Ex-cheerleader Rachel Wray looking for respect in MMA, not attention
Rachel Wray's hook is irresistible. Frankly, it's a media outlet's dream. Gorgeous, blonde-haired, blue-eyed NFL cheerleader ditches her pom poms for punching pads and becomes a cagefighter. It's a novel story that's already attracted The Today Show, men's magazines, reality TV and film producers, including one who wanted to snag the aspiring 24-year-old fighter for a role in the upcoming Bloodsport remake.
Wray (2-1) was scheduled to face Bobby Bedard (3-2) Saturday in Little Rock, Ark., but pulled out of the bout over a weight issue. It would have been Wray's fourth amateur fight. Yes, you read that right. Her fourth amateur fight. Most professional fighters don't receive the attention Wray has already gotten, but in this case, more press isn't necessarily a good thing. For Wray, being a media magnet so early on in her career has been a double-edged sword.
"She's getting superstar press, but she's just started in MMA," said Wray's coach and manager, Kaleb Plank. "I get promoters every week wanting to fly her in, but they want her to fight more experienced fighters. The women at her level, who she should be fighting -- half the time they don't want to fight her because of all the press."
Some overzealous (and under-informed) media have even inquired about the petite 5-foot-5 Wray facing UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey -- a fight neither Wray nor her coach said she's even remotely prepared for. The two women aren't even in the same weight class (Wray fights between 115 and 125 pounds), but female fighters tend to be clumped together like this by those peaking in from the outside.
With a couple of early stumbles, the sweet-natured Wray has become much more aware and selective about her media choices and the way she's already been presented to and perceived by the public.
"I want to be viewed as an athlete, not as a ring girl," said Wray, a lifelong dancer. "I don't want the media concentrating solely on my looks. This sport is real. There are plenty of pretty women in this sport, but once you get past that, there has to be something else there."
Those willing to look past the bright red lipstick, the skimpy glittered outfits and the perky pageantry that came with being a Kansas City Chiefs cheerleader, might see Wray as she wants to be seen -- as an aspiring athlete trying to make her way in a demanding sport that she has a great passion for.
The whys of Wray's decision to pursue MMA are simple enough. During her 2011-12 season with the Chiefs, she and her teammates were all given free memberships to a local boxing gym and Wray discovered an affinity for the sweet science.
"When she started boxing, just sparring, I was scared to death," said Wray, "but over time I became more comfortable with it. Then I spotted an MMA gym next door. I wasn't afraid of the blood or anything. I just kind of walked right in."
HD MMA, owned and operated by UFC and WEC veterans Jason High and L.C. Davis, was the real deal -- a serious gym for serious fighters. There were no other women training there; if Wray wanted to do this she'd have to dive in with the men. If she wanted to learn Brazilian jiu-jitsu, one of the mandatory building blocks of MMA, she'd have to get on the mat, rolling in close quarters with sweaty training partners. Wray surprised many by doing just that.
"It's the one thing I've ever done where I'm totally engaged," said Wray. "The whole world stops spinning and I can focus on the person in front of me. I feel like nothing can happen to me when I'm on the mat."
No one will say, including Wray herself, that she had a natural aptitude for MMA. But she was dedicated and determined to get better, and in the early stages of training, that is enough. On game day, she'd hide her bumps, bruises and mat burn with makeup, then return to the gym for more punishment.
"Out of all the fighters I had at that time, she was the most consistent," said High. "I was kicking her out of the gym."
When Wray's season with the Chiefs came to a close that January, she emailed her coach to tell her she wouldn't be returning to the squad. However, the real moment of truth came over lunch at a Red Lobster with her mother. Rachel was going to take her first fight.
"She knew I'd been training for it," said Wray. "I was so excited, but she was not. She asked me if I was sure. She told me that I didn't have to prove anything."
In that moment, a kaleidoscope of images must have passed through Linda Wray's head. Her oldest daughter had been a gymnast since 5, then a competitive dancer fluttering from recital to recital. Rachel had been junior captain of the Razorbacks Pom Squad at the University of Arkansas, where she'd studied political science and even done a summer internship in Washington, D.C. NFL cheerleading fit right into that trajectory. Cagefighting did not.
"She was a perfectly well-behaved child and got good grades in school," said Linda, who works in the corporate setting. "She never showed any signs of aggression or wanting to hit people or anything like that. She was the most traditional little girl growing up. When she was little, she loved to wear dresses. They had to spin. When she twirled around, she wanted them to spin."
But neither Wray's mother nor father, a retired UPS manager, could sway their daughter. After some time and thought, they really didn't want to.
