The Yin Yang is a symbol long associated with different forms of Chinese martial arts. It’s used to denote opposing forces such as light and dark while showing how everything has yin/yang aspects — such as how a shadow cannot exist without light. In the Yin Yang, there is darkness in the light and vice versa. Neither is 100 percent one or the other, and the symbol demonstrates that.
In MMA, we have seen many examples of yin/yang battles — or, in other words, striker vs. grappler. Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen comes to mind. Fedor Emelianenko vs. Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic may have been one of the most anticipated fights of the Pride organization and, of course, Royce Gracie vs. Art Jimmerson at UFC 1 set the stage for MMA as it is now.
This weekend will feature yet another of these clashes of yin and yang. Of course, in the new breed of MMA fighter, like the Yin Yang, there are rarely exclusively strikers and exclusively grapplers. Resurrection Fighting Alliance’s 24th event will be feature a modern-day version of the old striker vs. grappler match, though, when Kali Robbins and Corrie Ward make their pro debuts.
Interestingly enough, the two fighters’ lives outside the cage are similar to the Yin Yang. Ward grew up in Arizona playing sports throughout her childhood. When she and her twin sister were 10 years old, they started playing softball.
“I really enjoyed it and got really good,” Ward told Combat Press. “I played through high school and we won the state championships. But after that, I was done. I got offered scholarships to play, but I just couldn’t do it. So I went to [junior college] after taking a whole summer off. It was heaven. I lasted a season, but then the team needed a pitcher. So, I played. But that just cemented it; I knew I was really done. But I knew I wanted to keep in shape, but I just am not the type to go lift weights at LA Fitness.
“I ended up going into Boxing Inc. to take cardio boxing and kickboxing. They asked me if I wanted to spar, and I didn’t really want to. But I was friends with another girl who did and then I fell in love with it. Then, they asked me if I wanted to train MMA and I said, ‘No! My mom would freak out!’ But he kept asking and so, six months after starting, I got my first fight and I won via TKO. And from that point on, I was hooked. I couldn’t get enough.”
Meanwhile, back in Wisconsin, Robbins grew up without playing any organized team sports. She ran with her father in high school, but never got into competition. Robbins went with a guy she dated to an MMA gym to take a pad class for kickboxing.
“While I was there, I saw some people rolling around on the floor in some funny clothes,” Robbins told Combat Press. “I thought that it looked exhausting. I got a gi with no idea what to expect, no idea what jiu-jitsu is, but I thought, what the hell. I bought a uniform and I am not going to be a punk. I love the mat — striking is fun, but I just really loved the competition of [jiu-jitsu] and I earned my purple belt right before my first fight.”
Both fighters have three amateur contests under their belts and both come to RFA with a lot of hype. They both had trouble getting enough amateur fights to round out their experience, as both fighters experienced the “joy” of canceled bouts.
Robbins was able to go 3-0 with a submission in the first fight and two decisions.
“In my first fight, I was hoping for a sub in the first round because I wanted to show off what I could do,” Robbins admitted. “Before the fight, though, I freaked out. I didn’t know if I could do it. I’d competed in jiu-jitsu, but not much else. There was a lot of pressure. Everyone from the gym was there and I was thinking, ‘You work at the academy. You better do a good job.’ I was looking at the lights thinking, ‘Holy shit, this is happening,’ and then I was able to get the armbar in 1:11 of the first round. Everyone was crying — my parents, my best friend, folks from the gym.”
Ward has had a rougher road, going 1-2. She was able to score the TKO in her first fight, but her training camp for the second fight just wasn’t what it should have been. She took her third amateur fight on 10 days’ notice and at 135 pounds.
“I had to gain weight to take the fight. And when we stepped in the cage, she was huge!” Ward recalled the learning experience. “It might have been a mistake to take the fight, looking back, but it had been kind of hard to find fights. My coach told me, ‘I believe you can beat anyone,’ and that is why he had me take the fight.”
The two fighters may have different records and styles, but they both come into this bout with a lot of hype and a lot of expectations. Robbins trains at Roufusport with some of the best coaches and training partners in the business. Ward has gone old school — one fighter, one coach — with Chad Dietmeyer.
Another startling difference lies in their fight nicknames. Ward’s moniker plays off her last name and the fact that when she is going all out she looks a bit mental. Her coach therefore dubbed her “Psych Ward.”
“I think it’s kind of funny, and coach was saying, ‘You like to hit girls. You have a problem,’ so I think it kind of fit,” said Ward.
Robbins has the anti-fight name of “Pop-Tart” for the simple reason that she loves the sweet toaster pastries. A lot.
“I have like seven boxes on my desk at any given time,” Robbins laughed. When asked if there were any flavors she didn’t like she replied, “Are there any bad flavors?”
Despite the obvious food reference, the nickname seems to work on another level to describe her fight mentality, too.
“I am an explosive fighter, tough and strong,” Robbins said. “You might knock me down, but I will pop right back up.
“My mom named me Kali, but she had no idea what it meant in Indian culture. She had friends with a dog named Kali and so… I am named after a dog. I found out in high school what it meant, but I have never worn a necklace of skulls or tried to destroy men’s lives.”
When Ward was going to school and playing softball, she had the full support of her parents and her sister. But now that she has decided to focus on MMA, she has learned to be more independent.
“My sister is the only one in my family that really supports me, but she still lives under my parents’ roof so it’s hard for her,” Ward explained. “When I was younger, I was either in school or church or on the field. But that was to make mom happy. I still go to church on Saturday — that is important — but I am tending bar three nights a week and she doesn’t like that, but she really doesn’t like me training MMA. She doesn’t like that I train with guys. She doesn’t like the violence. So, I am on my own. I can’t even bring it up around her. She hates it.
