There were more than a few smiling faces in Las Vegas last weekend; fighters who won their bouts at UFC 183, gamblers who hit big betting the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX, and those who were just happy to be away from the daily routine, even if only for a weekend.
But you wouldn’t be out of line if you guessed that the biggest smile in Vegas belonged to 12-year-old Claire Tietgen, a young lady from Prairie Village, Kansas who had a UFC fan’s dream weekend at the MGM Grand.
“Everything was one hundred percent awesome,” Claire said. “Nothing’s been higher than meeting Demi Lovato and getting her autograph, talking to (UFC women’s bantamweight champion) Ronda (Rousey) and meeting (UFC president) Dana (White). These are big moments that no one could ever imagine.”
Claire certainly couldn’t, at least not over the last few years, when days weren’t filled with smiles, but with tears, as constant physical and verbal bullying in school left her contemplating suicide. For her parents, Charlie and Denise, it was a crushing blow, a situation that left them feeling helpless. How do you remove this hurt that is so deep that ending everything is the only way their daughter felt she would have relief?
Enter Austen Ford. A respected coach in the Kansas City area whose resume includes work with UFC veterans James Krause, Tim Elliott and Zak Cummings, as well as Strikeforce vet Tyler Stinson, Ford isn’t one of those folks who throws a towel over his shoulder and considers himself ready for work in the gym and the corner. Ford cares about those who step through the doors of his Brass Boxing + Jiu-Jitsu gym, whether they’re UFC hopefuls, adults trying to get in shape, or kids needing more than just an outlet for their youthful energy. He’s a father too, so when the Tietgens brought Claire to the gym, a connection was immediate.
“Charlie explained the story to me that she (Claire) was suicidal,” Ford recalled. “An 11-year-old girl that’s suicidal? Whatever you need. I was in for the long haul immediately. I didn’t have to think twice about it.”
Just like that, Claire had a safe haven other than her home, complete with a new family that didn’t treat her the way she was treated in school.
“That is exactly what I try to provide,” Ford said. “From the first time they step on the mats, I introduce them to the entire class. Everyone has gone through this, and they know right away that they’re in the family. No pre-judging, no judging. Now there are expectations as far as attention, respect, discipline, and we have a few phrases we don’t allow on the mat: ‘I can’t’ and ‘I won’t.’ I use the other children to get this message across to each new student and by the end of that class, they really feel like they’re already part of the team. There’s no pecking order, no cold shoulders; I absolutely don’t allow that. And I don’t even have to try that hard, because the kids say it for me and they show it. I’m trying to help them become better sons and daughters, better students, how far a ‘yes ma’am’ and a ‘no ma’am’ can go at home and school. It’s just these little things that I know changes the way that people look at them.”
A funny thing happened along the way though. Claire didn’t just find a place to be herself, make friends, and put the bullying in the rear view mirror. She found out that she was a pretty impressive competitor.
“Before I got into it, I didn’t know that I was strong,” she said. “I could tell because I helped my dad move things, but really whupping some boys’ butts, it was a big moment. (Laughs)”
In less than a year, Claire is unbeaten in several grappling competitions, with plenty of medals to prove it. Yet for Charlie Tietgen, nothing will ever top the first time he saw his little girl get her hand raised.
“None of my kids did sports, except Claire, and I live for it,” he said, clearly the proud papa. “I’ve watched her just get abused, and personally experienced it, being on the playground while we’re trying to observe what’s going on. To watch her…”
He pauses, gathers his thoughts, likely remembering everything his daughter suffered since the bullying began in the first grade.
“The first time Claire won a tournament, she turned and looked at me and she goes ‘finally.’ In her way, she could control it and have the outcome she wanted. So when I watch it, I get so nervous I can’t stand it. (Laughs) You’re proud, and you’re also glad that she’s standing up for herself.”
“I think she can be a black belt one day,” Ford adds. “It’s not just ‘hey, you’re great,’ just to make her feel good, to give her confidence. She actually is fierce and she is capable. She has this Hulk-strength, this laser-focus, and she’s fearless at times.”
I told Mark Munoz about Claire’s story, not just about her visit to UFC 183, but how jiu-jitsu changed her life in a positive way. The middleweight contender was happy to hear it, and knowing that he has been speaking to schools about anti-bullying for years and that he was bullied himself as a youngster, I wanted to know what it felt like to get your hand raised for the first time in a competition like Claire did.
“It’s empowering,” he said. “When you’re verbally bullied, physically bullied, those two things mess with your mind really bad.”
In 2012, the National Education Association stated that bullying “impacts approximately 13 million students every year, and some 160,000 students stay home from school each day because of bullying.”
Munoz knows all about it.
“When I got verbally and physically bullied, I withdrew,” he said. “I didn’t want to deal with anybody at school. I would put my head down, and I kind of had that idea where if I don’t see them, they don’t see me. One day, a good friend came up to me and said ‘hey man, you should get into wrestling.’ I said ‘no man, you guys wear tight leotards and touch each other in funny places; I don’t want to do that.’ He basically said ‘you think that’s funny? I bet I can take you down in ten seconds.’ I said ‘Yeah right.’ So he picks me up, slams me on my back, and I’ve been wearing a tight leotard ever since.”
Munoz laughs, and it’s clear that no one is bullying him these days. Or back in his wrestling days either. Were there tough times and days when he didn’t want to go through the grind that is a hallmark of the wrestling room? Absolutely. He even went home one day and told his father he didn’t want to wrestle anymore.
“You finish what you start,” and he drove young Mark back to practice. So what was the end result?
“Two-time state champion, a high school national champion, I went to the world championships in my age group and took second, and then got a full-ride scholarship to Oklahoma State University, where I became a National champ, the first Filipino-American to do that.”
