Mixed Martial Arts’ Unsung Pioneer: “Grapple Girl” Michelle Farrow

Michelle Farrow stands in one corner of an octagonal fighting cage, glaring at her opponent in the opposite corner. The 5-foot-7, 143-pound Farrow is no pushover — she's got black belts in judo and jiu-jitsu, and her muscular arms look like mini-cannons — but her opponent resembles a tank in gym shorts. At 217 pounds, Tank Lady weighs as much as two fighters. And she looks mean.

As soon as the bell rings, Farrow rushes forward and delivers a hard kick to her opponent's belly. Undaunted, the Goliath-like girl grabs a handful of Farrow's hair with her left hand and starts swinging at Farrow's head with her right.

Farrow responds with a flurry of lefts and rights, 26 lightning-fast punches that send her mammoth opponent reeling backward. Within seconds, the bigger fighter is running from Farrow's fists, which continue slamming into her face and the sides of her head. She's no longer able to mount an offensive, or even defend herself, so the referee stops the match and declares a TKO victory for Farrow, 57 seconds into the first round. (Video here.)


Rage in the Cage

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.

See more mixed martial arts multimedia on Valley Fever.

This was no simple boxing or wrestling match, and it certainly wasn't just for show. This bout, which took place at Glendale Arena back in 2001, was a mixed martial arts fight. One of the most brutal full-contact sports in the world, MMA bars very few holds and strikes. It's been growing in popularity, and though you might not think women would be involved in a sport that revolves around punching, kicking, and choke holds, they are.

Michelle Farrow is an MMA pioneer.

Farrow's been fighting in mixed martial arts competitions since 1996. In the past two years, women's MMA has made major inroads, with the emergence of stars like Gina Carano and the televising of fights, presented by promoter EliteXC. It's been a harrowing road, especially for trailblazers like Farrow, who's spent more than a decade toiling in dark dojos and fighting for little to no pay. Women's MMA is finally on the up, but at 42, Farrow's past her fighting prime — and she's facing the fact that other women will reap the benefits she's sown in bruises and blood.

She insists she's happy to see the sport growing and she remains involved in local MMA, training a team of male fighters at her Phoenix dojo, The American Martial Arts Center, and serving as event coordinator for local events Rage in the Cage and the Desert Quest grappling tournaments. As one of the first female fighters in MMA, Farrow's fought for the respect and legitimacy she now sees the sport finally earning.

On her shoulder, Farrow has the words "woman warrior" tattooed in Japanese characters. She proudly wears a tank top that reads "Takedowns, submissions, grappling, rear naked chokes — all on the first date." Her teenage nephew consistently brags to his friends, "My aunt can kick your ass."

And she probably can. Farrow has fought — and defeated — both women and men in martial arts competitions. She knows how to break bones and throw people around. But outside the fighting cage, she's shy, almost passive.

"I've never been in a street fight in my life," she says. "I was the kid that got picked on in school. If somebody tried to start a fight with me on the street, I'd probably run."

Besides, it's not worth breaking a nail in a bar brawl. For all her toughness, Farrow's surprisingly girly. On a recent weeknight, she sits on the floor of The American Martial Arts Center, legs crossed in the lotus position, and studies her reflection in the large window that looks out to a dark, desolate strip mall on Dunlap Avenue in northwest Phoenix.

"Damn, my face is breaking out," she laments. "I went and got a facial yesterday, and the girl used this scrub that dried out my skin. I got up this morning and was like, 'Oh, man.'"

"I get manicures, pedicures, facials," she continues, smiling and holding out a thick-veined hand with big knuckles and inch-long fingernails painted with glittery pink polish. "These are my real nails. If I were to fight again, I'd cut them."

Farrow hasn't fought in more than two years. But everybody in the local MMA scene is pushing her to come out of retirement. Farrow hasn't entirely ruled out the prospect of another cage fight, saying she'd take a match "if the right fight came along."

Local promoter Roland Sarria hopes she'll get back in the ring. "Michelle was the Rage in the Cage women's champion for years. She's the most decorated female fighter in the history of Rage in the Cage," he says. "As a fighter, she's world-level. She's fantastic, very aggressive in the ring. I miss seeing her fight."

Farrow says she would still fight, but female fighters in Phoenix have always been few and far between, so rather than training herself for occasional fights, she trains men. That's a sport unto itself.

"I tease them if they're out of breath or something when we're grappling," she says. "I'll just look at them and say, 'What — you can't keep up with Grandma?' That seems to work pretty well."

Once labeled "human cockfighting" by John McCain (he prefers straight-up boxing) and banned in many states, MMA is now embraced by a wider audience. National fights are featured on TV networks like Spike and Showtime, and the largest MMA promotion, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, drew more than $200 million in revenue in 2006.