“My dad isn’t as bad, but they don’t come to fights. My sister thinks it’s awesome, but, like I said, she can’t do as much as she wants. I feel like I am in a major transition. My parents kicked me out, friends I grew up with are going separate ways, and school is on hold. But I have made some great friends and have excellent moral support. One of my friends gave me advice: ‘School and that life will always be there; you can always go back.’
“When I was a freshman playing high school softball, we had a coach. He came to my last fight and surprised me. It meant so much. He taught us that we have so much more to offer than we know. He drilled into us that we could do whatever we want if we had the drive and the motivation. He was hard on us, really hard, so much so that he got fired for it. But he really wanted us to get to our potential, and I really admired him and am thankful for what he taught me.”
Robbins is no slouch either. After she graduated with her marketing degree, she became the operations and marketing manager at Roufusport. She is responsible for many of the day-to-day duties in addition to helping build the business.
“It’s perfect for me because if I had to be somewhere else with a full-time job I wouldn’t be able to move into professional MMA,” said Robbins. “I could do jiu-jitsu as a hobby, but to go into MMA one really needs to be focused and dedicated to it. Duke [Roufus] asked me if I wanted to compete and my answer at first was no.”
“At the time, there weren’t a lot of opponents [and] women’s MMA hadn’t exploded yet. But one day he asked me, ‘What are you doing this weekend? You want to fight?’ My heart exploded and I said yes. The girl had been training here, but then she moved back home. She wrestled all her life, had striking, but the light bulb went off in my head.
“And I am really glad my other two fights went to decision. The time spent in the cage is priceless. I know I can [go] three rounds if need be. The second girl I fought was tough. I had her in all kinds of submissions and, come to find out after the fight, she was double-jointed. But I learned that even though you think you might have an armbar secured and she should be tapping but isn’t… well, maybe you let that sub go and find something else. I also got my first double-leg takedown in that fight. Coach asked me if I could wrestle and I replied, ‘I guess so.’”
The two athletes even look different, but it’s clear that they both have a strong passion for the sport.
“I love to compete,” said Ward. “I love to challenge myself and always have. Someone can hit you hard, but there you are, still standing. You start to wonder how much you can take [and] how far you can push your limits.
“Why fight, though? There is a girl training hard to beat you up and literally hurt you. There is that fear. But at the same time she has that same fear. It’s who can control their fears better that wins. It’s not a bad feeling to get punched in the face. Sure, it hurts, but I look down and I am still standing. It’s the adrenaline rush and it’s the challenge.”
Robbins continued with that theme, “I was different in high school. I didn’t quite fit in. I didn’t play any team sports and, don’t get me wrong, I truly respect those who have trained in martial arts all their lives. I love the dedication. But I really think it’s cool. It’s like the American Dream to make something out of nothing. Here I am, non-athletic and making a pro debut in the toughest sport in the world, in my opinion.
“I have been able to recreate myself through MMA. And it’s an honor to be a part of history. We have Invicta FC [and] two weight classes in the UFC. It’s an incredible time to be a female fighter. It’s the first time we have a say, and it’s awesome to be a part of it.”
Styles make fights and, as we learned earlier, some of the most exciting fights in the beginning of MMA were the classic grappler vs striker bouts. This fight has the potential to be “Fight of the Night.”
“Duke and Jeremy [Bjornberg, of Sterling Entertainment Group] had a hard time finding opponents for me,” Robbins said, going on to explain how she came to be making her pro debut in the RFA cage. “People will sign up for a bigger promotion. So, yeah, I feel like I am leapfrogging. It wasn’t the plan to make my debut with RFA, but it’s happening.
“It’s my first time fighting out of Milwaukee. It’s my first time traveling for a fight. Possibly televised [on AXS TV], but I am better under pressure. Back in school, I would wait till the last minute and have six hours to write a 20-page paper — no problem, it would be better that way. And this is no different.
“It’s a great match-up. We have the same amount of experience, coming into this 0-0 together. A couple of opponents my coaches were considering had like 17 fights or something. This is perfect. We both get a shot to make a name, evenly matched. I don’t obsess over opponents and what they are going to do. I ask my coaches and teammates to direct me. I will watch film one time, but rely on them to prepare me and my game plan.
“I trust what I do, and I can’t really say what she is going to do. [I] can’t control that. I know I am going to do my thing and she is going to do hers. I know that no matter the outcome, I will learn from it.”
Ward’s analysis on the upcoming bout was quite similar.
“My coach knows someone who knows pretty much everyone,” Ward said. “We were offered the fight after looking for one for quite a while, and we took it. All we really knew was that she was a grappler. There isn’t a lot of film on her, but we knew her training camp must be intense.
“My camp has been the most intense ever. It’s been hard to find a fight. And now that I have it, I want to make it count. I walk around at 128 [pounds], but I would rather fight at 115. So, coffee will get me through the cut.
“This is the striker vs. grappler bout. I am not sure how good her striking is going to be, but she is at Roufusport, so we know she has skills. I would rather fight a technical fighter than someone who is just going to lunge at me. I know she had better be good at grappling to take me down. If it does go the ground, I can get out of submission and will look to stand back up and get to work. Nobody wants to see people lay around on the floor.”
Barring an epic back-and-forth battle like the legendary bout from Invicta FC 1 between Leslie Smith and Kaitlyn Young that ended in a draw, one lady will have her hand raised. But it’s clear that both ladies will win that night — but not as much as the fans.