In East Palo Alto, mixed martial arts gives one female athlete a fighting chance

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Aspiring ultimate fighters Ashlee Evans-Smith and Marco Lopez-Mendoza prepare for their second training session of the day at the Gladiators gym in East Palo Alto. (Photo: Julia James)

In 2009, Ashlee Evans-Smith was a four-time All-American and captain of the Menlo College women’s wrestling team.  She was a dean’s scholar, a resident assistant in her dormitory and on the verge of earning a bachelor’s degree in mass communications.

“I have been wrestling for seven years, and I don’t love anyone or anything more,” she wrote on her MySpace page.  “I am going to continue wrestling for another year and graduate… and then travel…I am currently very interested in becoming a journalist.”

She was 21, 5 feet 7 inches, 147 pounds, with brown eyes and dark brown hair.  She had been in love twice.  She believed in herself always.  She overused the shorthand “lol” when she was chatting online with friends.  She had 14 piercings and two tattoos.

She liked running, taking pictures, surprises, the rain, her 1974 Ford Maverick, massages and long showers.  She disliked onions, green peppers, the word “can’t,” making weight for wrestling and having her picture taken. Her greatest fear was life after college.

In short, Ashlee was much like the nation’s other 1.5 million seniors who would graduate with bachelor’s degrees in June 2009: complicated, optimistic, and about to enter an economy with the highest unemployment rate in 26 years.  Six and a half million jobs had vanished since the beginning of the recession; 467,000 of those jobs were shed the month she donned her cap and gown.

In many ways, though, Ashlee was different.  Her childhood in Ukiah, Calif., began in a prefab trailer home and – when that burned down – progressed in the tight confines of a Section 8 apartment complex.  She was raised from the sixth grade on by a self-employed dad, who, she later discovered, was not her biological father.

During high school, she wound up in juvenile hall after a series of drunken street fights. When college graduation rolled around and $20,000 in loans came due, Ashlee was on her own, without financial help from family or friends.

“When I graduated, it was like, now you get to pay rent for yourself: all your food, all your gas, your cell phone, your utilities.  By the way, Sallie Mae is calling every single day.  If you want to have a life and go party or go to the movies, that’s a luxury.”

One year later, she was living in Redwood City and working for minimum wage and tips as a waitress and bartender.  She was struggling to pay $500 in rent and $250 in utilities each month. Graduate school didn’t seem like an option.  She was getting over a bad relationship.  She was starting to sense that she had an alcohol problem.  She was fielding frequent calls from her mother, who was lobbying for a reunion after more than a decade of estrangement.

Unable to afford training, she stopped playing sports. “I had been climbing up the ladder all the way until 21 — you know, going to high school, going to college, getting my degree — and then all of a sudden I was at this halt,” she said. When she was in high school, Ashlee exorcized her demons on the wrestling mat.  She welcomed the challenge of earning respect on an otherwise all-male team.

“You’re going to work at an 8?  I’m going to work at a 10,” she told herself.

“I proved I was going to work just as a hard as they were, sweat just as much, stick it out no matter what and not quit,” she said.  “Eventually, they stopped looking at me as a girl and started looking at me as a wrestler.”

One day, post-college, as she was bartending at the BBC in Menlo Park, Ashlee was approached by a customer.  “You look like a big strong girl.  You ever play rugby?” the woman asked.  “No,” Ashlee answered.  “That’s something with a ball, right?”

The exchange might have been quickly forgotten; but weeks later, Ashlee lost her job.  Desperate for any type of physical activity, she looked up the woman on Facebook.  Within days she had picked up rugby – a sport she’d never played before, yet one that had the benefit of being free. She was doing agility drills with the South Bay Sequoias when the team fitness coach, a former ultimate fighter named Eugene Jackson, noticed her wrestling T-shirt.

“He said, ‘Oh is that your boyfriend’s shirt?’” Ashlee remembered.  “I said, ‘No, it’s mine.’  Long story short, he said, ‘Well, why don’t you come train with me?’  I said, I really can’t afford gym fees.’  He said, ‘I didn’t say I was going to charge you.’  So the next day we met at 7 o’clock in the morning and we started training.”

Not long after that, Jackson, who runs an East Palo Alto mixed martial arts school, offered her a room, rent-free, in his own home.  Ashlee moved in, joining Jackson’s sons Casey and Nikko and nephew Jonathan, all ultimate fighters.  With the others, she started training two times a day, six days a week.  At dinner, they would talk about the sport; after, they would “fool around” on a wrestling mat that spans the living room floor.

Mixed martial arts, or MMA, known by most as cage fighting, is not wrestling; it’s a violent combination of wrestling, boxing, muay thai and jiu jitsu.  And East Palo Alto, where 19 percent of the largely Latino, African American and Polynesian population lives below the poverty line, is no Atherton, the swank neighborhood that shelters the Menlo College campus.

But to Ashlee, both MMA and East Palo Alto felt like home. “Sometimes I feel like MMA was made for me,” she said.  “When I get into the cage, and they say go, and they’re saying, you can beat this girl up as much you want, and we’re only going to stop you if you really start to hurt her, and no cops are going to be called, I’m like ‘Wow, this is really the sport for me.’”

It’s not, however, an expression of rage. “I’ve been in street fights before, and there was so much anger and emotion, and you’re really out to hurt the person. When I’m sparring, I think very clearly.  I want to make a clean punch, I want to twist my hips, I want to do it right, I want to kick the best low kick I can. It’s very technical.”

Between training sessions, Ashlee drives her recently-purchased 2001 Volkswagon Beatle to Mexquite, in Redwood City, where she waitresses in four-hour shifts.  She is not ready to open the letters or answer the phone calls that keep coming regarding her college loans.

She tries to give Jackson a couple hundred dollars every now and then for rent, or utilities, but he has so far refused to take any of it. “As long as you’re working hard, that’s your payment,” he tells her. For that, she said, she stays away from alcohol and puts up with his subtle suggestions that she go to church, while privately hanging onto atheism.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve had such a hard life.  No,” Ashlee said.  “I’ve never had cancer; I was never molested or raped.  I’ve been lucky.  My problems are miniscule.

“Some people who have sheltered lives, or very hunky-dory lives, they get into the real world and it’s so much harder for them.  You know, if the toilet clogs up, and they don’t get their latte on time, and someone cuts them off, they might go on a killing spree, you know, because they can’t handle it.”

Ashlee forms sentences the way she applies pink tape to her hands before a fight — methodically, making few mistakes, and backing up and starting over with resolute precision when she does.

“Life is about, when you get pushed down, there’s usually going to be someone there to help you back up,” she said.  “Or, the only person you can really count on is yourself, so you’ve just got to pick yourself back up.”

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