Ready: One woman’s mastery of mixed martial arts

By Samia Madwar

At Sandra Lanois-Bazinet’s command, 10 adults raise their boxing gloves.

“Go!”

They pummel the foam mitts their partners hold up, one-two, jab, cross. Lanois-Bazinet watches, hands on her narrow hips, every muscle in her sinewy body focused on the present.

Her students’ biceps and triceps ache and their breath quicken. Sweat drips from their foreheads. Many glance to the benches along the walls, where their water bottles await.

Lanois-Bazinet is relentless.

“Thirty more seconds!” she says, her voice shrill yet booming. “Don’t cheat or we’re starting over.”

At the end of the round, one of the burliest men in the class leans over and clasps his knees, inhaling deeply. Even the hairs on his shins are dripping. Lanois-Bazinet’s Saturday morning kickboxing class at the Therien martial arts studio in Ottawa’s east end is just over halfway through, but everyone already looks exhausted. Yet when she begins the next exercise, the students listen and obey.

After demonstrating each move in a combination of kicks and punches, she meets each of her students’ eyes, seeking — no, demanding — that everyone be as present and focused as she.

Built like a cobra —long, lean torso and limbs, broad shoulders and intense, narrow eyes — Lanois-Bazinet moves with the confidence of a veteran fighter. As if she’s seen and done it all.

Sandra Lanois-Bazinet is just 20.

She’s been training in jiu-jitsu for 10 years and kickboxing for the past five. She got her black belt at age 16 and began competing and teaching that same year.

She’s one of Canada’s youngest amateur featherweight champions in mixed martial arts. She has the makings of a professional fighter. Promoters like Ultimate Fighting Championship, the most successful league in mixed martial arts, should be scrambling to sign her on.

But UFC, the league that has revolutionized mixed martial arts over the past two decades, doesn’t have a women’s division. Despite being almost single-handedly responsible for developing MMA from an ancient, lawless battle that pits one fighting style against another to a full-fledged, recognized sport, the league won’t go as far as to break the gender barrier. That makes it risky and difficult for female fighters to make a career out of the sport.

Though she hasn’t entirely ruled it out, Lanois-Bazinet says she doesn’t plan on fighting professionally. Is her talent going to a waste? Perhaps, but her reasons are practical. But then, practicality is how she got into the sport in the first place.

***

“I come from a broken home,” she says candidly.

We’re sitting in a corner office at the dojo. It’s Tuesday night and she’s just finished teaching a children’s jiu-jitsu class.

Lanois-Bazinet’s parents were divorced just before she turned 10. That was the year they gave her jiu-jitsu lessons as a birthday present. Her mother wanted Sandra to have some training in self-defense.

When she started, Lanois-Bazinet was small, shy and awkward. She was bullied at her mostly Anglophone school because she spoke little English.

Her confidence grew after a few months of training. She was able to defend herself the day four bullies backed her into a wall, looking for a fight.

“I just pushed one of them away,” says Lanois-Bazinet. The force of that push showed the girls she was not to be messed with. But the bullying didn’t end there. When she began getting serious about jiu-jitsu, Lanois-Bazinet had to face people’s prejudices.

“Jiu-jitsu has nothing to do with bench pressing!”

Despite her six-foot frame and confident stride, Lanois-Bazinet’s slender figure makes her look harmless. Most men didn’t think she was any match for their superior bulk. When it came time to partner up, men would avoid catching her eye.

Women are not alone in this struggle. Smaller men with slight builds have to face the same prejudices.

Over the years, Lanois-Bazinet carved a name for herself at the dojo. In her personal life, she has to deal with men who ask her how much she can bench press. “Jiu-jitsu has nothing to do with bench pressing!”

Men her age have told her they find her intimidating. A close friend once told her he could never date a girl like her.

“He’d never be able to face the fact that if we were ever attacked, I’d probably be able to defend him better than he could defend me,” she says.

She seems more amused than bothered by the idea. There’s little space for dating in her schedule, and her partner would have to accept that Lanois-Bazinet spends more time at the studio than anywhere else.

