There used to be a commercial that played on heavy rotation. It was for the military — Army Airborne or something — and it said, “We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do in a day.” Well, there are some young people who accomplish more before the age of 25 than most people do in their entire lifetimes. Lauren Bensinger is one of those young people.
It’s kids like this that give old curmudgeons (like this writer) hope in the future. Millenials are out there doing things, living their dreams, and kicking butt. Bensinger is here to prove it.
If we really delved into her accomplishments in sports, as well as the martial arts, we might be here all day. But let’s just gloss over some of the lesser-relevant-to-MMA details, shall we?
Bensinger played all sports growing up, with soccer and tennis being the main competitive non-martial-arts sports. She was a forward when playing footie. She could’ve had a pro career in tennis.
She started off in karate and won three state championships consecutively, at ages 15, 16 and 17. She retired from karate at the ripe old age of 17 and picked up taekwondo. Karate competitions are one round of two minutes of action. Taekwondo, at the Olympic level, is three rounds of two minutes each. She was hooked on the challenge and wanted to see how far she could go in her new sport.
So, Bensinger gave up soccer and tennis to get into the competitive taekwondo world. She really wanted to focus. And focus? Yep, she had it. At age 17, in her first year, she became the AAU National champ at 135 pounds. At age 19, she repeated the championship. She and her parents decided it was time to step it up a notch or two.
Bensinger started competing at the world level, which is like being a pro. She was part of the USAT (short for USA Taekwondo) and took second place at the Nationals after losing the first-place match in overtime. She was the 2015 National Collegiate champ. And she did all of this while going to school and opening her own martial-arts gym.
She wasn’t done. Bensinger flew out to the World University games and lived in the athlete village with Olympians. She was competing against and training with Olympic-level athletes before she was even 21. Bensinger won her first fight. Her next bout was against a Finnish fighter who was ranked No. 6 in the world — Bensinger wasn’t even in the top 50 — but she only lost by two points.
The Finnish fighter had a two-inch reach advantage over Bensinger, but Bensinger held her own until her cardio gave out. The Finn went on to compete in the Olympics. Meanwhile, Bensinger learned a huge lesson that has stuck with her throughout all of her competitions: cardio is king.
It was a hectic schedule. Mexico in February. Germany in March. Texas in April. Virginia in May. Austria in June. Korea in July. All this traveling while going to school full-time. Bensinger was cutting weight each time, too, from around 155 pounds down to 135. It’s exhausting just thinking about it.
In 2016, Bensinger decided to take a break from competing in taekwondo and decided to take up wrestling, just for fun. She was training with Mahmoud Gomaa at American Top Team. Wrestling quickly became a source of joy and challenge for her. Gomaa saw Bensinger’s kick and was impressed. A little while later, Bensinger spoke with head coach Rafael Garcia.
“I told him I wanted to take a fight, not knowing what I was getting into,” Bensinger said with a laugh in an interview with Combat Press. “I had no idea. MMA hadn’t even been on my radar until Ronda Rousey came on the scene. When she skipped the line to fight Miesha Tate for the Strikeforce championship, I took notice. TKD and MMA just don’t compare.”
In May 2016, Bensinger had her first amateur MMA fight. It took place as part of the World Class Fight League’s 15th show. Bensinger fought Miranda Kay Barber, who was 0-1 at the time.
“I was strong,” Bensinger said. “I was able to muscle her against the cage and I had great movement from TKD and wrestling, but I knew zero jiu-jitsu. She got me in an armbar and I didn’t even know to tap. The ref had to stop the fight, and I am so glad he did, because I would have let her break my arm. My career could’ve been over before it started.
“I was mad, honestly. I didn’t understand the sport and how it’s so incredibly multi-faceted. You really have to be fully equipped in each of the main disciplines to be able to succeed, and it helps to be an expert in more than two. I began studying each more fully — Muay Thai, wrestling, jiu-jitsu — and I was a much better fighter for my second fight.”
That second outing came a little under five months later at WCFL 16, where Bensinger took on Angel Kiehl, a 2-3 fighter, in a lightweight contest.
“She had years of experience on me, when I had months,” said Bensinger. “Everyone said she should’ve put me away, but she didn’t. I lost by decision, but I held my own. I lost, but I was a winner in my eyes. That was my last fight in 2016 and that was my last loss.”
Bensinger, now 24 years old, has gone on to make three appearances in 2017. She scored decision victories in all three outings.
“I fought three times in 2017 and I’ve gone undefeated,” said Bensinger. “In 2016, I had six months of training and two losses. In 2017, I kept training, so I now have 18 months of MMA training and three wins and two losses.
