When Julie Kedzie's bulimia was at its worst, her ritual was to walk to the grocery store after work, load up on junk food 'til her fingers hurt carrying the bags home, eat it all in one sitting, force herself to vomit it up, then go back to the store to buy more.
It had begun at age 18, which was the year her parents divorced and Kedzie began taking prescription medication for cystic acne, which she believes triggered severe depression and anxiety. Binging and purging helped Kedzie bury the overwhelming emotions, giving her a temporary sense of euphoria before the feeling would wear off and she'd have to start the process all over again.
"[Bulimia] wasn't something I mentioned in my career [until now] because I don't think it made me sound very tough, but I emerged from it and here I am," said Kedzie (16-10), who faces former Strikeforce 135-pound champion Miesha Tate (12-3) on Saturday (8 p.m. ET/PT, Showtime Extreme).
During her early 20s in Bloomington, Ind., Kedzie became very good at hiding her secret from friends and family. She avoided foods that were hard to summon back up, like ice cream, and started each meal with Doritos so she could gauge when her stomach was empty by color.
"It was definitely a dark period for me," she said. "It was a six- or seven-year struggle."
Now 31, Kedzie's eating disorder doesn't consume her life as it once did. Her older sister eventually figured out what was going on and made Kedzie move in with her. Kedzie sought out therapy and hasn't touched the acne medication in years, even though the genetic skin disease returned worse than before and she cringes at the thought of wearing a bathing suit in public.
Most importantly, though, Kedzie got out of Indiana and took back control of her life, moving five years ago to Albuquerque, N.M., to train at the highest level possible in one of the world's top gyms.
With her blonde pigtailed hair, bright blue eyes, contagious smile and bubbly personality, Kedzie could be mistaken for a nanny or even a flight attendant at first glance. But there's no mistaking that she was destined to fight.
When her father introduced her in Tae Kwon Do classes at age 5, Kedzie said she could hear the crowd cheering in her mind as she practiced. She was always bulkier, more aggressive and physical than the other girls (and some of the boys), and often left "points" tournaments disappointed because of the lack of contact. This often clashed with her Buddhist father's traditional views on martial arts, but Kedzie wanted more.
In college, she rowed for the crew team, but quit after two months because she didn't have ultimate control over the team's performances. So, she kept looking.
During her senior year in 2003, she attended a Hook N Shoot event in Evansville, then watched her first women's fight on video featuring trailblazer Debi Purcell. The recognition was instantaneous.
"I remembered thinking, Oh, this is what I'm supposed to be doing," said Kedzie.
Having identified her niche, Kedzie blindly left college and headed out to southern California to train for three months with Purcell and noted coaches Erik Paulson and Marco Ruas, who'd won the 16-man tournament at UFC 7 in 1995. She'd promised her mother, a neurobiologist, that she'd finish her schooling, so Kedzie returned and graduated with a English literature degree that December. She competed in her debut fight that March in Hook n Shoot, the first promotion to hold an all-women's event in the U.S. Kedzie rattled off six fights for Hook n Shoot in 20 months, making only a couple hundred dollars each time.
In 2004, two years before the MMA boom in America turned every dojo into a "mixed" facility, there were limited training options for the men, let alone the women. Still, Kedzie absorbed what she could from the local martial arts schools, supporting herself with three jobs while simultaneously fending off her family's protests.
Kedzie met Greg Jackson at an EliteXC event in 2007. Kedzie -- now a "seasoned" 8-5 fighter with little formal training -- was preparing to fight Gina Carano in the first women's fight ever broadcasted on cable. Jackson was there to corner Joey Villasenor.
Kedzie's coach wouldn't arrive for another couple days and she was alone and nervous on the eve of the biggest fight of her career. The trio bonded easily as they waited around the backwoods Mississippi casino venue for fight day. Kedzie didn't win her bout, but gained a supporter in Jackson, who invited her to join the fast-tracking gym he co-owned with Mike Winkeljohn in the Albuquerque desert.
"There were two things about Julie that stuck out to me," recalls Jackson. "First of all, she was sweet. She loaned her sauna suit to Joey when he forgot his. She really went out of her way with her own fight coming up to help out a complete stranger."
Jackson was also impressed with Kedzie's fight.
"Her tenacity in the fight with Gina -- she'd get rocked and knocked down and she'd keep coming back," said Jackson. "I thought anyone who's that sweet and that tough could be a member of my team anytime."
Kedzie's boyfriend, a fight fan who knew Jackson was emerging as one of the sport's most prolific coaches, convinced her to accept the invitation because he wanted to train there himself. Kedzie went out alone to set up shop, only to phone a short time later to tell her boyfriend of six months not to bother joining her.
"I told him it was just about fighting now," said Kedzie. "I basically left him for a team, though I don't think we were going to work out anyway. I didn't want to take care of anyone. I just wanted to focus on myself."
The 26-year-old Kedzie lived with Jackson and his family for six months, walking around the house to find things she could organize for her coach. As UFC-caliber fighters began migrating to his gym and booking fights all over the world, Jackson hired Kedzie as his assistant. Kedzie absorbed tasks like scheduling and travel arrangements, and also helped Jackson with heftier projects, like writing magazine articles about his work with fighters.
In the gym, Kedzie quickly earned the respect of her male peers through her dogged work ethic. She was the first professional female fighter to join the Jackson/Winkeljohn squad, and as she opened up to the team, Jackson observed the lighter side of Kedzie's personality surfacing.
"I always say she's the Lucille Ball of MMA," said Jackson. "She's very smart, but things happen to Julie that don't happen to other people. She'll always dropping her phone or accidentally running her car into a garage. Just stuff like that."
Kedzie believes she was at the tail end of her initial fight with bulimia when she joined Jackson's camp, but she made her coach aware of her continuing struggles with the eating disorder.
"It's a legitimate illness that can cause a lot of damage, so I just tried to attack it as head-on I could," said Jackson. "I'm not a trained psychologist, but I tried to support her as much as I could. I tried to create a positive atmosphere that supported her not doing that any more, but ultimately the change had to come from her."
Kedzie's move to New Mexico was a saving grace. Living in Albuquerque, surrounded by teammates who called her "bro," made Kedzie genuinely happy for the first time in a while. If she became anxious, she could retreat to the mountains and take in the fresh air. If she woke up feeling a little down, she need only go to the gym. It wouldn't have been that way back in Indiana.
Kedzie eventually brought her father, a professional samurai sword refurbisher, out to Albuquerque to meet Jackson, hoping her intellectually minded coach could help bridge the gap between traditionalist father and modern-warrior daughter.
"I think he wanted to meet me because we share that commonality of martial arts. We spoke the same language. It was more about that, I think," said Jackson. "We mostly talked about swords."
Kedzie's bout against Tate on Saturday is a pivotal one as the challengers clamor for a pecking order to get a crack at Strikeforce bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. In her first title defense, Rousey faces former champion Sarah Kaufman in the main event. An inspired performance from Kedzie -- something she's capable of given her five-year tenure under Jackson and Winkeljohn -- could shoot her to the top of the contender's list.
Kedzie reckons she has five years of fighting left in her before other opportunities, like a starting a family (preferably with an English professor who writes like Hemingway) or opening a Jackson-affiliated gym, become her focus. In addition, Kedzie has garnered new fanfare as a commentator for Invicta Fighting Championships, an all-women's promotion launched in April just in time to capitalize on what might shape up to be a women's MMA gold rush in 2013. Kedzie's sparkling personality makes her a natural in the role.
The timing couldn't be better for Kedzie's life to come together as positively as it has in the last few years. Now it's time for her to get to work in the cage and see what she can put together.