Minutes into her fight for a regional 115-pound title, Linsey Williams finds herself caught in an armbar. Her tendons bulge. The crowd at Mystic Lake Casino holds its collective breath, waiting for her to submit.
Seconds tick by as Jessica Fresh arches her back and Linsey struggles underneath. The room winces, waiting for the sound of an arm snapping to break the tension.
But Jessica has made a few critical mistakes — instead of strapping both legs across Linsey's torso, she only has one; the pressure on Linsey's elbow is an inch up from where it should be; and she's not twisting Linsey's wrist to add torque. These little things mean Linsey's arm will bend, but not break.
Linsey pulls her shoulder out and rolls over, forcing Jessica to let go or be mounted.
The tension released, a wave of energy courses through the room. Jessica has slapped this armbar on other girls before, and they've tapped out in a hurry. When Linsey escapes, everything shifts in her favor. She suddenly seems stronger, faster, more aggressive than her tiring opponent.
Jessica submits to a triangle choke later in the second round, capping the inevitable: Linsey is the new Sterling Entertainment Group 115-pound women's champion and takes home a shiny new belt and a Suzuki motorcycle.
As Linsey poses in the cage with her coach and cornerman, the crowd at Mystic Lake slowly dissipates, drained after watching 20 fights in a row. The last five fights were all women, a scheduling move that takes advantage of the spectacle of "two chicks fighting."
In the last few years, that spectacle has given way to respect for female fighters and an appreciation for feminine aggression and physicality.
In 2011, UFC President Dana White famously stated, "Women will never fight in the UFC." He's since had to eat those words. When women's boxing debuted in the 2012 Summer Games, Nicola Adams clinched the gold medal and thrust the sport into the limelight. The following year the UFC signed Ronda Rousey, an Olympic silver medalist in judo.
Rousey is currently the highest paid fighter on the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) roster and one of the most recognizable figures in sports. She is the first mixed martial artist to win an ESPY award (twice for Best Female Athlete in 2014 and 2015). Ronda was dethroned in her most recent outing by Holly Holm, a shocking upset that had the likes of Donald Trump and Lady Gaga tweeting their reactions.
The pool of female fighters is still tiny compared to the men's, but the floodgates are open. Competitive women wallowing on the undercards of regional events have found themselves suddenly marketable. Agents come calling, offering fights and belts. More girls with warrior spirits are joining up at local gyms.
An aggressive, athletic woman like Linsey would have been on the fringes of the fighting world a few short years ago, where now there is a clear path to glory and riches for her to follow. The days when a handful of women drove across the country to fight each other over and over for pennies are done.
Linsey Williams has tight, untamed black curls, and brown freckles spread across her soft features. Aside from these hints at her mixed-race heritage, the first thing one notices about Linsey is her physique, like Wonder Woman shrunk down a size, specifically designed for quick, fluid, beautiful movement.
Linsey's potential energy is constantly about to turn kinetic. Even when she speaks, the thoughtful cadence of her words conjures up a loaded spring.
She has lived in the northern suburbs of Minneapolis, first Fridley and then Coon Rapids, for most of her 25 years. Her dad started fading out of the picture before Linsey was born and grew fainter as time went on, like a Polaroid losing its luster in the sun.
Karen Williams raised Linsey and her two older siblings — Sean, 29, and Gitanja, 33 — on her own. She worked rotating shifts as a surgical technician at North Memorial. Gitanja got the two younger siblings out of bed and made sure they ate breakfast and went to school on time.
Karen is one of those blue collar moms with hardcore drive underneath a sweet exterior, like cotton candy wrapped around an iron pole. When Linsey tells a story about missing the bus when she was seven, crying on the curb until her teacher came to pick her up, Karen almost gets out of her chair to give her daughter a hug.
But then the story of mom putting a stop to Linsey's fifth grade dreams of joining the wrestling team comes up, and the mother-daughter battles of the past are rejoined for a moment. Linsey's normally super-confident demeanor turns down and mom explains why she said no.
"It just wasn't what girls did," Karen said. "Back then, it was even hard to imagine a girl on the hockey team, much less wrestling or fighting. It wasn't like it is today."