“The difference for me is the focus. I have dedicated myself to the sport and to learning as much as I can from the best coaches, Mahmoud and Ralph [Garcia]. And I changed my life. I used to party like every other night, even during fight camp. I made a lifestyle change, quit that partying, started a business, and am finding success in every corner. It’s addicting.”
Bensinger’s first victory came against Jade Gonzalez at American Combat League 3. Then, she returned to the WCFL for the promotion’s 18th event, where she decisioned Sarah Brewster.
“My best fight, so far, was against Sarah Brewster,” Bensinger said. “As a kickboxer, she was 22-1, and she was undefeated in MMA. I was 1-2 in MMA and still getting used to the sport. I took the fight, and I had never trained harder in anything. It was a 10-week camp, and I feel like I really levelled up. It changed my mindset and really made me want to work hard to become the best fighter of all time. After that fight, though, I took six weeks off. Never again. That haunted me the whole time.”
Bensinger’s most recent victory avenged her debut loss against the aforementioned Barber. Better yet, gold was on the line at the WCFL 19 bout.
“I was having trouble finding a fight at 145, so I turned into a stalker, sending messages to girls asking for a fight,” said Bensinger. “I asked Miranda about this last fight — it was for the 155 title for WCFL. She messaged back, ‘Not sure.’ But then the next day she messaged me and said, ‘Coach says we should do it.’
“I really wanted a belt, and Ralph put it on the line. We knew it wouldn’t be easy. Miranda is tough and she is a brawler. But the thing is, I train with legit killers all the time, and most of them are guys. Charlie Clark, Blake Smith, Lewis Jones and Martin Brown are all fighters I train with on the regular, so no girl is going to intimidate me. Sarah Klezcka, Choli Nordelo and Chi Sheibley are some of the girls I spar with on the regular. I felt prepared to face Miranda again.”
Bensinger’s work paid off. She topped Barber on the scorecards and walked away with the title.
“To be the best, you have to train with the best, and that is what American Top Team is all about,” said Bensinger. “I had better ground control, good transitions, and good jiu-jitsu. She tried to take my arm again, but I was ready to counter. I had three solid takedowns in that fight and I came away with the win.
“But even though it was nice to avenge a loss, it wasn’t personal. I have respect for her. After our first fight, after she beat me in a minute-thirty in the first round, she leaned over and told me to keep training. And I took that to heart. After my win, we hugged for like two minutes and I told her, ‘Girl, we are going to go to the top, just like you told me when I lost, don’t stop.’
“That’s the thing with female fighters. We can go in the cage and try to kill each other and then the next minute hug it out. I have nothing but love for my opponents. I mean, we are all competitive and we are all alpha females and want to be the best bitch, but at the end of the day we respect the hard work and we know what we have to go through just to get in the cage. Girl fights are always more exciting, and I think it’s because we do respect each other outside of the cage and know that it’s all business inside.”
This is just the beginning for Bensinger. Next on her list is the WCFL women’s tourney. In February 2018, the WCFL will host the very first all-female MMA card ever to be held in Tampa, Fla. Eight women in two weight classes — 115 and 135 pounds — will compete for a spot on Invicta FC’s coveted roster.
Just last month, Bensiger was announced as one of the 135-pound combatants. She faces Lessandra Franklin (3-0) of Springfield, Mo. They join Tenika Waldroup (5-1), Kelig Pinson (3-1), Chelsea McCoy (6-4), Selena Lorigo (2-2), Melissa Stringer (3-3) and Curry Galazka (3-2) in the bantamweight tournament.
“I am preparing for this tournament with laser focus,” said Bensinger. “I am working with Ralph, and he gives me beatings on the regular. I had been training wrestling three times a week, but I took that down to two and have bumped up my boxing and kickboxing. I am boxing four times a week now and it’s really working.
“Because of karate and TKD, I have always had great kicks and side kicks. But boxing really opens up the takedowns and the kicks. My hands are sharper, and so, now, sure you can move forward to get out of range of my kicks, but then you’ll be in range of my hands and my takedowns. No matter where she moves, I will be ready.
“I want to be well rounded in every aspect of the game. And I want to be known for my love for God and his word. The fight journey, for me, is also a spiritual journey. I want to get bigger and bigger, and as I do, to always remember what got me there. My purpose isn’t to become the best fighter just to be the best, but to reach as many people with God’s message of love. He is in my corner and he wants me to speak his word to as many people as possible.
“I know I am going to get into the UFC. It’s just a matter of working hard to make it so and God’s will. And I know that February is going to be my fight. It’s just going to be that way, but I have to do my part so it can be.”
If you weren’t sitting across from her to see her face and body language, you might consider these last words cocky. But it’s not a brash entitlement. It’s a statement of belief and conviction. Bensinger is a woman on a mission. She’s a young, hungry, accomplished ball of fire. You better keep an eye on her. She will do what she says.