Longform

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.)

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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."

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea