Bethe Correia, the Undefeated Dark Horse
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because in four years, some people become college graduates. This woman became an ultimate fighter.
Imagine. In 15 days, someone plans to beat the shit out of you. As in, rupture your ears, liquefy the cartilage in your nose, snap your cheekbones apart, leave you unconscious. And that someone will be cheered on by millions of people. Few think you’ll stand a chance when that day comes, in 15 short days. 14. 13. 12 …
This is the reality for 32-year-old Bethe Correia.
If you know anything about mixed martial arts, you’ve likely seen and heard all about the sport’s golden girl, Ronda Rousey, who has graced magazine covers and picked up huge endorsement deals across the globe. But while the spotlights are shining on the all-American badass, we’re in a dark street in a poor neighborhood in one of Brazil’s most violent cities with the woman who is about to step in the cage with “Rowdy” Rousey — and into the biggest fight of her life. Good luck! On Aug. 1 in Rio de Janeiro, “Pitbull” Correia will battle for the title of bantamweight champion, all 135 pounds of her.
To find out how the fight went — in case you hadn’t heard — click here.
The contrasts couldn’t be more telling. For weeks, Rousey has been trailed by a pack of professional photographers, capturing her every exhalation in state-of-the-art gyms and on the sunny beaches of Santa Monica, California. She’s flush with sponsors, sports drinks and fans thrusting Sharpies her way. But down here, in Natal, in the far northeast of Brazil, Correia trains in an unair-conditioned gym with rusted equipment in a crumbling neighborhood. Her coach is her husband. Her manager is her sister. And as for her sponsors, they don’t exist.
The only place people are betting on Correia is in the hot, humid gym in Natal, which has become a factory for Brazilian fighters.
Millions of people are expected to tune in for the women’s pay-per-view headline fight. And, symbolically, Correia carries the baton for female mixed martial arts fighters in Brazil, a movement that has been building momentum in recent years but that also carries a heavy weight in a country with a reputation for quickly turning on its own chastened athletes. The local media pan Correia; they don’t think she stands a chance against the American machine. And in the U.S. press, she’s taken even less seriously. Bleacher Report predicts that Rousey will defeat Correia by Total Knockout, in Round 1, no less. Betting websites put Rousey at -1500, with 15-to-1 odds.
In fact, the only place people are betting on Correia is in the hot, humid gym in Natal, which has become a factory for Brazilian fighters, including Patrício and Patricky Freire, two brothers roaring onto the country’s MMA scene in a sport that combines disciplines such as wrestling and karate. Spend an afternoon in this training facility and fighters here will recount tales of how they’ve seen Correia’s passionate, and aggressive, workouts firsthand, which makes them bullish on her odds next weekend. One rising female fighter here, Daniela Maria da Silva (she goes by Dany Fenix), says, “I hope she makes Ronda’s face bleed.”
On a steamy Wednesday at midnight, Correia strolls into the gym in neon pink training shorts and a loose tank top, offers me a polite smile-grimace and a kiss on the cheek, and then beelines for the mat. At just 5-foot-5, she looks in shape, but you wouldn’t guess she’s a pro athlete. Even so, she’s already got her game face on, and she’s training late-night to approximate the time of the fight. Edelson Silva, the boxing coach whom she married in January and who also coached Anderson Silva (the record holder for the longest UFC title defense streak in history, who’s unrelated to Edelson), wraps up her hands in tight tape and gauze before tying on a pair of yellow boxing gloves.
Silva sets his phone to a staticky mix of ’80s pump-up anthems — there’s “Eye of the Tiger” on there, of course — and Correia’s training begins. She moves with unbreaking intensity in the sticky, airless room, and within minutes her tank is drenched and slippery pools form on the mat beneath her bare feet. Her eyes narrow in on her coach’s gloves as she swings at them with full drive, walloping her husband again and again with the focus of a professional athlete in crunch time.
Hard to believe that just a few years ago she was, she says, a chubby, married accounting student. The youngest of four, Correia grew up stubborn and “hot-blooded,” the daughter of a banker in the northeastern interior town of Campina Grande. She enrolled in school to become a number cruncher, got hitched and “started getting fat, like all women do after they marry,” Correia jokes, during her exclusive interview with OZY. But then, something changed.
Four years ago, Correia decided to start working out to lose weight. As chance would have it, Patrício Freire, the current Bellator featherweight champion, was training at the same gym in Natal. Freire recalls how one day he was on the other side of the gym and heard a loud smack! smack! smack! It was Correia — trying her hand at the punching bag for the first time. “I came in to see who was hitting it so hard,” he says, “and when I saw it was this out-of-shape, regular-looking woman, I just stopped in my tracks.” That afternoon, he tried to recruit her to come try out MMA at his gym, but she balked. “I told him I didn’t think my husband would like me getting involved in fighting,” she says shyly. Freire, with a smile, remembers what happened then: “She showed up the next day.”
