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When Alex Chambers entered the third and final round against Kailin Curran in May, she was in trouble. Chambers, who fights Paige VanZant this Saturday at UFC 191, had lost the first two rounds.
All signs pointed to a victory for Curran, who was battering “Astro Girl” with strikes.
After a grim talk from her coach, strawweight Chambers knew her spot in the UFC hung in the balance. When the fight hit the ground, Chambers latched onto a Kimura and refused to let go in a grueling sequence that lasted more than a minute. Finally, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu purple belt Chambers transitioned to an armbar for the win at the 3:15 mark.
Chambers showed her “heart,” the mental toughness that is central to fighting and perhaps impossible to teach.
And it wasn’t just the UFC fans watching the stunning comeback who discovered what Chambers is made of. The Sydney native learned something about herself as well.
“It’s funny, but that fight was definitely a huge learning experience for me. Most of my fights have finished in the first round and so I definitely learned a lot about myself, and there’s a lot that my opponent brought out in me in that fight and I take those lessons into my training now,” Chambers said of her victory in Adelaide. “So I’m happy to have had a fight like that where I didn’t feel great and did have to dig deep. It’s great to know that. Now that I’ve been in that position before, so I’m confident that I can deal with it again if that’s what happens.”
Although Chambers has never been the comeback fighter before, she’s very familiar with the part she’ll be playing this Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas: the underdog.
If a count of Twitter followers was a Tale of the Tape metric, the advantage clearly goes to 21-year-old VanZant, who has a nearly 70,000 fan lead over Chambers. But The Ultimate Fighter 20 alum Chambers says she isn’t intimidated by the support behind her opponent, and is happy to spoil VanZant’s rise to stardom.
“I don’t think in my whole career, in any of my fights from my very first MMA fight, I’ve ever been the favorite; I think I’ve always been the underdog. So (being the favorite) is not a position I’m used to and (being the underdog) is not anything that puts too much concern or pressure on me. If that’s how it’s seen, that I’ll be spoiling, then that’s what my plan is. The only way I want the fight to go is me having my hand raised and walking out of the cage with a big smile on my face, so I’m preparing for everything and that’s the only way I have it in my head.”
VanZant, who has a TKO victory over mutual opponent Curran, will be the biggest name Chambers has faced. But Chambers is not a stranger to the top talent in female mixed martial arts.
“I’ve been doing my training here in Florida at American Top Team and I’ve been training with some of the best girls in the division; there are four other girls in the strawweight division in the UFC alone that train at American Top Team here,” Chambers said. “As well as obviously the number one contender in the 135-pound division, Amanda Nunes, so I get to train with such high level girls and such high level coaches as well, and they’re really preparing me for all areas of where the fight will go, so I’m excited to hopefully showcase my skills and what I’m capable of come Saturday.”
American Top Team is a training hub for the martial arts that have been most dominant in MMA: wrestling, BJJ and Muay Thai. But “Astro Girl” is a 3rd Dan black belt in Karate, and she’s on a mission to rediscover her roots in the traditional Japanese martial art.
“It’s funny, but when I first got into mixed martial arts training I felt like the karate side of me was something that was being trained out of me, or that I had to train out of me, to become more like a Muay Thai kind of stylist as opposed to my karate, and now it’s something that I’m trying to train back into me a little bit, because it’s an advantage to have that change in timing and range. Look at how (former UFC light heavyweight champion) Lyoto Machida has used his karate and so I’m trying to get back to that now. Where originally I feel like it was something I trained out of me. So I see it as being an advantage and something I’m trying to train back into me, and I’m trying to use some of those tools that I learned many years ago doing karate.”
The mats of American Top Team are a world away from the prestigious University of Sydney, where Chambers received a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and Physics. Before devoting herself to MMA, she was also completing a degree in mechatronics engineering. Not surprisingly, Chambers’ parents would rather see her in a lab.
“I don’t blame them,” she said. “Who wants to see their daughter potentially getting hurt? But oftentimes growing up, the fighting was the easy part. It was a struggle at times to continue my martial arts training not having that support behind me, but now my parents have definitely come to accept it. It’s not something that I talk about with them, but I do know that they’re proud of me and support me with what I’m doing.
While “Astro Girl” isn’t using her formal education at the moment, there is more crossover between the world of science and fighting than you might realize.
“I always say everything’s all physics, but the principles of leverage and things like that come into play, and force is mass times acceleration so I think about those concepts. But the problem is that when you’re so used to the analytical kind of thinking, in training it can be your worst enemy. You can over think things and I definitely tend to over think things and become my worst enemy,” Chambers said. “And so over thinking things isn’t a great thing but that’s why in a fight it’s all about what you’ve done to prepare in the different areas and your muscle memory taking over. But definitely, when I was at university studying robotic and mechatronic engineering and building boxing robots I always joked about wanting to do so (laughs), so who knows? I definitely still think about things like that and developing something like that, so we’ll see in the future.”
While robots may still be in Chambers’ future, right now she is focused on one outcome.
“Honestly, the only way I want it (the fight) to go is me having my hand raised and walking out of the cage with a big smile on my face. I’m preparing for everything and I know it’s going to be an exciting fight, so having my hand raised is the only way I have it in my head.”