OLYMPIA — It’s common for young adults to spend the first few years out of high school poking around the big wide world in search of their calling. Sometimes they bumble around and don’t discover their passion until years down the road. Other times the stars align with all the subtlety of a right cross to the face.
For Kayla Weed, a 2016 graduate of W.F. West, her path to the chainlink octagon involved a little bit of both.
Weed, who grew up in Adna and spent her freshman year wearing the Pirates’ blue and gold, earned her first varsity letter by flashing pompoms on the sideline on Friday nights. Cheerleading was something that she enjoyed but soon she found herself yearning for something more physically challenging. That’s when she decided to try her hand at wrestling.
“I just wanted something more intense than cheerleading and I wanted to be the first girl for W.F. West and start a team,” explained Weed as she prepared for another rough and tumble session at United Training Center in Lacey on Monday.
That foray into the world of grappling proved to be a fruitful one for Weed, who managed to letter in cheerleading and wrestling during her final three years as a Bearcat. At the end of her prep career she’d not only made a name for herself on the mat but she’d also spearheaded the effort to start up the W.F. West girls wrestling program. As a senior, she convinced 26 other girls to join her in the mat room while also helping recruit coaches and obtain mats and other essential gear. Looking back on that experience now, she marvels at the well of physicality and leadership she was able to tap into after putting the pom poms down.
“It was intense. I was so weak! I could barely do like maybe 10-15 pushups but in wrestling, we had to do 100 per day so that was really cool to build up all that muscle and just the mental toughness that it took. So that was really neat to see myself grow,” said Weed.
After graduation, Weed packed her bags and hit the dusty trail to Georgia where she spent two years wrestling and going to school at Brewton-Parker College. However, a bout of illness brought her collegiate wrestling career to a premature end and put her on the path back to Washington.
That’s when she began finding her way to the United Training Center on a regular basis. The mixed martial arts dojo is run by Eddy and Lisa Ellis, a famous pair of lovebirds who have both appeared on television on The Ultimate Fighter while pounding out decades long professional fighting careers for themselves. Weed had spent a little bit of time working out at United before she left for Georgia but once she came back home, she quickly decided to devote herself to an intensive daily regimine.
At first Weed was commuting 45-minutes each way to and from Adna on a daily basis in order to get her work in. Now she lives in Lacey so that she can spend less time on the road and more time working on her craft.
“It’s funny. I just spend so much time here that my phone thinks I live here,” noted Weed, who is also working on her bachelor's degree in psychology at the University of Washington campus in Tacoma.
Much like her first year wrestling at W.F. West, Weed is often the only woman in the mix during her MMA training sessions. Make no bones about it, though, Weed is far from a novelty act. She says that having a mentor like Lisa Ellis in her corner has convinced her that she can carve out a place of her own in the testosterone riddled world of professional fighting.
“My coach was in the UFC. She fought at the highest level and she’s going for her sixth world championship in grappling so I have her as a role model and that’s really cool,” said Weed.
Indeed, Lisa Ellis will soon be traveling to Kazakhstan for the grappling world championships. It will be a return to a very familiar world for her after taking a brief pause in her career to become a mother. With 17 years of professional experience under her belt, Ellis is particularly qualified to evaluate the female fighters who come through the doors. She says Weed has a fistful of qualities that help her standout from the competition.
“She puts a lot of effort forward. She thinks about it, visualizes and asks questions. Some people are too intimidated to ask questions or be wrong and she doesn’t mind. She just wants to learn and get better,” Lisa Ellis said.
Still, Ellis noted that it’s not always easy for women to find their way in a sport that’s dominated by men, particularly at the amatuer level. Like Weed, Ellis wrestled in high school and college and she believes that experience helped to prepare them for the realities of life on the MMA circuit.
“Most girls who have wrestled seem to enter this scene pretty well. You’re used to not being the dominant one, or going with men. It’s been a good transition for her,” explained Lisa Ellis, who used to coach wrestling at Capital High School. “I was such a good wrestler that it just skyrocketed my career. Girls didn’t know how to wrestle, they knew how to karate. They’d make a move and I’d just be like ‘AHHHH!’ and take them down. If you’re a good wrestler, you’ve got a huge advantage. You might get punched once but then we’re taking them down.”
With fighters like Amanda "The Lioness" Nunes now taking top billing in prime time UFC fights, Ellis notes that the women’s side of the sport has grown exponentially in recent years. Still, she insists that there is plenty of room for the sport to grow and she gets excited when a promising female fighter like Weed walks through the doors at United.
“She’s a lot like I was so she’s doing a lot of the same kind of stuff that I’ve done. It’s neat to watch her and say, ‘Hey, maybe try it this way.’ I didn’t really get guided well at this spot but try it and see if it works,” noted Lisa Ellis. “It will be a fun road for her. I’m excited to watch her and see what she does. She’s been working hard.”
Flags from countries all around the world hang at the United Training Center. They represent all of the countries that Lisa and Eddy Ellis have fought in during their lengthy careers. Weed says she hopes her career will someday send her globetrotting as well. So far, though, she’s been fighting on the casino circuit in Washington. She dropped her first fight in June at the Clearwater Casino before bouncing back with an emphatic victory in her second official fight in July. Her next fight is scheduled for Sept. 28 at Green River College. She will be joined on that card by another fighter from Adna, Tanner Rigdon, who also gets his dirty work in at United Training Center.
