In sports today, the home-field advantage is always a desired outcome. It’s a superstition to some and a defining moment for others. It gives the team the mental edge needed to defend their turf and use that energy to come out victorious. In MMA, it’s an easier way for fans to watch their favorite fighters instead of having to travel the country or world. It’s a way for those same fans to help support local fighters and for those same fighters in turn to help support their local people.
Vail, Colo., is home to the massive Vail Ski Resort. It’s a small town at the base of Vail Mountain and an ideal location for summer and winter sports, as well as fly fishing. In May 2018, Vail decided to break new ground and try its hand at hosting an MMA event. Legacy Fighting Alliance came to town with a card that featured local talent Carmen “The Charm” Sage.
“It was shocking to me, just Vail as a community to even invite [MMA] in the first place,” Sage told Combat Press. “Last year, it was their first year hosting MMA, and Vail itself is pretty conservative, and growing up born and raised there, I just would have never expected that to happen. But the power of manifestation is real, I think. Just talking with my community and them watching me win tournament after tournament in jiu-jitsu and then eventually really going for it and moving down to Denver and deciding to frickin’ go for this crazy dream, they’ve kinda been all about it.
“They are always looking for things for the locals to do in offseason, which is after the mountain closes. Everyone either goes on vacation, because there’s no tourists to cater to, or they stay around and there’s not much to do. So, I think when they asked LFA to come to Vail, they’re like, ‘Why not? Let’s just do it.’ I think they almost promoted it as far as, like, money-wise. They put money into it to get them to come to Vail, and now it just took off.
“The arena it’s being held at is actually called Dobson Arena for a reason, because it is an ice-skating arena. It’s funny how everything comes full circle, because as a little girl, as a figure skater, I would do my recitals there and, growing up, I would watch my boyfriends in high school play their hockey-skating games there, and I would even perform at half-time as a dance team member on the ice. And now I’m really making my dream there, and the community is backing me 100 percent. I honestly can’t even believe it.”
Sage’s outlook has helped carry her to an undefeated amateur record of 3-0. Now, she’s set to take on Tayler Sprowl at LFA 65. Sprowl’s last fight was nearly 20 months ago.
“I don’t really believe in ring rust, honestly,” said Sage. “I’m not sure if that’s a real thing or not. If it is, I’m gonna be happy if it does play in my favor. I believe in the philosophy that anyone can beat anyone on any given day, and I truly live by that, because that’s kinda why I love this sport. You never know who’s gonna win — you really don’t — and anything can change at the drop of a hat. But coming into the fight, I think it definitely aids to my advantage.”
Fighters often talk about how MMA has come full circle for them. They’ll point out how it all ties back to a prior sports activity, usually boxing or wrestling. As a female fighter growing up in a small town, Sage’s path was quite different than those of her peers in the sport.
“I’ve always really been that girly-girl, and I’ve been a dancer for, I wanna say, 13 years,” Sage said. “I was on varsity dance team, and I was captain [during] junior year. I was a figure skater. I would ski-race a lot, and I actually did gymnastics with Lindsey Vonn. Just really, really girly sports. But I always thought how cool would it be to be a freaking badass. You see movies and action-sports movies, and it was really inspirational to me.
“What really led it off was — I know you probably hear this a lot from fighters, but — the anime series, one series in particular, Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I know affected ‘Stylebender’ [Israel Adesanya]’s life a lot, too. It affected my life on a whole new level. It affected my imagination and my morals and my turn towards the martial arts. But [fighting] was always in the back of my mind. It’s not like it was ever offered to a girl like me growing up as a classic sport. You’d be like, so you can do soccer [or] you could do volleyball. So wrestling wasn’t even an option.
“I went to Colorado Mesa University for nursing, and I got in the program, and I worked so hard. I worked my little ass off and then I got rejected, because of vaccinations — because I don’t have all the vaccinations, [because] they give me seizures. So, I had to move back to Vail kinda distraught, because I thought I was going to do this thing and it fell through and I wasted all my college money on it. But it turned out to be the biggest blessing of my life, because it introduced me to martial arts.