The popularity of the sport has spread, and Arizona, in particular, has become a hub of MMA activity. Roland Sarria launched his Rage in the Cage competitions 10 years ago, and he's managed to fill more than 8,000 seats at venues like Dodge Theatre. And in the past year, two major national MMA names — Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie — have opened training facilities in the Valley.

Politicians have taken note. In April, Governor Janet Napolitano signed into law a measure that relaxes rules for MMA competitions in Arizona, allowing closed fist strikes and knees to the head. With the new rules and so many fight schools taking root in the Valley, promoters are banking on Phoenix to be the next MMA boon, and female fighters are finally getting some of the spotlight.

Women's MMA has grown since Michelle Farrow first stepped in the cage. There are now hundreds of female fighters across the world, and a handful of fan sites like www.fightergirls.com and www.mmawoman.com. Events such as the Fatal Femmes Fighting Championship and Hook 'n' Shoot feature women's fights, and — up until the company ceased operations on October 20 — EliteXC was putting women's fights on the main card. And the sport now has a marketable face and bona fide star in Muay Thai kickboxer Gina Carano, who appears as "Crush" on American Gladiators and is regularly a top Google image search. She's also a tenacious fighter with a solid MMA record of 7-0.

But even Carano, hailed by EliteXC as "the face of women's MMA," doesn't make the kind of money a man fighting in a main event earns. At the EliteXC: Heat event in Florida on October 4, the promotion's shining star, Kimbo Slice, stepped into the ring and lost to a virtually unknown fighter named Seth Petruzelli in 14 seconds of the first round. Many critics cite this fight (and Petruzelli's comments insinuating he was offered bonus money to keep the fight off the mat) as one of the reasons EliteXC plans to file for bankruptcy protection. For his lackluster performance, Slice was paid $500,000. By contrast, Carano fought three full rounds, won by unanimous decision, and was paid $35,000.

The rise of women's MMA is a stinging success for Farrow. With a career MMA record of 12-3 and numerous judo, jiu-jitsu, and grappling championships to her name, she could still fight if she insisted. But her prime passed in the dark days of women's MMA, before there were weight classes, rules, and paychecks. Farrow fought when women had to pay for all their pre-fight medical expenses out of pocket, as well as hunt and beg for fights that often fell through and, if they didn't fall through, hope that the promoter would at least reimburse their travel expenses.

Michelle Farrow obviously didn't get into the sport for the fame and money. She got into it because, quite simply, she discovered she could whup some major ass. And she might be away from the ring, but nothing — be it a broken nose or a broken marriage — can keep her away from the dojo.

On a warm Thursday night in October at The American Martial Arts Center, Farrow's leading a team of 13 students through a half-hour of warm-up drills that include several laps around the dojo, full-body stretches, balancing exercises, squats, lunges, and falling techniques. "The most important thing to remember when you're on the mat is don't lay flat on your back," she tells the students. "One of the credos of jiu-jitsu is 'minimum effort, maximum efficiency.' Control your posture, control the movement."

If there were a credo for MMA, in general, it would be "Just whup some ass." The sport combines a wide variety of martial arts disciplines — the strikes of karate and kickboxing with the submission holds of jiu-jitsu, the wrestling skills of grappling, and the throws of judo.

Farrow and her ex-husband, Dusty, know all these skills. They've owned The American Martial Arts Center for five years, and they've been competing in MMA competitions for 12 years. Tonight's class is all about cage fight techniques, though Farrow takes a moment out to nurse one of her fighters, Eric "Shortbus" Regan, when he takes a hit in the eye while sparring.

"Come on and let me look at it," Farrow tells him, leading him into the bathroom and examining his eye. "Boy, how did you do this?" She asks, swabbing under his eye with an alcohol-soaked cotton swab (turns out he fell face-first onto the mat while wrestling). She then grabs what boxers call "fake skin" (a blister medicine called Compeed) and applies it under his eye. Regan whimpers. "Oh, don't be a baby," Farrow teases him. "You're gonna be fine. It's just a scrape. I could fix this with nail polish."

Steve Sayegh, who's trained with the Farrows for the past 12 years and has had several high-profile fights, says that Farrow's always been rather motherly. "When you're part of this dojo, you're part of this family. There have been so many times when Michelle called in sick or left work early to be there for us," he says. "When she has vacation time, she puts it into the dojo."

Farrow plays dual roles: the ass-kicking trainer who throws around guys twice her size and the surrogate mother who dotes after injured fighters with a first aid kit. "I have true feelings for these boys," she says. "They're my kids and my family, everything all wrapped up into one. If they get hurt, it hurts me."