“He’s one of my best partners. We’re really good friends, too,” said Weed, noting that she first met Rigdon through her younger brother, Conner, back in Adna. “He pushes me a lot. There’s some days where we are just so beat up and tired but he keeps it real with me. He’s like, ‘No! You’ve got to keep going, keep running and get your rounds in.’”
Rigdon began training in MMA the summer after he graduated from Adna High School. He says it’s impressive to watch Weed punch out a place for herself.
“Sometimes she’ll be the only girl in here and she’ll have to wrestle or kickbox with guys who are 180 or 190 (pounds) and have 40-50 pounds on her. She has no problem doing it. She still comes and shows up,” Rigdon said. “It’s just her attitude about things. She’s a savage. It’s nuts.”
Nonetheless, every fighter has ups and downs on the learning curve between backyard brawler and bonafide fighter. Rigdon says it’s fun to watch Weed work out the kinks along the way.
“Sometimes she reaches a point where she kind of fades. Coming from wrestling, she tries to look at it like a sport rather than an actual fight like it is so she’s still kind of making that adjustment. And she’s gotten way better at making that adjustment rather than looking at how real it is to really be in a fight,” Rigdon explained.
When it comes to style and technique in the octagon Weed works hard to bring a diverse arsenal to her fights. When the feathers start to fly, though, she lets her instincts take over.
“My last fight was really cool. We got into a good little brawl in the beginning for like the first minute and then I caught her with a big overhand and she ran away from me. Then I took her down, I slammed her, and just kind of finished her with a nasty ground and pound,” said Weed with an infectious smile spread across her face.
She says that technique served her well growing up and holding her own in a natural sibling rivalry along with other classical childhood dustups.
“I used to be so much bigger than him but he’s almost a foot taller than me now,” she said of her brother. “Basically I started training when he got bigger than me so I can still beat him with my technique.”
She admits that there were other unsanctioned donnybrooks during her formative years as well.
“A few times. A couple scuffles and stuff. I wasn’t picking fights but I stand up for others and myself,” Weed admitted. “I’m a scrappy person. I’m feisty.”
Eddy Ellis, who has been training fighters for a dozen years on top of a distinguished 20 year pro career, says he sees that feisty side rear its head whenever Weed gets in the gym.
“You can tell that the passion is different from one fighter to the next. Some people want (to train for their) bucket list and it’s hard to give a lot to those type of people. But there’s a select few like Kayla herself where you can feel that vibe. There’s a lot more to her,” said Eddy Ellis.
“She’s a ground and pound girl. When she puts somebody on the floor, you’re going to see her open up.”
Ellis, who has watched his wife make a name for herself in professional fighting, says Weed has a similar drive.
“She’s eager to have other females like her to help out and at the same time, she’s not sitting in the corner waiting for one to show up. She’s going to be in that group no matter what,” he said.
Injuries are an unavoidable reality in the world of MMA fighting but Weed seems predictably unphased. One time she hyperextended her elbow during a fight and took one day off for rest before returning to the gym to resume training. Another time she dislocated her ribs and took all of 48-hours off before getting back to work for a fight that loomed around the corner. In spite of those risks, Weed says her parents have been incredibly supportive of her aspirations.
“My mom loves it. She’s my number one fan. She always gets really close to the cage somehow. She yells and she’s just really passionate. She’s just so supportive. My dad likes it but it makes him a little more nervous,” noted Weed.
It’s the inherent exhilaration of those fight nights that keeps Weed coming back for more. She used to walk out to “I’m a Soldier” by Tupac and now makes her entrance to “Dreams and Nightmares” by Meek Mill.
“It gets pretty intense,” said Weed. “That’s one of my favorite moments when you walk out and hear your music and then all of your friends and family are screaming at the top of their lungs... The hard work is done and it’s time to perform.”
Weed added that there is an uncommon camaraderie between female fighters and fans that also helps make the sport special.
“There’s no talking bad about each other. We just smile. We shake hands. Say good luck and then we fight. Then we shake hands, hug after and say whatever. So it’s cool,” Weed explained. “It’s the best feeling. It’s crazy because it’s a violent sport and you’re hurting people but you feel so much love. So many people reach out to me and say kind things regardless of the result.”
Weed added that she grew up admiring female fighters and she’s hopeful that she’ll one day be able to help push the envelope forward even further for women in MMA.
“I think there’s a lot more room (to grow). I think it’s great the progress that’s been made but I think there’s a lot more room,” said Weed, “My grandparents watched a lot of (Cris) Cyborg growing up and they’d always be like, ‘Kayla, when are you going to fight Cyborg?’ So ever since I’ve been like eight years old it’s been in my mind to be a tough, strong woman like her.”
If there’s anyone out there reading this who has a dream but are timid about seeing it through, Weed has one message she wants them to absorb.
“Do it. Try. You’ll never know until you try. Everyone fails but you’ve just got to get back up again and keep trying. This is a really good place to try,” said Weed. “I hope I can inspire a lot of young individuals, or anyone really, to just follow their dreams. I want to compete at the highest level in the world, the international level. That’s my goal.”