As Kathy Long settled into her chair at McNichols Sports Arena on November 12, 1993, she was one of the few people in attendance who wasn’t going to be shocked or rattled by what she saw in the Octagon as the first Ultimate Fighting Championship event took place. She had been exposed to much more extreme techniques as a practitioner of a martial art designed for self-defense, not sport.
“I was used to Kung Fu San Soo, and if you're familiar with that martial art, we stick our fingers in people's eyes and hit them in the windpipe and stomp on their knee and grab their testicles and crush them, so in that respect, that kind of fighting, I was not a stranger to,” Long said.
In other words, this was a sporting event she was about to commentate on, alongside Bill Wallace and Jim Brown, and for all the talk of it being no holds barred, no one was going to get hit in the windpipe or have their testicles crushed. As for what was going to happen in that first UFC, her guess was as good as the fighters’.
“There was so much going on in the background,” she said. “Imagine if you could have been there at the rules meeting. The poor boxer (Art Jimmerson), he's like, 'So, what do I do? Do I wrap both my hands? Do I put one glove on, and which hand should I do?' And they had no idea. They had no answer for him. So he figured, okay, I'll give that a shot. Poor Art, he didn't know what to do.”
Jimmerson, a light heavyweight and cruiserweight champion in boxing, was the first victim of a young man named Royce Gracie, who stunned the martial arts world with three submission victories that earned him the first UFC title and put the sport soon to be known as MMA on the map. Long, a five-time kickboxing world champion, was as surprised as anyone that the skinny Brazilian kid defeated a series of physically imposing foes with relative ease.
“At the time, I didn't know anything about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or about groundfighting,” she said. “In Kung Fu San Soo, we fight on the ground, but it's not trying to manipulate the person's joints; it's gouge their eyes and get up as fast as you can and get away from it. So anytime you're on the ground, it's the ultimate sacrifice.”
But in Gracie’s art of jiu-jitsu, a fighter can have his back on the ground and still win the fight. That victory intrigued viewers around the globe and set the stage for a series of Gracie victories over ensuing events. Long, a martial artist to the core, began studying the art soon after she made history as the first (and only) woman to provide Octagonside commentary on a UFC event.
“I started training with the Machado brothers in Jean Jacques' morning class right after the first UFC,” she said. “I got invited to train in a class at the Machados’ school and they welcomed me with open arms and said, 'Hey, do you want to teach our fighters some kickboxing?'”
At the time, Long had finished an 18-1 kickboxing career (some put her record at closer to 35 wins) and was the face of women’s combat sports. There were numerous magazine covers, induction into the Hall of Fame for Inside Kung Fu and Black Belt Magazine, and she was Michelle Pfeiffer’s stunt double in Batman Returns. She was Ronda Rousey and Amanda Nunes before Ronda Rousey and Amanda Nunes, even beating hall of famers Christy Martin and Rousey to Sports Illustrated, where she was featured in the June 15, 1992 issue.
In that feature story written by Davis Miller, there’s a quote from boxing legend Pernell Whitaker, who said of Long, “She's the only woman I've ever seen who can fight, the only one who can really do it.”
That was high praise from Sweet Pea in the piece, which told of Long’s days as a bouncer in Bakersfield. One anecdote was particularly noteworthy:
David Cochran, who worked as a bouncer with Long, describes one Saturday night encounter: "There was this guy who'd gotten way out of hand. He had a tattoo on his face. He was pretty large, about 220, maybe 235. A couple times Kathy asked him to calm down. When she walked away, he talked junk behind her back. You know the kind of stuff—'Yeah, she's a kick boxer. So what? What's a little——like that gonna do to me?' Well, I asked him to leave, and he came after me. I put him on the ground and had him in a wrist leverage. He started screaming and yelling at me, but I couldn't get him to move. He wouldn't get up, wouldn't walk. I tried to pick him up and I couldn't. Kathy comes over to us, and he starts calling her names. She looks at me and calmly says, 'Where do you want him?' I say, 'Outside.' And Kathy reaches down and grabs him, one hand at the back of his head, one hand around his windpipe, picks him up, feet dangling off the ground. She takes three running steps with him and throws him out into the parking lot."
Yeah, Kathy Long was a bad ass, but with women’s MMA still a couple years off until Japan had its first women’s tournament in 1995 and the first female MMA bout took place in the U.S. in 1997, fighting in the sport she helped introduce to the masses wasn’t on her mind in those days after UFC I. In fact, she wasn’t even watching the early UFCs. But a couple years later, a friend brought her back.
“I referred to the UFC as the Gracie shows,” she said as Royce won three of the first four tournaments before a 36-minute draw with Ken Shamrock in the main event of UFC 5 in 1995. “After I stopped watching it for a good while, a couple years, a friend of mine said, 'Hey, you should watch the UFC with me.' I was not really all that into it. I said it was so lopsided and so one-sided, there's no equality here. Yeah, his art is good, but it just seemed like they were hand-picking his opponents. I didn't know if that was true, but that's how I felt about it. But then I saw there was a resurgence of kickboxing coming through, where people in kickboxing were dominating, and I thought, 'Okay, it's a little different here.' Then there were wrestlers who came in and they changed the game completely, and judo players who came in and changed the game, and at that point, I was more excited to watch the fights.”
And compete in them. While Long looked to make her mark in pro boxing, fighting three times in 1998, she got soured on a business that looked to build on her celebrity and not her fighting ability.
“They told me, ‘We want to groom your career,’ and I said, no, I'm not gonna do that. I want legitimate fighters who have been training as long as I have or longer. I can't beat up some girl who's only been fighting for eight months.”
Having hit a dead end in boxing, Long still trained, but it appeared that her fighting days were done. She was approached to fight in Strikeforce, and while she turned the offer down, she eventually made her pro MMA debut on August 15, 2009, decisioning Avery Vilche at the age of 45. Six years later, at 51, she moved to 2-0 with a win over Mixia Medina.
Yes, Long has not stopped being a fighter – and a damn good one at that. I ask the 56-year-old if she wishes she would have come along ten years later to reap the benefits of being an elite competitor in the UFC, where the playing field has been leveled for all fighters in terms of pay and opportunities.
“There's a part of me that wishes that, but, at the same time, I was really fortunate to have some media coverage and be able to fight on ESPN and pay-per-view events, as well as Showtime,” she said. “In that respect, I helped to get women more recognized and I'm grateful that I was able to do that and to help in any way, especially to see some kind of equality when it comes to their purses and the fact that they sacrifice just as much as any guy does and maybe more to do what they do as a profession. It's been a lopsided story the whole time with almost every profession where men and women are working in the same field - men typically get paid more.”
Long helped break down that wall in mixed martial arts, something key to point out as we close out Women’s History Month, and for those who haven’t been exposed to her pioneering work, YouTube is a click away, and you can see the exciting style that had her dubbed “The Princess of Pain” and the “Queen of Mean.” But her style wasn’t designed to put on a show for the fans; it had a deeper meaning than that.
“I am essentially very, very shy and I was completely abused and horribly mistreated by my boyfriend / trainer,” Long said. “And I did it in spite of what he said and in spite of what he did, in spite of everything and all the obstacles he put in front of me. In my mind, there's nothing he can do once I'm in the ring and by myself. There, it's just me, so I can rely on me and count on me. And that's where I did the best. It wasn't that I wanted to go out there and put on a show. It was that I was completely free to express myself as I wanted to. And that's the only time I really had to do that.”
To contact Kathy Long for questions or seminars, email her at email@example.com