Undeterred, Linsey continued playing football with the boys at grade school, fake nails and all. She fought her older brother, who had gone into wrestling, and admired her older sister, who rollerbladed to two jobs while finishing school and starting a career with the National Guard.
Eventually Linsey rolled her own dice on the National Guard. Her unit was preparing to deploy to Kuwait just as she enlisted, so Linsey was fast tracked into combatives training. The coaches noticed her athleticism right away, and told her to try out for the Minnesota National Guard combatives team when she returned from Kuwait.
Linsey got her first taste of mixed martial arts in the brutal deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. Soldiers from her unit would train on their downtime — grappling, jiu-jitsu, and boxing. The intensity of Muay Thai Boxing attracted her instantly, but it was rolling with a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt that made her into a zealot.
"Everything he did was so perfectly paced and fluid and it wasn't always that struggle against someone. It was constant motion and flowing from position to position, which is actually exactly what jiu-jitsu, the gentle art, should be. After that, if I wasn't embedded in another camp or on a mission, I was in the gym doing BJJ."
As her tour of duty was wrapping up, Linsey heard from a fellow soldier from Fargo about a gym in Brooklyn Center, the MMA Academy, where she could go and continue her training. The coach there was Greg Nelson, incidentally the same man who had helped train the Minnesota National Guard combatives team into a force to be reckoned with.
When Linsey returned stateside in the spring of 2012, she took a chunk of the money she had earned on deployment and paid nearly $1,000 up front for six months of training at the Academy.
Greg Nelson is one of the most accomplished martial artists the Twin Cities has ever seen. He is a black belt and instructor in multiple disciplines: Jun Fan Martial Arts and Jeet Kune Do, Filipino Kali, Muay Thai, Combat Submission Wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He was an All-American in both gymnastics and wrestling. He has coached dozens of athletes to the top of almost every fighting organization out there — including three UFC champs in different weight classes.
He is 52, but still looks like a compact tank, with dishwater-blond hair cropped close and bright blue eyes in a face cut from stone. When he trains his charges at the Academy, old war tales spill out to put maneuvers into context. He's wrapping someone up in a choke one second, explaining how that same choke won a national tournament back in the late '90s the next. He's gruff in a friendly way, understanding of those who can't handle the grind, but unwilling to waste too much time with them.
Greg belongs to the generation of American martial artists who grew up on Bruce Lee movies, Caine in Kung Fu, and Black Belt magazine. He and his middle school buddies built ninja obstacle courses in the woods around their New Hope neighborhood and sucked up any karate or kung fu move they could find.
He wrestled at the University of Minnesota under J Robinson, the coach who brought Iowa-style wrestling to Minnesota and helped turn the Gopher program into the powerhouse it is today. But his attention always turned back to martial arts.
When he saw his co-worker at My Pi Pizza in Golden Valley flipping and twisting knives around, Greg spent the next month pestering him to show him the moves. His co-worker finally relented and brought Greg to Rick Faye's garage, where a half dozen local hooligans were using a hodgepodge of martial arts to beat each other up and slowly get better at it.
The garage eventually developed into the Kali Group, Rick Faye's current martial arts school off 45th and Chicago. But a bunch of Rick Faye's more combat-oriented students organized around Greg to train primarily in Thai Boxing. The aggressive, intense striking art appealed to Greg. He eventually took that group and founded his own gym in 1992, the training facility that would one day become the MMA Academy.
Around the same time, in 1993, the Ultimate Fighting Championship held its first televised tournament, featuring a kickboxer, a sumo wrestler, and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace named Royce Gracie. It was televised via pay-per-view to 90,000 people. When Royce Gracie submitted Gerard Gordeau via choke, UFC 1 was over. The mixed martial arts craze had begun.
The Academy grew and attracted the best fighters Minnesota had to offer. By the late 1990s, dozens of fighters had come through Greg's gym and gone on to win titles in an alphabet soup of promotions around the world. One of them, Dave Menne, won the first ever UFC Middleweight championship in 2001.
That same year Greg was diagnosed with Stage IV liver cancer and underwent the first of many chemotherapy treatments. The cancer was declared in remission in 2002. But then a new pain developed in his leg and shot down to his foot. It was unlike anything he had experienced before.