Though she's now ring mother to a stable of big male fighters, Farrow hasn't forgotten the role she played in women's MMA as one of the first female fighters, especially now that she sees the sport embracing the fairer sex. "I'm glad I was on the ground floor of it," Farrow says. "It sucks for me, because I didn't have the opportunities that these girls have, but I like to think that maybe they have those opportunities because I stuck with it all these years."

The story of the born prizefighter, destined to sacrifice everything for a music-and-montage-filled moment of shining glory, is not Michelle Farrow's story. She's won a dozen cage fights with flurries of fists, devastating chokeholds, and punishing joint locks known to snap ligaments. But she was supposed to be a ballerina.

"If you would've asked me when I was growing up if I ever thought I'd be doing something like this, I would have told you that you were crazy," Farrow says, cutting into a medium-rare steak at Black Angus.

It's a Tuesday evening, and she's in between her full-time day job as a computer programmer at American Express and her jiu-jitsu class at The American Martial Arts Center. The black summer dress with a bright floral pattern she's wearing now will be replaced by gym shorts and a sports bra in a few hours.

"I was a tomboy, but to be a professional fighter — to dedicate my life to fighting and teaching other people to fight and to make sure the sport continues and progresses — I would have never, ever thought my life would've been like that," she continues. "It's kind of crazy when I think about it. Sometimes I just scratch my head and go, 'How the heck did this happen?'"

Born in Chicago, Farrow says she moved to Phoenix with her "very strict, religious family" when she was 9. She was raised as a Jehovah's Witness. "I was one of those girls that was raised with the children-should-be-seen-and-not-heard thing," she says. "You're taught that as a woman, as a girl, men are dominant. The woman walks behind the man. That was the upbringing I had until I was about 13 or so, and then everything kind of changed."

Asked what caused the change, Farrow looks down and sighs. "When I was 13, my mother's boyfriend sexually assaulted me. My windpipe was crushed, I had broken ribs — it was brutal. So that got me out of the religion."

Already shy, Farrow says the assault made her even more withdrawn. "It honestly made me more afraid of everything and more self-conscious," she says. "Fighting changed everything. No man will ever hurt me again."

Farrow says the man who assaulted her was charged, convicted, and sentenced to 21 years to life. Farrow left home shortly afterward. She says she and her mother are estranged, and she doesn't really talk to her father very much. She considers her students her family.

When she was 14, Michelle met Dusty Farrow. He was four years older, and they were both cadets in the Maricopa County Sheriff's Explorer program. Designed for young people interested in pursuing careers in law enforcement, the program teaches kids stuff like how to file police reports and serve search warrants.

Essentially on her own and estranged from her family, Michelle married Dusty when she was only 16.

Dusty recalls that Michelle was shy. "When I met Michelle, she didn't fight," he says. "She didn't do anything like that."

Michelle was always athletic but found her options limited. "All the sports I wanted to do in high school — football, wrestling — women couldn't do. You could run track or do gymnastics, and I was all right at track, but gymnastics was a disaster. I'm too tall for the gymnastics," Farrow says.

"I wanted to be a ballerina, growing up," she adds with a laugh. "But that wasn't happening. I had the wrong body type, and I am not the most graceful person in the world — but on the mat, I kind of am. I kind of am."

Farrow was first drawn to mixed martial arts in 1993, when she watched the Ultimate Fighting Championship's first tournament on pay-per-view. The card included fighters from seven different disciplines in a no-holds-barred mash-up bash-up. The rules would change over the years as UFC events became sanctioned by state athletic commissions. But originally, there were no weight classes and very few rules. Gloves were not required, and matches could be incredibly violent.

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.

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.

Michelle says she watched Carano's fight against Kobold and was unimpressed. "I didn't see a lot of technique or skill," she says, "I just saw a lot of wildly swinging for the trees."

And although Carano's record as a fighter is solid, Farrow's fought more than twice as many matches in a career more than twice as long. "Maybe it's a little bit of jealousy on my part, but to tell you the truth, there are a lot more other girls who deserve to be there more than she did," Dusty continues. "Michelle put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into this sport before that girl even knew what a cage fight was."

Michelle Farrow's last fight, in November 2006, also marked the end of her marriage. Farrow was defending her Rage in the Cage championship against Nicole Maldonado. Turns out, Dusty had been having an affair with a woman who worked at a flower shop down the street from the dojo; Michelle heard about the affair the day of the fight.

"My last fight, he was my corner man. And I found out he'd been with somebody else that day," Farrow says. "It totally took the fight out of me. My mind wasn't there."

