Mixed views

Rosi Sexton is a mixed martial arts competitor with a big fight coming up in Manchester – and a PhD. By Andy Kelham

Rosi Sexton’s career in mixed martial arts was always supposed to be brief. The plan was to have a couple of fights, prove  herself in the tough and unrelenting combat sport and then get on with the rest of her life. Simple, really. She was handed her first fight on less than 24 hours notice (as a replacement for someone who dropped out) and with no knowledge of her opponent and no clarity on which set of rules the promoter was using for the bout. She turned up for a medical the next day and won the match in the first round with an arm lock.

Eleven years later she faces Brazilian Jessica Andrade at the hideously named Phones4U Arena in Manchester on 26 October in front of a 20,000-strong crowd, while a global audience in the millions watches on. It will be the first time women have fought at an Ultimate Fighting Championship (the sport’s most powerful and best paying promoters) event in Europe.

So far so Rocky for the Manchester-based athlete. But here is where the mould gets broken. Sexton started combat sports later than most (she is now 36), possesses a PhD and a first class maths degree from Cambridge University and is a practising osteopath. “I was the kid in my year least likely to become a professional athlete, yet here we are,” she laughs. “It really is one of those unlikely stories. If Hollywood made it into a film people would think it too unlikely and lacking in credibility plot wise.”

She conducts this interview with a bandage wrapped around her head

She conducts this interview with a bandage wrapped around her head that hides a recent sparring wound, and a few hours before she met  The Big Issue in the North she was having a cauliflower ear drained by a specialist. It’s all part of the preparation she accepts is necessary for her forthcoming fight.

She offers a helpful guide to the sport for beginners. “The boxing, or striking, part of the fight is fairly obvious to most. At that point punching the other person in the head is good, being punched in the head is bad,” she says, laughing. “The wrestling element is slightly harder to quantify and that’s where it gets interesting even though a lot of people have a cultural thing about hitting a person on the floor. The Queensbury Rules mentality causes a vast amount of recoil from the sport when it goes to the floor. All I’d say is this – pinning someone down and hitting them is a hard thing to do, especially when the person on the bottom knows how to get up or get you in a submission hold that could end the match in seconds. That’s when it gets really interesting.”

“If you put two top level female athletes in front of people it changes minds quickly.”

It can challenge conventional sensibilities about combat sport to hear articulate women talking about punching people in the head but Sexton says: “I see women in mixed martial arts as continuing the trend of increased female involvement in sport as a whole. It was not long ago when people were asking if it was safe for women to run marathons, which seems crazy nowadays.

“I think the people who have problems with women in sports like mine have not watched it. They object to the idea of it because they imagine their mother or wife or girlfriend – whichever prominent female they have in their life – and they cannot reconcile that person to the idea of the sport. But if you put two top level female athletes in front of people it changes minds quickly, and I’ve seen that happen. The more exposure the sport gets the more OK with it people become.”

What does she anticipate about her future career should she win her first ever hometown contest?

“At this stage in my career I take one fight at a time. You can’t count on anything and if I start thinking about the need to win a match then it’ll be detrimental to the performance. It adds a fear of failure and when I’m in there getting beaten up I don’t need to be dealing with the feeling that all my hopes and dreams are crumbling around me – there’s enough going on at that moment.

“When you are preparing for any fight, at some point you have to make peace with the worst possible outcome, or the worst likely outcome. You have to look at what you face and realise that it could go really badly wrong. I prepare for that and hold other thoughts away.”

“It’s a funny thing – despite how I’m looking this evening I don’t call myself a fighter,” she says. “Mixed martial arts is something I do, but I don’t define myself by it. Obviously at the moment it’s quite high up the priority list, I put a lot of time and energy into it, I focus on it and I want to be the best at it. But at the same time, that’s not all there is to me.”

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