Greg started sucking down morphine and methadone to fight the pain, while doctors at North Memorial, the University of Minnesota, and the Mayo Clinic issued a battery of tests to determine what the problem was. An experimental MRI scan at the Mayo Clinic found an abnormality in his sciatica nerve. Doctors gave Greg the bad news: It was neurolymphomatosis.
Of the 33 people who have been known to have this type of cancer, 32 were diagnosed postmortem and the 33rd died.
"He was on a ton of drugs and just babbling incoherently," said Andy Grahn, a BJJ black belt who helps Greg run the Academy. "We were like, 'He's gonna die. But if anyone is going to recover and come back and thrive, it's gonna be Greg.'"
Greg did survive, the first in recorded medical literature to do so. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic told Greg his battle with nerve cancer is now considered the standard for pain tolerance. His ability to fight through the pain and depression and return to coaching martial arts full time left a mark on everyone who was there for him during those years. Now when fighters and colleagues talk about Greg, they skip over the countless martial arts accomplishments and get right to the war he fought with death:
"You know dude beat cancer, right?"
When Linsey started training at the Academy, the first thing Greg noticed was her intensity. The sound of it.
"She was over there kicking the bags and yelling," he said. "I just turned around and said, 'What's that?' and there she was, going all out."
Greg's number one requirement for a professional fighter is the ability to train and train and train. The ones who have the mentality to push past their limits and do repetitive tasks until they collapse become the truly great fighters.
"Linsey has always had that mentality," says Greg.
Talent is something suspicious and insidious at the Academy — a pretty piece of iron that still requires the hammer. Greg has seen too many talented people get outworked, too many potential stars fizzle out and quit. Women are no exception to the rule. Greg describes with a grimace the times when an athlete would get hit in the face and start crying out of frustration, or the times when emotions would boil over and require a soothing word or two.
Greg is much more animated by the women he has trained who exhibit the mentality he prizes in all of his charges: relentless and hungry, able to take a shot to the face and, instead of crumbling, get stronger and even more determined. Linsey, he says, is that kind of woman.
"We never had to worry about whether or not she was going to work hard. With Linsey the key is not her drive or determination, but technique. She has to learn when to use her pure athleticism together with good technique."
The fight at Mystic Lake last August, the one where Linsey escaped the armbar, was the first one Greg cornered for her. The previous fights — at the Thai Boxing tournament, at the various grappling tournaments — her cornerman was either her boyfriend Dan Moret, also an MMA fighter, or whomever she could grab at the time.
Nabbing Greg as a cornerman marks a change in her career, a transition from the intense girl who works hard to the professional fighter with potential.
Linsey also trains three times a week at an all-female Brazilian jiu-jitsu gym in Uptown, X2 Fitness, run by Gina Franssen, another of Greg's former students and Minnesota's first female BJJ black belt. Training with other women provides a different feel, says Gina. Women can focus on technique. They can pit themselves against women their own size, and not just struggle against the smallest man in the gym. There are no excuses when women fight women.
"Women move differently," says Gina. "We rely heavily on technique and being sneaky. It's really important for female competitors to train together because it's a very different game than with the guys."
The differences became apparent for Linsey during a trip to Las Vegas, when she suddenly found herself on the mats with Miesha Tate, an MMA pioneer, and seven other women. It's so rare for so many female fighters to be in one room at the same time, it opened Linsey's mind to the idea of all-female training sessions. Not only is it practical — her opponents are all women — but it builds a deeper camaraderie with all women, fighters or not.
"When I started training with women in Thai boxing or BJJ, we might not have anything else in common, but we have this, and I think that opened my eyes," Linsey says.
"I was always the alpha female, always had a chip on my shoulder, but now I have a stronger appreciation for other females. I might meet another woman and think we have nothing else in common but [martial arts], but there is always something women will have in common, even if it's just the fact that we're women."
