contribute to the “fighter mentality?”
Lisa: You can either make a positive or a negative thing out of your troubled background. I do have people at my gym who make it a positive thing and have stayed out of trouble since.
Do you think MMA’s popularity can be attributed to its almost nonexistent barriers on race, nationality, and gender?
Lisa: Absolutely. When MMA first came out, it was mostly Americans. Now, you have someone like Zhang Weili who knocked out Jessica Andrade in the first round. Suddenly, fans are paying attention to the Asian MMA community. I think this sport is so diverse. We’re out in Abu Dhabi, we’re in China, we’re everywhere. I believe that is absolutely making the sport that much broader and more popular. That’s why I love this sport.
Conor: You’re in Bellator, which is one of the big promotions. How does having leverage to move between different promotions help fighters?
Lisa: There’s Invicta, too. When you step foot into a promotion like Invicta, that will open up the door for you to get into Bellator. Success in Bellator can lead to a gig at UFC. The UFC is the ultimate goal for any fighter. It is like how any basketball player has the intention to get into the NBA. To fight in Invicta is an accomplishment even if you never make it to UFC. You get through one stage, and that opens the door to the next one.
Conor: You’re used to beating the odds, starting with one amateur fight and then getting into Bellator.
Lisa: Never say never. Nothing is impossible. It sounds cliche, but I think I’m the perfect example of it. I will say it a million times, I’m blessed!
That’s awesome! Finally, what inspires you to fight?
Lisa: I’ve been to UFC fights, I’ve been to Bellator fights, WEC fights, and Strikeforce fights. I was just a nerd about the sport. Once I got that first fight with Sarah Click, and I got punched in the face and almost knocked out. After that fight, I thought, “Wow! I gotta do this again! That was awesome!”. It was an adrenaline rush. I thought that was going to be my only fight. Once I get into that cage, and the door closes, all the nerves go out the window. It’s just the opponent and me. I definitely want to have one more fight before I call it quits. I love this sport, and I wouldn’t change anything about it.
Grace Brangwynne is graduate student at the University of Connecticut where she is currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration. When she's not writing or editing articles, you can find Grace at the gym, reading a book, or exploring the outdoors.