“I was working pretty hard at a coffee shop, as well as a really nice upscale restaurant, coat checking, and one night I was going to grab some gloves, and I was out with some friends — and I was about 20, 21 — and I got mugged basically in the parking garage. And a couple people came to my rescue, and I thought this really could have turned out a lot worse than it did and I would love to learn some self-defense. And then I discovered that one of my regulars was a purple belt at the time at a local jiu-jitsu gym just maybe on the other side of the valley, and he was like, ‘You gotta meet this guy. He’s starting his own gym.’
“So, I go to the gym and I meet Hayward ‘The Hybrid’ Charles, who owns the gym Hybrid Nation MMA in Avon, and it really was love at first sight. I mean, I saw him come around the corner and we just hit it off so well. Then, I was there for his very first jiu-jitsu class, and I was hooked after that.
“I love the chess match between two people and their bodies and how it can become a dance, and the more you know, like choreography, the better you are. So, my flexibility definitely played a role, and he had me do my first tournament just a few short couple months later, and I won that. And that was kind of unheard of, to win your first tournament. And then I went on and won, like, five more. I just got gold after gold after gold, and I ended up seeing people — you know, at each tournament you see the same kind of faces — and one of them was Ian Heinisch. He was the one who really led me to Factory X and Denver.
“Just being able to watch [Factory X] grow from the short time I’ve even been there is a blessing, because it makes me more grateful to have it. To see where it’s come from in just this short amount of time and where it is on the track to going.”
Friday will mark just one day shy of one year as an amateur mixed martial artist for Sage. Most people don’t understand the sacrifices that come with committing to a competitive sport, whether it be wrestling, weight training, or MMA.
“There are so many emotions, but the number one being that it comes with a lifestyle, and I really had to learn to accept that,” Sage explained. “Fighting is a lifestyle. You think about it all day, every day, and it shapes you into the person you are in your personality, in how you interact with other people and the world, and how you think of the world. It’s honestly easy to get caught up in just yourself, because it is a selfish sport. But at the same time, it’s a giving sport as well, because you’re also teaching as much as you’re learning. To be an MMA fighter, you almost want to brag. You almost wanna be like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m an MMA fighter,’ but at the same time, I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut, because people rave about it — and you can tell it’s a sport that’s growing for that reason. It’s really intriguing. It’s like modern-day gladiator shit.”
With fighting and dedication comes a commitment to a weight class. It’s not rare to see women competing up to lightweight, but a majority of the MMA organizations today have a strong focus on bantamweight and below. This is mostly driven by the efforts of Ronda Rousey. Sage has competed primarily at featherweight, but she recently decided to make the drop.
“Honestly, if there was a 140-[pound] weight class, sign me up,” Sage said with a chuckle. “Until there is, I really believe that my home is at 135, and that’s what this fight is about. It’s what your amateur career is really about. It’s finding what works for you. How does your body react to your diet? To stress — oh my god, I was not losing weight for like two weeks, because I was so stressed out, and as soon as I just relaxed, had a great night’s sleep, and just accepted everything as it was and that everything is perfect, there’s not an atom that is out of place in this universe, just really zen the fuck out, then I dropped a lot of weight.
“I’m feeling like this is my weight class, because I’m faster and I’m more reactive and I mean I look great as fuck naked — that’s really why people work out right? It’s just very rewarding, because your body is your vessel and I, growing up as a female in Vail — especially in Vail, where everyone’s first car was an Audi, the newest Audi, [and] just like anything at the touch of their fingertips — I wasn’t that perfect skinny girl. I always had a little extra weight, and that was just due to [lack of] education of nutrition, really, which is what has impacted our nation as a whole. But to grow up and see my body transform and be like, ‘No! Strong is beautiful,’ — and that’s now marketed, but it’s true — you feel way more capable in your confidence. You get less picked on [as opposed to] if you’re little, because you don’t display those vulnerable characteristics, and just walking around, people won’t fuck with you. You’re less likely to even get mugged. I am in control of my life, and just to see my muscles and how my body reacts to all the nutrition, it’s really cool. And I’ve learned just so much about it in just this past year.”