That fact was driven home even further last September. Linsey had a fight in Waukesha against Chi Sheibley on the North American Fighting Championship's Battledome card. After weeks of preparation, she went in for the final weigh-in. Sheibley was having trouble making the 115-pound cutoff, so the two sides decided to meet in the middle at 120. Even then, Sheibley came in two pounds over and was given another hour to try and shed some weight.
But things got more complicated when Linsey took a routine pregnancy test — an over-the-counter first response — and was met with a plus sign. Dumbfounded, she took another urine test. Another positive. It was Friday night and the fight was scheduled for Saturday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. Linsey and her team started calling hospitals in Waukesha, hoping a blood test would show she wasn't actually pregnant.
"The commission said that if a blood test confirmed I wasn't pregnant, I could still fight," Linsey said. "So we called all night and all the next morning before we finally found a little local hospital that would do the blood test."
The first test failed to give a definitive yes or no answer. Linsey had the doctor at the arena send over another order for a different test, but those results could only be released by fax to the doctor at the arena. It wasn't until Linsey received a text from the event promoter that she finally knew for certain.
"Yes. You are pregnant," the message read.
The fight was called off. Linsey spent the day in her hotel crying.
Over the next few weeks, she would experience an emotional and hormonal tsunami. After electing to terminate the pregnancy, she began using a contraceptive implant, Implanon. Her body was flooded with unfamiliar hormones. The potent biochemical cocktail introduced her to a side of being a woman that she hadn't any prior experience with.
"I had a doctor once tell me I had more testosterone than the average woman," Linsey said. "So it was really compelling when these hormones suddenly took over. I was getting really emotional. My body responded differently when I trained. I was getting upset over things that would have never bothered me before. I just wanted the old me back."
So she made it happen.
"When my manager told me I had this fight coming up on Nov. 6, I guess I could have said 'Hey, I was pregnant two weeks ago, I'll sit this one out.' But instead I thought, 'I have four weeks to go from pregnant to fighting shape. Let's do this.'"
The atmosphere in the locker room just before Linsey's Nov. 6 fight at Mystic Lake belies the pressure of the previous four weeks.
In the minutes before Linsey takes the stage, Coach Greg is sinking deep into a couch, a baseball cap covering most of his face, while Linsey moves about like a panther popping combinations into pads held by her boyfriend, Dan.
The promoter organizing the bout at Mystic Lake, the Resurrection Fighting Alliance (RFA), is widely regarded as the fast track to the UFC, the big leagues where fighters can earn big money and international glory. A win in the RFA propels her toward that wider spotlight, but Dan is talking about "getting rounds in" and "gaining experience" as if they were back at the gym.
Meanwhile Greg extricates himself from the couch to stroll around and jovially greet a few old friends. The end result seems already set. The only unknown is the process and what the team can glean from everything that happens between the shadowboxing in the locker room and the inevitable victory to come.
The fight is a lot tougher than anyone expects it to be. Her opponent hails from Albuquerque, New Mexico — a hotbed for MMA and especially new female fighters. Linsey dominates most of the action, but the controlled combinations in the locker room devolve into single strikes through clenched teeth, her hair coming undone in the spotlight.
Linsey wins by unanimous decision and barrels down the steel staircase into the locker room, breathlessly talking about the experience and how beautiful it was to go through it. Greg is outside shadowboxing with a smile.
"Yeah, not bad," he says. "That's how it goes though, once you're in there and taking shots. [Punch Punch] It's hard to keep your technique together. Those combos go out the window and you're just in there swinging. [Punch Punch] She's just gotta keep working at it. [Punch Punch] Over and over."
Linsey is aware of the opportunity a fight with the RFA poses, but in the aftermath of her win on Friday, she just wants to sit on Dan's lap and cheer for the Academy's two other fighters competing later in the night. She's in high spirits, and the implications of her win can wait for another day. Right now she's revelling in the experience. The afterglow recalls something she said months ago about why she fights.
"Once I started training in the martial arts, I realized it's the only time I really feel as though my brain and my body and my heart are all connected," she said. "I like having to constantly test my skills, test my grit, push myself and push whoever is across from me. Granted of course I want to beat my opponent, but you don't want to beat a schmuck, you want to beat someone who will challenge you ... so you can say 'Yeah, I did that.'
"It's unlike anything else."