KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Look, LC Davis rolled his eyes, too. The little blond cheerleader walked straight into his office on a Sunday and sat down, a 5-foot-5 ball of grace and steel, her mind made up. She wanted to take the next step.
“Do you think I could actually fight?” Rachel Wray asked.
“You know, me being a gym owner, I have a lot of people that come up and say they want to be a fighter,” Davis says now. “When she told me she wanted to do MMA, (I was like), ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.'”
Davis, a veteran of the WEC circuit, believes. Wray tossed her gloves into the ring last February, during that fateful Sunday exchange. Fast forward 11 months, and the 23-year-old from Arkansas sports a 3-0 record and — as soon as word and pictures (especially the pictures) of her days as a Kansas City Chiefs cheerleader hit the web — has become something of a minor sensation in MMA circles.
“When they say, ‘Oh, you’re too pretty to fight,’ that seems kind of dumb,” chuckles Wray, who defeated Katelyn Radtka by TKO Friday night at Harrah’s Casino North Kansas City in just her third bout. “Why does me being pretty (matter)? Does that make me automatically unable to fight? Are you saying ugly girls are better at fighting?”
Wray is more than just a pretty face. She’s a pretty face with a killer right cross, something Radtka found out the hard way, falling to a serious of blows that ended the fight at the 1:06 mark of the second round.
“I’m proud of her, man,” Davis says. “She’s stuck with it, and I’m proud of how far she’s come along.”
It’s been an uphill battle for Wray to prove the beauty is a beast, but it’s starting to pay off. She recently received an offer to do a major magazine photo shoot, and the phone’s ringing a bit more regularly ever since video of her first bout — a TKO over Ashleigh Tillman this past September — went viral; YouTube footage of the second round had received 263,042 views as of last Thursday afternoon.
“And I’ve even had a few people (offering) to manage me,” says Wray, who turned in her Chiefs pom-poms after the 2011 NFL season. “I have met a few people who I barely knew from high school, and are (like), ‘Nice going, Rachel, what are you doing?’ I’m like, ‘Oh, NOW you want to talk to me.’
“I didn’t do this because I wanted to be famous. I just do it because I love it.”
She fell hard, and kind of by accident. The Chiefs played a role, too — albeit indirectly. It all started when the team’s cheerleading squad was meeting up for alternative cardio workouts at Title Boxing Club in Leawood, Kan. High-Davis Mixed Martial Arts (or HD MMA), a training facility run by professional fighters Davis and Jason High, sits just a few doors down.
One thing led to another, and Wray wandered in to HD MMA one day, some 18 months ago, on a lark. Before long, she was hooked.
“It was actually jiu-jitsu and grappling that sold me,” Wray recalls. “I was like, ‘I can’t imagine not doing this every night.’ It’s just like, the intensity, the sweat, how much you can create with your body, like when you’re grappling, you can do so much. It’s intoxicating after two hours. It’s like a runner’s high, but times a million.
“When I’m fighting, all my problems go away. It’s like my happy place.”
Joy is where you find it. For Rachel, the octagon was zen and sweat and pain and awesome. But mostly zen.
“I’ve been in gymnastics, dance and cheerleading my whole life — I’ve never been around boys,” Wray says. “So that’s why everyone thinks this is such a crazy story. I’ve been a total girly-girl. I’ve never been involved with a sport that involves a ball. And that’s why fighting is perfect for me, because it doesn’t involve a ball.”
It does, however, involve repeated pummelings with the hands and feet. Neither of those options have sat particularly well with Rachel’s parents, who have offered blessings through, shall we say, gritted teeth.
“Oh God,” Wray says. “Well, they know it was a slow process… and finally, it was like, I had to tell them I wasn’t doing cheerleading, it wasn’t making me happy anymore — I didn’t fit in and all that.
“They love me and they’re going to support me, because they want me to be happy. My parents called me, they said, ‘We can’t come and watch your fights anymore, it’s too hard.’ They’re 100-percent supportive. They just can’t watch.”
By day, Rachel is your regular office type, working a human resources gig back in Arkansas. They’re cool with her fight schedule, too, even giving her time off to come up to Kansas City for a few weeks and train in advance of the Radtka bout, a strict regimen of two workouts per day.
“She’s going to have that ‘former cheerleader’ stigma attached to her for the rest of her fighting career,” offers Davis, Wray’s MMA trainer and guru. “A lot of people are going to look at her and joke. So it’s up to her to go out there and prove people wrong. And I think she’s doing a good job of that so far.”
If it’s Monday, it’s stand-up strikes… if it’s Tuesday, it’s wrestling… If it’s Thursday, it’s jiu-jitsu… Boyfriend? Wray laughs. Who’s got time for a boyfriend? Rachel’s camp hopes Friday’s victory means more fights — and more photo shoots — are in the cards.
“I’m not going to be, like, trying to be overly sexy, because my parents are gong to see all this, so I don’t want to disappoint them,” Wray allows. “I’m not going to be covered head-to-toe (either). I’m not a feminist in any way; I’m actually anti-feminist.
“And yeah, sex sells. I’m not going to like, overdo it. I’m just going to be who I am. I’ve been in a swimsuit calendar before… I’m fine being in a magazine, as long as a photo isn’t too suggestive, because my parents are going to see it. You have to give the people what they want to see. This is the entertainment business, and apparently a lot of people would rather see Miesha Tate fight and Ronda Rousey fight than two fat dudes who have shaved heads.”
The lady’s got a point.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org