Published on June 11th, 2012 | by DerbyLife0
Up Close and Personal with MMA Fighter Shayna Baszler
By Thomas Gerbasi
As one of the top female fighters in mixed martial arts, Shayna Baszler knows better than most about what it takes to succeed in one of the toughest sports in the world. But when it comes to another entry on that unofficial list – roller derby – she will defer to the ladies already tearing up the track in her native South Dakota and around the world.
At least for the moment.
“I’m better at MMA, I’ll say that,” says Baszler, the strength and conditioning coach for the Sioux Falls Roller Dollz and someone who has put on the skates a few times as well. “I have no doubt that if I had the time to put into it, that I would give people a run for their money on the track. But as far as the every once in a while that I’m able to do it, those guys are light years ahead of me.”
That comment is delivered with the respect that is only shared between fellow athletes who know not just about the final product, but the work and sacrifice that it takes to reach that point. So every time Baszler sees what the skaters on her team endure, she has gone through the same things, whether it’s injury, misconceptions about the sport, education of the fanbase, or simply a dose of public apathy.
A pro since 2003, Baszler has won 14 of 20 fights, winning two titles and defeating some of the best fighters around, including Alexis Davis, Megumi Yabushita, Roxanne Modafferi, and Julie Kedzie. She has also fought on Showtime, and will be back in action on July 28th against 2004 Olympic Silver medalist in wrestling, Sara McMann.
The McMann bout will be Baszler’s first fight in over 20 months, a length of time explained by the still-evolving nature of women’s MMA, and her inability to find opponents willing to fight her. But Baszler has never strayed from the path, opting to stay in shape and keep sharp, and after one of her Spartan workout routines, she ran into Sioux Falls’ Queen Elizabitch (now with the Rocky Mountain Rollergirls) a few years back.
This is where you throw that “and the rest is history” line in.
“She was kind of a workout-aholic,” said Baszler. “Someone had put me in touch with her and she was like ‘I’m just interested in working out in as many different ways as I can, so can I come to one of your strength and conditioning workouts?’ We started working out together, and I did some personal training, so I started changing some of the stuff we would do for her, attribute wise, for some of the different traits and abilities she would need as a jammer.”
Not too long after, Elizabitch’s performance on the track began to bear the fruits of her labor, as Baszler put her through intense leg workouts and lateral movement drills. Soon, other members of the team got on board for the workouts, and then…well, you can guess what happened next.
“The group got bigger and bigger until finally, they were like ‘we’re just gonna go ahead and put you on the coaching committee as a strength and conditioning coach, and we’re gonna make it a requirement that people have to go,’” she recalled. “It kinda grew from that. And of course I started going to roller derby and looking up youtube videos. Then I started getting interested in the history and the strategies, and it’s kinda like MMA, I guess. Once you try it, you’re hooked.”
Anyone involved in derby can relate to that story, and few in the sport can claim to just skate, or just manage, or just referee. When you’re in, you’re in, and Baszler is in, thus her derby side gig as a commentator for Sioux Fallz’s web streams. That part didn’t come as easily as the coaching did though.
“I thought I knew enough about derby to commentate when I first started doing it, and quickly realized I had lots to learn after watching a couple of the national tournaments,” she laughs. “It was like teaching a kid how to swim by just throwing him in the water. I had to figure it out. And I’ve had some help. Some of the girls on the team that were injured at the time of the bout will come sit and do commentary with me, and I luck out enough to just be the color. So I had to learn as I went along, and I won’t say that I’m the greatest commentator either, but I like to think that the fanbase I bring in from MMA will draw in more fans for derby. The subcultures are similar in that the fans are really diehard about their respective sports.”
That’s the thing. While derby isn’t mainstream yet, you would be shocked at how many people from different sports and entertainment fields enjoy the sport and know about it in more than a cursory way. It’s similar to the way mixed martial arts took off after a rocky beginning in which it was marketed as a blood sport and even banned from cable television for a period that fans dubbed “The Dark Ages.” Baszler has seen the rise of both sports, providing a unique perspective along the way.
“I really want to see the sport succeed because I think at first what drew me in were the similarities as far as the struggle for acceptance of the sport that MMA had,” she said. “The first thing people say when they hear I work with the roller derby team is ‘I remember the 70s and watching it on TV.’ But it’s completely different than it was back then, and that’s kind of the way MMA was at first, where it was like ‘oh yeah, it’s like pro wrestling or human cockfighting,’ and it was fighting for acceptance as a sport. I see that same struggle in derby where they’re trying to get people to realize that ‘this is a real sport and we’re serious athletes,’ and I just really want to see them succeed because I can appreciate, as an athlete, what these girls have to go through and what they put themselves through.”
Make no bones about it, MMA is a rough sport, but derby can even be rougher in terms of the physical beating the skaters put their bodies through. And anyone can say that as a fan, but when you hear a pro fighter saying it, it carries a bit more weight.
“It’s funny because the derby team here has sponsored me and helped me with some local media-type things as far as publicity, and we kind of think the same thing about each other,” said Baszler, 31. “I’ll be like ‘no way, those girls are way tougher than me. They’re out there skating with separated shoulders, and this girl broke her neck,’ and they’re like ‘no, you’re tough, people punch you.’ I would rather be punched than have my ACL torn.”
Now that’s an endorsement. But all kidding aside, Baszler is serious about her coaching job, enough so that she will work with her skaters after a full day of MMA training, and even hit practice on Sunday, which is her usual day off.
“I thought it was only fair because whenever they come and do stuff, I like to explain,” she said. “Like I’ll set up a circuit and be like ‘this is to work on this,’ and it’s not fair that I can say all that stuff if I really haven’t done it and I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
And when it comes down to it, Baszler’s goal is simple: to get her team in the kind of condition that will allow them to skate at full speed for 60 minutes while also preventing injuries. Add in the team’s doctor, Judith Peterson, who has developed a warmup program designed to reduce knee injuries, and Sioux Falls has a structure in place where the skaters are playing a pro sport and being treated like pro athletes.
So is their strength and conditioning coach ready to put on her helmet and quads and hit the track?
“I always say that maybe when I’m done with MMA, if my body isn’t falling apart yet, I’ll strap some on and do it,” said Baszler. “I do practice and that’s already bad enough. My (MMA) coach yells at me because those girls are getting injured a lot more often than I am training to fight every day, so it’s pretty rough.”
But it’s nothing “The Queen of Spades” can’t handle.
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