Is the jump to the professional level for Sage coming sooner rather than later? It’s a decision that usually comes with a fighter feeling ready to take a step up in competition and challenge themselves. Sometimes, the decision isn’t entirely one for the fighter to make.
“I always just stick to the policy of trusting my coaches, because, ultimately, they see my day in and day out and they know the game,” said Sage. “They’ve been in the game way longer than I have, especially Marc [Montoya, Factory X head coach]. So, whenever Marc says I am ready to go pro, I will wholeheartedly [do it]. Until then, I’m happy with staying amateur. I’m happy growing as a martial artist. Life is made up of little moments, and how could you not appreciate this crazy journey for what it is, because it will eventually end.”
Some of the toughest fights for a mixed martial artist don’t even take place inside the cage. The sacrifices made by these fighters affect relationships, families and friends. They really test one’s willpower and desire not only to fight, but to gain the approval of those closest to them.
“My family was definitely taken aback,” Sage admitted. “My mom and my sister thought it was so badass. They thought it was very empowering, and especially after they saw the hard work that I put in really display itself in those gold medals that I’d walk home with and then it’s something to be proud of as an athlete.
Sage’s friends questioned her, too. However, one skeptic stood above the rest.
“My dad — oh lordy loo, don’t even get me started on him,” said Sage. “He was just a born-again Christian at the time when I just moved to Denver and totally sober after so many years, and [he] was just like, ‘Could you have chosen any other sport? Any other sport?’ But even [he] took to it incredibly. After my first fight, he was the first person I hugged when I walked out of the cage. I was pretty fucked up. I’m not gonna lie — I was fucked up. I got knocked down at least two or three times. I had a concussion — my first concussion ever — and just black eyes. I ended up breaking the girl’s arm, and it was a crazy fight, especially for my hometown debut.
“Then, I’m walking out of the cage. I’m, like, falling down the stairs because I can barely stand anymore, and my dad just wraps me in his arms. He’s sobbing, like uncontrollable. Right next to him is Rose Namajunas, who’d recently just won the belt and is just there for appearances, because she’s in Denver and in the Colorado area and wanted to see some LFA fights. I’m sobbing to him. I’m like, ‘I just did this for you. I love you so much, Dad,’ and he’s like, ‘I’m so proud of you.’”
The nickname. It’s an essential part of a fighter’s persona, whether it be for entertainment purposes only or something that just clicked one day. Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell. Max “Blessed” Holloway. Rose “Thug” Namajunas. These fighters lived up to their nicknames inside and outside the cage. Sage’s was nothing short of a simple: “The Charm.”
“That came about from Hayward and, of course, no one ever picks their name,” Sage said. “I am a charmer. That’s just who I am. I’m a lover and a fighter. It has a way of balancing itself out. I enjoy people. I enjoy life. I’m a lover kinda of everything. I love everyone, which of course has it’s good and it’s bad, but that unconditional love that I try to practice relays itself into everyday conversations and the people I meet, and that it’s just carried itself over even into jiu-jitsu and martial arts.
“Golly. There are so many nicknames for me. It is ridiculous. There’s Carm ‘The Harmful Charm.’ Oh, and my favorite is the ‘Carm-bar,’ because of that armbar I got in my first fight. No one in the gym lets me live that down. Even when they’re teaching it in class, Professor will be like, ‘And you transition to the Carm-Bar by passing the leg over and push the elbow.’ I’ll never live that down, that is for sure.”
Perhaps another “Carm-bar” is on the horizon. Regardless of how it comes, Sage is out to notch another victory this weekend at LFA 65.
“I want to fight the toughest of the tough so it prepares me even more so for that pro debut when I’m gonna eventually fight the best of the best,” said Sage. “If you don’t fight the best, you’re not the best. End of story. I’ve come to a good place in my mental game, where if I lose then I lose and that’s because they’re the better fighter, not because I didn’t work my fucking ass off.”