Yet the most significant test of her character manifested outside the walls of the martial arts school she loves. Though she’d trained to defend herself on the streets, the first time Lanois-Bazinet used jiu-jitsu outside of the dojo was in her home.

Lanois-Bazinet tells the story of the time she stood up to a man who, in a drunken state, threatened her physically.

“[He] was a drug addict, an alcoholic, you name it,” Lanois-Bazinet says. She used what’s called a quick arm lock. Having no training in jiu-jitsu, I ask for a demonstration.

“Normally, you start it from behind,” she says, “but I was in front of him.” She stands before me one moment, and in the next has my right arm trapped between her elbows. One of her arms is draped across my left arm. Bewildered, I wonder how I ended up locked in that position.

If I were to struggle, she would apply more pressure by trapping my arm from lower down, closer to my wrist. If I am obedient, she can release pressure by trapping my arm from higher up, closer to my shoulder.

Once Lanois-Bazinet had the man trapped in that same steely hold, she escorted him outside, yelling at him not to try anything funny. When the police arrived, the cop on duty praised her.

She was 14 at the time.

***

Mixed martial arts combine jiu-jitsu, taekwondo, wrestling and boxing, four types of combat sports that involve kicking, punching and grappling. Matches are rarely pretty: fighters walk off the ring bloody, bruised and battered with smashed noses.

To outsiders who are unfamiliar with the intricasies of jiu-jitsu, some holds appear downright pornographic. The fighters look glued together as they writhe and struggle on the mats, trying to pin each other down. For the uninitiated and from afar the struggle can look like rather violent humping.  For the practitioner, mixed martial arts are about form and focus.

Lanois-Bazinet’s martial arts cocktail mixes kickboxing and jiu-jitsu. She uses kickboxing for the standing part of the fight. Jiu-jitsu is for when she’s knocked her opponent to the ground and wants to keep him or her there.

Jiu-jitsu is written with two Japanese characters. Depending on whom you ask, the first character translates to anything from “gentle” to “flexible” or “supple.” The second character means “art”, “style” or “technique.” Combine them, and you have a strategic force that intensifies the stronger the opponent. The true jiu-jitsu practitioner reverses his or her opponent’s strength. The more you bend a willow branch, the stronger its backlash once you let go.

***

So what stands between Lanois-Bazinet and a professional MMA title?

After all, it’s now legal for her to fight in her home province.  The Ontario government legalized professional mixed martial arts starting last year.

Sports reporters and bloggers dedicated to martial arts buzzed about Canada’s big fan base, and how the break-through would give UFC access to a promising market. But that market isn’t easily accessible for women fighters.

Women who fight professionally don’t have many promoters to choose from. Even Strikeforce, one of the leagues that features female fighters, allows only one women’s match per event. That gives female fighters little room for negotiation.

Then there’s the question of booking fights. Canadian female fighters don’t have many opponents to choose from because, so far, only five women in the country compete professionally in all weight ranges, as compared to more than 300 men.

The numbers are higher in the U.S. and Brazil, but to fight internationally, Lanois-Bazinet has to train, and hard. Last summer, she spent several weeks training with the coach of Romy Ruyssen, an internationally-renowned mixed martial artist just a few years older than Lanois-Bazinet.

It’s not about money or fame, she says. If she had to battle UFC for a women’s spot in the league, she believes she can probably knock them out. After all, she’s been defending herself for nearly a decade. Martial arts are her way of life. She’s not discouraged by any boys club, not even the UFC.

What stands between her and a professional fighting career is time.

“To be pro, I’d have to start training now,” she says. Lanois-Bazinet’s schedule is already pretty tight, since she also happens to be studying business at Ottawa’s Algonquin College. “I’m going to graduate at age 22. Most fighters don’t start training then; they start their career then. It would be too late for me.”

Instead, Lanois-Bazinet plans on starting her own martial arts studio to train the next generation of fighters. Maybe by the time one of Lanois-Bazinet’s pupils is ready for the professional fighting ring, UFC — and the world — will be ready for female fighters to take the big-time professional stage. 

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