The Mother Ship
Will Albuquerque become a hub for women’s MMA?
Zuffa, parent company of Ultimate Fighting Championship, purchased competitor Strikeforce on March 12. Strikeforce is the world’s biggest stage for women in the sport. In a few years, all of its fighter contracts expire. UFC President Dana White has repeatedly said women will never fight in his cages, making the overall future of women’s MMA murky at best.
Mixed martial arts, by many metrics, is the fastest growing sport in the world, and its expansion is an imposing threat to boxing. Boxers are facing the idea of competing in the upstart sport.
That includes Holly Holm, a top-five women’s boxer of all time on anybody’s list. During her March 4 MMA debut, she destroyed Christina Domke with a brutal leg kick assault. The leg kick is a specialty of Holm’s longtime boxing coach Mike Winkeljohn, who is also the kickboxing coach at Jackson-Winkeljohn Mixed Martial Arts in Albuquerque.
It turns out that Jackson’s (as it’s called, for short) has more to offer women’s MMA than just a fighter with star power. Depending on how the cards fall, Albuquerque may soon emerge as the mother ship." Jackson's MMA Series will be stepping up to take advantage of the talented women out there needing a place to fight,” says Ricky Kottenstette, Jackson’s general manager. “We have the opportunity to bring some of the best females in the world to match up against our top female fighters at Jackson's.”
Last year, the gym began its own promotion called the Jackson’s MMA Series, a smaller, local version of nationals like the UFC. It was originally conceived as a way to offer bright-lights experience to fighters looking to go pro, says Kottenstette. The first three events delivered great fights for the fans, he says, as well as learning moments for the fighters (two out of the three hometown headliners lost).
The next event on April 9 offers an 11-bout card featuring four women’s fights, including a title fight between local Julie Kedzie and Kaitlin Young of Minnesota. Plus, attendees will witness the conclusion of radio station 104.1 The Edge's MMA star search, aimed at finding local talent.
Morning show hosts Buck and Dex began wooing aspiring fighters late last year to take part in a challenge to train like a pro for two months. Candidates were invited to submit a physique-revealing photo, along with answers to some questions about their athletic backgrounds to ensure no pro fighters entered.
Of 250 applicants, 60 prospects were invited to Jackson’s for tryouts. Eventually, two teams—two women and six men each—were chosen: Team Renegades and The Arnold Schwarzenegger Project. After weeks of training, a male and female finalist were chosen from each team to face off.
She'll take on 25-year-old Katrina Branchal in a Featherweight (135 pounds) match. Making weight won’t be a problem for Branchal, who weighs 127. Lobb, on the other hand, entered the competition at 159. Two weeks before fight time, she weighed 144, but she was confident she’d make it down.
By all accounts, the discrepancy has been a touchy issue. Lobb and Branchal were considered the most promising females of the lot, so they agreed to make it work. But if Lobb doesn’t make weight, the fight will be canceled, says Chad LeMoine, Branchal’s trainer and head coach of The Arnold Schwarzenegger Project.
Weight cutting, common in many combat sports, is a double-edged sword. Many competitors will often squeak through the weigh-ins by losing an unhealthy number of pounds. Then they balloon up with water and food before the bout (a period of about 30 hours), so they can be much larger on fight night. But cutting too much weight too fast can leave a fighter fatigued.
With his smaller pupil not plummeting down the scale, LeMoine says they’ll have a cardio advantage.
The experience edge clearly goes to Lobb, who studied Brazilian jiujitsu for more than a year. This will give her an enormous advantage in the grappling department if the fight hits the floor.
Branchal had no previous training in any martial art prior to entering the radio promotion. In fact, she says she’s never competed in sport. But Coach LeMoine sees a warrior in her. “She has an X factor about her, a toughness that I’ve seen in other fighters," he says. "She doesn’t weigh as much, or have the experience, but she has athletic ability and a lot of heart. She’s been dedicated to the workouts, and she doesn’t give up.”
As far as anyone can tell, Lobb is the first grandmother to make an MMA debut. “How fun is that?” she says. “Hopefully it will encourage other people to continue to reach out for new goals and continue to try new things.” Branchal isn’t fazed by her opponent’s age. “I just see her as my opponent,” she says, adding, “she’s definitely not your typical-looking grandma.”
The card will also feature Rio Rancho firefighter Jodie Esquibel making her debut against another debutante: Brittany Horton of Belen. Recent Albuquerque transplant—and jiujitsu brown belt—Kelley Renee will take on Tsui’jen Cunanan of Arizona.