By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Down inside the basement of an American Legion in East St. Paul, a group of fighters train in a room that looks like it was decorated with props from the set of Rocky. The team manager gives reporters directions to the place by saying, "Once you find yourself in a nasty location and you start to feel unsafe, you've found it."
A stench of mildew and sweat greets you at the street entrance and amplifies as you crawl down the two flights of stairs to the basement. Underneath a leaky section of the ceiling, a rubber trash can collects athletic tape caked with blood.
This is the home of Team Bison and Kelly Kobald.
On this night, a tattooed guy with a pink mohawk does pull-ups while another guy with absurdly big shoulders bangs out push-ups with one hand on a balance pad. Across from him another dude takes a giant Caterpillar tire and flips it over, jumps into it and then out of it, turns around, and flips it back the other way. It's a collection of every guy you'd never want to piss off at a bar.
Kobald skips into the room with a grin. She carries her fighting gear in a princess-pink gym bag and flashes a gap-toothed smile at her coach and manager, Mike Reilly, a gruff-talking guy with a barrel chest.
"You better not call me a gruff-talking guy with a barrel chest," he warns a reporter as Kobald heads to a back room to change into her workout gear. "I had some other guy come in here and write that when I was telling him about the dichotomy between the fighter and the team. Gruff-talking? Hell, I used the word dichotomy. I mean, c'mon."
Kobald returns and immediately joins the guys on the mat who are already practicing ground techniques and jiu-jitsu holds. Kobald takes a turn grappling against each guy on the mat. Most are former wrestlers.
As she practices, Reilly tells the story of her first fight. "Kobald picked it," he says in delight. "There was this girl who was good at judo and Kelly went up to her and said, 'Wow! You're really good at judo. Wanna fight?' She did enough to piss the girl off, and when they fought the judo girl found out how hard Kelly can punch."
As he talks, Kobald reverses a guy and quickly slaps a rear-naked choke around his neck. The guy taps her arm to tell her to release.
When Kobald first came to a practice at Team Bison, she was known simply as "the redhead." Reilly gave her instructions that if she fought here she would be treated just like any one of the fighters. "After her first night I wasn't sure she would come back," he says. "But she came back night after night."
Unlike many girls in MMA, Kobald has no background in martial arts. At South High in Minneapolis she ran cross-country and swam. But then she discovered the rush of MMA. "When I fight, everything slows down," she says.
While only 25 years old, Kobald is a relative veteran of the sport. She has a record of 16-2 and has fought in places that make Team Bison's basement look like the Bellagio. In her early fights up in Duluth, she was lucky to make a couple hundred bucks. By her 16th fight, she barely made $600.
Despite the lack of pay, Kobald got a reputation as relentless. "Kelly comes at you like old-school Vitor Belfort," Reilly says, referring to the onetime UFC phenom with lightning-quick hands. "She doesn't know how to go backwards. Once, she broke a girl's face. And that was with boxing gloves on."
People have made much about Kobald's upcoming fight against Carano on CBS this Saturday. Kobald has been quoted to the effect that she plans on fucking Carano's shit up. "Right now it's the Gina Carano league and her opponents," Kobald says of EliteXC.
An hour into her practice, Kobald's hair sticks to her face with sweat. "You can't rest," she says later. "When you rest you get punched." After ground technique she works on body throws and tosses a teammate into a crash pad. Two heavyweight fighters watch in the boxing ring as she works on her form. They lie atop the bloodstained mat and laugh at the face of Kobald's opponent as it strains to hide the pain she's inflicting. While this happens, a guy walks past the mat and leans in to tell a reporter, "She's pretty good, right? I know it. She caught me in the face."
Once the practice ends, Kobald goes to a back room to change out of her practice clothes and returns in an outfit from one of her sponsors. The duds are so new that the tags haven't been cut off. She pulls out brand-new shoes given to her by the same sponsor. They're flashy high-top sneakers sewn with teal patent leather. Kobald shakes her head. She puts her feet in the shoes and looks for approval.
"Wow, Kelly, those things really highlight your calves," Reilly jokes.
She gives him a look like she might punch him.