In the video of her last match (viewable at www.phoenixnewtimes.com), the camera shows Michelle conferring with Dusty before round three. Clinging to the cage, she hangs her head and looks defeated before the bell even rings. She's thrown to the mat at the beginning of the round, and fight commentators express their disbelief.

"I cannot believe Michelle is on her back," one of them says. "This does not look like her."

Maldonado straddles Farrow and unleashes a striking frenzy 27 seconds into the round. Farrow attempts to twist out of the position, but keeps taking blows to the head. After at least a dozen strikes from Maldonado go unanswered, the referee stops the match.

Farrow lost the fight, and the Rage in the Cage women's championship she'd held for five years (Maldonado has since vacated the title and disappeared from MMA).

But losing her title was the least of Michelle Farrow's worries. "When we separated, I had to decide whether or not to give up the dojo," she says, with tears in her eyes. "And this is my life. I can't abandon these guys. So Dusty and I try to get along for the sake of the dojo, but we don't really talk to each other all that much."

Michelle says that sometimes she feels as though she and Dusty are cordial to each other for the sake of the kids — the kids being the students at the dojo.

"It's like any family. You have your ups and downs, you win, you lose, and you all take it together," she says. "It's wonderful when they win, it's horrible when they lose, but you learn to support them and love them and hold their hand when it hurts."

The fighters at Farrow's dojo all come to her with their injuries, and she patches them up with ice packs, antiseptics, and bandages. At a Rage in the Cage event in Prescott this past September, Eric "Shortbus" Regan needed extra attention. "He got cut bad," Farrow says. "The boy was a bloody mess." Farrow spent a half-hour wiping blood off Regan, giving him a sponge bath, and checking for other injuries (luckily, there was just one bloody cut).

"If someone gets hurt, I'm gonna go over there and try to take care of you," she says. "I don't know if I'm too motherly, but I don't think my guys are lacking because of it. I think it bonds the team together."

For some men at The American Martial Arts Center, receiving fight training from a woman was uncomfortable at first. "In the beginning, it was very awkward," says Steve Sayegh, one of the Farrows' veteran cage fighters. "Coming in as a senior in high school, you're young, dumb, and full of whatever you want to call it. You've got this pride that's just completely way above normal, and you always want to think — especially as a football player or a wrestler — that you're dominant. And if you talk to Michelle before you start training with her, you get this idea that, 'Okay, it's gonna be total domination for me out there.'

"And then you start grappling with her, and man! She kicks ass. She dominates the majority of the people, if not all of us, here. She's a badass. She's strong as hell. She's smart as hell. For the typical guy out there who looks at a female and thinks less of them, the last person you wanna do that with is Michelle."

Some of Michelle Farrow's wishes are coming true. MMA is getting bigger, and one of the largest growth spurts is taking place in her hometown. In the past two years, Royce Gracie's academy, The Lab, opened in Glendale, and Ken Shamrock's Lion's Den opened in Scottsdale. Both facilities boast more than 3,000 square feet of mat space and regulation fighting cages.

By contrast, The American Martial Arts Center has a modest weight room and a smaller room covered in grappling mats. The center's sole means of promotion are the dojo's Web site, www.amacaz.com, and Farrow's site, www.grapplegirl.com. Sarria's got a site, too (www.rageinthecage.com), and three Rage in the Cage schools, but none of them comes close to the sheer size and star power of The Lab or The Lion's Den.

In addition to the new MMA schools, one of the reasons everybody seems to view Phoenix as the next MMA hotbed is the adoption of more relaxed rules for cage fighting. Some people see the prospect of more "extreme" fights in Arizona as a boon. Others see potential problems.

"Let's be honest — there are different levels of fighters," Michelle Farrow says. "The guys in this stage, this is a starting point. This is a jumping-off platform. Those rules shorten a fighter's career. I don't want to see anybody get hurt, but then I don't want to see anybody held back, either. I'm so tossed up and emotional over the whole issue."

For her dedication to local MMA, Farrow will be inducted into the Rage in the Cage Hall of Fame at the event's 10th anniversary show on November 8. The event marks the progression of the grassroots promotion — 15 bouts in a 22,000-seat venue and a main event that pits eight-time UFC veteran Joe Riggs against former UFC heavyweight champion Ricco Rodriguez.

It's a big event for Farrow, who's too busy focusing on her fighters to dwell on her role as one of the unsung pioneers of women's MMA. She says she's just happy to be part of the history and watch the sport grow.

"The women have to be patient and keep plugging along," she says, "knowing that it may not be that great for you, but it's just gonna keep moving on, and you'll be part of the history of the sport. And that's all you can do."

But, she says, she does still have some fight gloves that fit.

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