Some skeptics say the UFC agreed to the fight, and a new eight-fight contract, because of all of Correia’s trash-talking.
While sitting on a tire she spent the afternoon slamming with a sledgehammer, Correia recounts how she started training after her accounting classes. Freire, surprised by her ability to scramble quickly up the MMA learning curve, soon convinced her to commit to fighting full time, and within a few months she’d ditched her previous career (to the horror of her parents), and not long after, her husband. Those changes only spurred her on, and her training quickly turned professional. Correia was all in.
Just one problem: The UFC didn’t permit female fighters, so there wasn’t a clear path forward. Enter Rousey. “She opened the door for women in the UFC, I have to give her that credit,” Correia says. Spurred by Rousey becoming the first female UFC fighter, Correia began campaigning on Twitter for women to be permitted to fight in the Jungle Fight, a 2013 matchup. The lobbying worked, and it was there that Correia’s career broke loose, thanks to a brutal series of punches that left Erica Paes on her back. “Then, suddenly, people started believing in me,” Correia recalls. Three months later, she signed her first contract with the UFC.
So far, Correia’s gone undefeated in nine professional fights, including matchups against two women who, along with Rousey and another fighter, have been dubbed the “Four Horsewomen.” While many fighters begin with one fight style — say, tae kwon do or Muay Thai — before becoming MMA fighters, Correia’s coaches argue she’s got an advantage, having been raised from the start as a true multidisciplined MMA fighter, though they agree her boxing and kickboxing skills stand out. Over the past year, Correia launched a campaign aimed at taking down the top: Rousey. Some skeptics say the UFC agreed to the fight — and a new eight-fight contract — simply because of all the trash-talking Correia had done about how she could beat her rival. Now she’s getting her wish.
Though the path looks like it’s been cleared for Correia, it hasn’t been easy for her or others in the industry. For lower-ranked fighters like Fenix, it’s tough to compete on a semiprofessional level. The hobby can quickly become prohibitively expensive, especially for fighters from the northeast, the poorest region of Brazil. And then, of course, there’s the culture. Correia says that while inside the gym she is accepted as an equal fighter, outside, her male friends wag their fingers at her and say, “This isn’t what a girl should be doing.” And she hasn’t fought much herself: The forthcoming face-off with Rousey is Correia’s first professional one in nearly a year.
But perhaps Correia’s biggest misstep in this dangerous dance has already taken place, outside of the ring. In the classic prefight trash talk that builds up to UFC events, Correia told a Brazilian paper that she believes Rousey is psychologically weak and that after the fight, “I hope she doesn’t commit suicide.” As it turns out, Rousey’s father committed suicide. Although Correia later apologized, saying she wasn’t aware of Rousey’s personal story, the damage was done. Rousey, who did not respond to a request for comment, has released increasingly rabid words in response, saying that now, it’s personal. “I’ve never looked forward to beating up someone more in my entire life,” Rousey told the Daily Mail, adding: “This is the only time I will say I will purposely drag a fight out to punish someone.”
There’s another reason the odds are stacked against Correia. Call it Rousey’s ground game — aka queda in Brazil, or “fall” — where she pulls her opponents off-balance, sends them flying to the floor beneath her and then twists up their wrists with her hands and clamps their head and shoulders between her thighs — squeezing away their strength. She did so in her last fight in 14 seconds flat. It’s Rousey’s first-round finisher and a product of her Olympic bronze medal-winning judo skills, which have helped her in 11 undefeated fights. Here in Correia’s gym, that signature armbar move — pros call it “inescapable” — is worrying even her most fervent fans. “I don’t know why she’s not practicing on the floor more,” I overhear one fellow fighter whisper to another.
With the days ticking down and the world watching, Correia is feeling the pressure. “I’m just trying to mentally relax right now,” she says, taking a deep breath even as she says it, as if she’s trying to remember to. “This fight is my life.” She draws strength from her evangelical Christian faith, and describes the experience of the past four years as “supernatural,” noting that “if you look at how it all started, I shouldn’t be here.”
Back in the gym the next afternoon, the men training for MMA leave, and we sit down cross-legged on a mat, away from the scalding sun, beneath a swaying punching bag. Correia knows her parents are proud but says it pains her knowing that they won’t be tuning into the showdown. “It’s too hard to watch your little girl fight,” she explains. Still, in these final days, she’s also motivated by a deep sense that she’s helping future female fighters from her country. “To open the doors for the little girls dreaming of this,” she says, massaging her reddened knuckles, “someone has to suffer.”
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An earlier version of this story misstated Correia’s victories against members of the “Four Horsewomen” and the location of a Jungle Fight.