"When Rachel finds something she likes, she tends to want to do it to the best of her ability and then some," said Linda. "She's been goal-orientated all her life. You kind of have to let go and have faith that God will take care of things."
Nine months later, Wray made her amateur debut at an Ultimate Blue Corner Battle show in Kansas City, Mo. She won by a second-round technical knockout and walked out of the cage mostly unscathed. Because of Wray's cheerleading past, the bout was posted online and scrutinized. Wray fought next in January, winning again by a second-round TKO.
By then, Wray had moved back home to Arkansas to be closer to her family. She took a day job in human resources and made inquiries about joining the fight team at Inferno MMA in Bentonville. The attention Wray had already drawn preceded her and Inferno owner Blank had some reservations about taking her on.
"I didn't know if this was the situation of 'little blonde cheerleader' wanting to play MMA because she's getting the press and attention," said Blank. "I didn't want someone out on the floor that wasn't there for the right reasons. That would be a bad training partner for the rest of the team."
Blank laid down a couple of ground rules. If she were to join Inferno, the pin-up photo shoots and other over-sexualized media would have to stop.
"Getting her respect as an athlete was my first priority," he said. "We needed to get people to see her as a competitor and [evaluate her] as a fighter. If not, she would have been pushed against higher-level competition before she was ready. I honestly believe that if I hadn't gotten involved with her, she would be pro right now, fighting for a higher-level organization and it wouldn't have gone well for her."
Despite Wray already having had two fights, Blank wouldn't allow her to train with the 15-man fight team immediately. He told her she'd have to earn her spot like the rest had.
"It was tougher for her than anybody else," said Blank. "Her teammates were standoffish. They didn't know if she was serious. Her talent level wasn't where they'd be forced to respected her. She had some skills, but I could tell she'd gotten some special treatment with her training and competition. People were easy on her. She had a false sense of security and there was a disparity between where she thought her skill level was and where it actually was."
As if on cue, Wray went out for her third amateur fight in March and lost a unanimous decision. She took a beating in the process and her face was bloodied, bruised and her eyes swollen nearly shut afterward.
"I hated it. I hated it," said Wray's mother, Linda. "You don't want to see your kid looking hurt, and that's just the honest truth. She didn't seem to mind too much. Those were her battle scars. I asked her if she could see? If she needed to go to a doctor? Typical mom stuff. She laughed it off and that made it a little easier."
In fact, Wray seemed even more determined to continue on.
"I felt my coaches were most proud of me for this fight than the others," said Wray. "After this fight, I couldn't wait to get back in there. I feel so much more confident now. Once you go through three rounds of back-and-forth -- taking and delivering punches, the blood, people yelling -- you can pretty much do anything after that."
Over the last five months, Blank has been encouraged by Wray's slow, but steady growth. He said Wray is coachable, focused and dedicated to her craft.
"She'll go out there and take the beatings," he said. "She lifts every day. She runs six miles every morning. She comes to practice. She goes with heavy guys twice her size. This is where a fighter either breaks or keeps moving forward. She has the kind of character where she wants to keep moving forward."
Blank and Wray also continue to wade the waters infested with would-be sponsors and promoters looking to sell more tickets or make an extra dime off Wray's looks and story.
"When places like 'Babes of the Week' want to sponsor her, you have to draw the line. When you're a low-level athlete in this sport, like an amateur, you don't want to get labeled as the eye candy because you won't get respected as an athlete," said Blank. "She didn't choose to be famous, but we can choose to make the right directions that will build her career the right way."
While Wray's mother admires her daughter's determination, she's unsure if she will attend Rachel's future bouts after the last one.
"It's really not the place for a parent to be," said Linda. "I don't know that I'll continue to go to any other fights and she understands that it's not that I don't support and love her. It's just so hard to watch."
Wray said she plans to accumulate at least eight or nine amateur bouts before she attempts to go pro -- a very prudent move given the level of women's MMA talent that's emerged in the last few years. All-women's promotions like Invicta Fighting Championships and the UFC's recently added women's division have given female fighters a legitimate, though still very tiny, window for financial success.
Wray's model looks will be both a help and a hindrance to her career. Finding a balance will be one of her personal challenges as a fighter, and she'll still have to put in the work like everyone else. A pretty face doesn't take a punch any easier. Blank, for one, respects Wray for giving it a shot.
"Here's somebody that's going into a new industry, leaving everything they've known for the last 20 years to do something completely different where she's probably going to be looked down upon," said Blank. "There's something to be said for that."