And now he wants to let other young people who are bullied know that there is hope and a way out of their situation. Teaming up with the Orange County Department of Education, Munoz estimates that he’s talked to students in over 75 schools over the last three years, and he’s looking to expand the program. His message is a simple one.
“I just want to let people know that through adversity you can find success and that your circumstances now don’t define you as a person,” he said. “You can definitely rise above it. I like to tell people my story so that they can be motivated and inspired to make choices. Your life experiences shape and mold you, but your life choices do that even more.”
Shanda Maloney is the Social Media Manager for the UFC. If you’ve met her or interacted with her on social media, you know immediately that she’s one of the good ones, the type of person that would go above and beyond the call of duty to help someone out. So it wasn’t surprising that when she saw the anti-bullying video put together by the Tietgen family about Claire she wanted to do more than re-tweet or share it.
“When I saw her tweet and watched her video, I broke down into tears,” Maloney wrote in a Facebook post. “I didn't know what I could do or how much I could do to make something special for her but I reached out to my UFC family to try to make a trip out to Vegas special for her.”
As soon as Dana White was presented with the video, he called up UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey and had her watch the video. Knowing White, it was no surprise that the next step was bringing Claire and Charlie Tietgen out to Vegas for UFC 183 and the World MMA awards, and to get a behind the scenes look at how things go down on weigh-in day and fight night.
It was all a big deal for Claire, but a particular phone call with Miss Rousey was definitely a highlight.
“She told me that she loved me, that she’s a big fan and that she watched my video and she cried,” Claire said. “She also said that her favorite part was the jiu-jitsu part and that she would love to have me come out there (to California) and meet her.”
Rousey is no stranger to Claire’s struggles, having had more than her share before earning an Olympic Bronze medal in
the Olympics and then going on to dominate the world of mixed martial arts. When asked if she was a fan of mixed martial arts before stepping into the gym for the first time, she admits to discovering it after her first class. But once she knew Rousey was a UFC fighter, she was all-in.
“I knew it was a sport but I hadn’t heard anything about it,” Claire said. “But once I got into it and everybody told me about it, I became a big fan, especially after I realized that Ronda was doing it too. She’s probably my biggest inspiration and one of my favorite fighters. I have many, but she’s the top.
“We are kind of the same,” she continues. “We both had struggles at a young age, we both had speech problems, and she got bullied like me too. She got into MMA and we’re just so alike. We look alike too. And even though she’s older than me, we both have the same strengths that we’re good at. She can whip her armbar out, I can whip mine good; she’s really fast at everything, she finishes clean; and she hasn’t lost, and I haven’t lost yet.”
So could we be seeing a professional mixed martial artist in the making?
“Yes, absolutely,” Claire says with zero hesitation. Dad is even on board.
“It fits her like a glove,” he said. “She tells it like it is, she’s very aggressive, and she likes to express herself. She doesn’t have very many filters, and it’s a great outlet. And she’s got talent according to the coaches that have watched her. I’d love to watch her in the ring one day if that’s what she wants to do.”
Claire Tietgen is back in school, back to the daily grind, but she sees life differently than she did even a year ago.
A stark moment in her anti-bullying video shows a black screen with the words “In memory of Claire, 8/2/02-2/15/14,” followed by a drawing of two arrows. The top faces left and reads “old life,” while the bottom faces right and reads “new life.”
For her, February 15, 2014 is the day she started fresh and began living that new life. That’s a lot of maturity for someone who was only 11 years old at the time.
“I’m in awe,” Ford said. “Just watching her come from absolutely no experience – no wrestling, no jiu-jitsu – and no physical animosity toward anyone, to see how fierce she is, I feel like it’s something where I go ‘did I help her with that, or was that always inside of her?’ Did it just take someone to listen or not judge? I don’t know. But I feel so fortunate, like it’s not even me, but that it was meant to be. I’m just a small piece, a facilitator.”
Of course, Claire’s troubles didn’t miraculously disappear the day she began studying jiu-jitsu, and there are still struggles, as there are in the life of any 12-year-old. But now she has the weapons to deal with them, and they have nothing to do with what she wins tournaments with.
“This isn’t an end or a destination that we’ve reached,” Ford said. “It’s wonderful, but the journey continues. There’s no slowing it down and we’ve got to keep this going. There’s going to be new obstacles, different kinds of bullies, and we’ve just got to take it one day at a time.”
He recalls a story about one of the bullies in Claire’s school that punched her.
“This is five gold medals in, she walked away,” Ford said. “That was my proudest moment in all this. She could have just Hulked out and choked him out, broke his arm or threw him on his head, but she didn’t. She kept her composure. She showed so much class.”
And now, as remarkable as it may seem considering how far she’s come, Claire now has the opportunity to help others in the same situation, a reality she embraces.
“It feels amazing,” she said. “I got that support from my family but I didn’t have a person like me that could help other people. Now I have my chance to help them have that.”
That’s something to smile about, especially if you’re Charlie Tietgen.
“Before we came up here (to Las Vegas) to meet Shanda and before all that’s happened, it was kind of a lonely quest,” Tietgen said. “It was just us, our family, and the gym and the coach feeling like we’re against the world. And now we’re here, and all that’s been done, it’s surreal. I put my head against the pillow and I could cry. I just cannot believe what’s happened for my girl. You know your kids and you know how they feel, and when we just sit there and talk, I know this is some major healing. I don’t know anybody that has this opportunity that Shanda gave Claire. This will save her life and change her future. You can’t get that negativity out of the kid; it’s still there, and you just have to replace it with something amazing, and this has been like a total heart and brain transplant.”
To see Claire's story, click here