In 1997, the UFC began requiring fighters to wear padded gloves and banned hair-pulling, head-butting, groin kicks, and strikes to the back of an opponent's head or neck. Weight classes were introduced, and state athletic commissions started sanctioning UFC events.

Locally, all Rage in the Cage events are sanctioned by the Arizona Boxing Commission. But it was a very different world when Michelle and Dusty Farrow started watching MMA in 1993. Not only was there a lack of rules, female fighters were virtually unheard of.

Michelle was 29 at the time, and there weren't many examples of female fighters. One of the first women Farrow saw competing in MMA was Becky Levi, a former physical education teacher from Tucson who served as a conditioning trainer for UFC veteran Don "The Predator" Frye. Levi's long retired; the two never fought. Farrow remembers her as an early influence.

Dusty Farrow
Jamie Peachey
Dusty Farrow
Roland Sarria
Jamie Peachey
Roland Sarria


Rage in the Cage 117, the special 10-year anniversary megashow, is scheduled to take place Saturday, November 8, at the U.S. Airways Center.

See more images from our cover shoot, and video of Michelle Farrow in action in 2001, here.

But she trained with a man. In the beginning, Michelle's fight instruction came from her husband. Dusty Farrow recalls Michelle's second fight, which she took on about five minutes' notice. It was the summer of 1996, when cage fighting was just starting in Arizona. They were at the Cajun House (now The Venue of Scottsdale) to watch a fight tournament that some of their male friends were competing in.

Michelle and Dusty had just finished celebrating her birthday at Carlos O'Brien's, so Michelle was full of Mexican food, drinking at the bar. She certainly wasn't prepared for a fight. But when the only female fighter on the card was stood up by her scheduled opponent, Michelle suddenly found herself beating some girl's ass.

"Michelle goes and borrows gear and TKOs this girl in the second round," Dusty says. "We didn't know nothing about this girl — she was just huge, big and shredded and muscular. Michelle shouldn't have even been in there, but this was before anything was regulated, when a fighter could just get up, sign a waiver, and go out there and fight."

At the time, Michelle was working at American Express (she's been there for 17 years) and also training students at the Leininger Dojo in Phoenix. She and Dusty had no children (nor do they now), so they focused completely on fighting.

In 1998, Roland Sarria started calling Michelle and asking her to fight at his new Rage in the Cage events. But when Michelle first approached Dusty about fighting, "I was a little bit shocked," he says. "Nobody wants to see someone they're in a relationship with do that, because you go through a lot of emotions . . . Who wants to see their loved one out there with the risk of getting hurt? It's kind of hard to see that. But I set my emotions aside and just let her do what she wanted to do."

Within seven months of her first fight, Michelle Farrow had taken the nickname "Grapple Girl" and had become the most dominant of the few female fighters in Arizona — which came with even more challenges.

To begin with, Farrow couldn't find fight gear that fit. "Finding gloves to fit is so difficult for women, because they're made for men's hands. I have little tiny wrists, and I'd be wrapping the gloves around three or four times, and I'd still feel like they were gonna fall off," she says. "Some states require groin protection for women. Forget it. They do not make a decent groin protector for women, for fighting."

As for protecting her breasts, Farrow's only option was to double-up on sports bras to flatten her chest.

There was no stability with her weight, either, because there were so few female fighters and no weight classes then. "[Women's MMA] is much bigger than it was, but when I started, it was so small, and the weight ranges were crazy. It was so hard to get fights for anybody," Farrow says. "A girl would pop up and say she wanted a fight, so you'd fight her. You'd make the weight or you didn't. So you'd go up and down in weight; it was havoc. But it was what we had to do to get a fight."

Training for fights required a disciplined, protein-rich diet, and countless hours of physical training. Fights were rare, and there was always the danger they'd fall through, which they frequently did. The result was weeks of hard training for nothing and paying out of pocket for now-pointless pre-fight medical expenses (physicals, eye exams, blood work, sometimes CT scans and MRIs).

"You just didn't have the luxury men have . . . If one guy drops out, you've got 20 guys standing in line to fight. Not a big deal. For a woman, if your fight bails, you can go six months to a year before you find another opponent," Farrow says.

Even Gina Carano, the most celebrated female fighter in MMA history, may have trouble finding fights now that EliteXC has folded. Some people in local MMA, like Dusty Farrow, wouldn't view that as a big loss. He takes issue with female fighters getting attention for their good looks.

"I don't want to name any names, but if you saw the fights on TV this past weekend [Gina Carano's match against Kelly Kobold at EliteXC: Heat] . . . Go to any layman on the street and ask, 'Have you heard of this girl?' and they'll say, 'Of course. She's beautiful.' That's not how it's supposed to be. She's supposed to be known for her fighting first," he says.

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stephen Sears
stephen Sears

Hello Michelle /Lougie/Geno/Joney Say Hello

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I love Michelle like a mother! As one of her students and friends I admire and respect her. This article put my view of her on a whole new level though!

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