“I’ve got to warn you, I’m shopping for beer right now so I might be a little distracted,” says Shayna Baszler, who proceeds to flawlessly multitask as we discuss her career for the next 40 minutes. “The Queen of Spades” is enjoying a rest week following her submission victory at Invicta FC 3.
Baszler has been fighting for nearly a decade, but unlike other veterans who have struggled in recent years, she remains at the top of her game thanks to a unique skill set and a brilliant analytical mind. Baszler now has her sights set on avenging a recent loss and capturing Invicta FC gold early next year.
On Saturday, Baszler (15-7-0) posted her fifth win in her past six fights with a second-round submission victory over fellow grappling specialist Sarah “The Monster” D’Alelio in Kansas City, Kansas. The bout was Baszler’s second under the Invicta FC banner and this time she left nothing to chance. In July, Baszler battled undefeated Olympic silver medallist Sara McMann to a hotly-contested decision that ultimately went McMann’s way.
The outcome of the bout with McMann was debated for weeks, with many fans feeling that Baszler should have had her hand raised in victory. Baszler, as well, thought that she had done enough to win. Either way, there was no denying that Baszler had showcased some major improvements in her game in the three-round bout, which received Fight of the Night honours and a standing ovation from the crowd in attendance.
Baszler watched the fight with McMann many times to try to pinpoint what she could have done to sway the judges in her favour. Baszler’s technical analysis is easily worthy of hundreds of words on this page, but what it ultimately boiled down to in her mind was that she needed to be more proactive. She had allowed McMann to hold her against the cage for prolonged periods of time and had waited to act too often in the striking exchanges as she countered McMann’s punches.
The bout between Baszler and McMann had been scheduled to determine a number one contender for the inaugural Invicta FC bantamweight title, but when McMann moved on to Strikeforce, Baszler knew that one impressive win was all she needed in order to get right back into the title picture. The McMann fight was in the past and Baszler needed to prepare a completely different strategy for her Invicta FC 3 bout with D’Alelio. This time, she would be the aggressor.
“I think the biggest thing I changed from the camp against McMann to the camp against D’Alelio was that the standup grappling against McMann was all based around defence; defending the takedown because she throws people like they weigh nothing,” Baszler says. “Whereas against D’Alelio, I was the one who was going to be aggressive in the clinch, going for takedowns and attacking. As far as the standup and the grappling, I just stuck to my game and what I do.
“I do catch wrestling and I think that my wrestling is really strong, but I’m obviously not going to be able to outwrestle Sara McMann,” Baszler adds. “If I had turned that into a wrestling match, that wasn’t how I was going to beat her. I would venture to say that if I was to wrestle any other female fighter [besides McMann], I would beat them most of the time. With D’Alelio, I think I’m a better wrestler than her, so it was back to basics and back to old-school Shayna, taking someone down and submitting them.”
Baszler was in control of the fight with D’Alelio at all times on Saturday night, but she knew that one mistake would be all that D’Alelio needed in order to capitalise and lock on a submission of her own. Baszler had witnessed that in each of D’Alelio’s past two bouts for Invicta FC and D’Alelio was quickly developing a reputation for her ability to submit opponents with greater grappling credentials than hers. Baszler was confident that she would emerge victorious if she stuck to her game.
Saturday’s co-main event bout between Baszler and D’Alelio was contested almost entirely on the ground. Baszler had expected that D’Alelio would be active in working from the bottom, but instead she prevented D’Alelio from doing much of anything by staying tight on her back throughout the opening round. Fans cheered as Baszler worked for her signature cobra twist (a.k.a. “Twister”) submission, but the cage wall foiled her plan.
“The reason why I couldn’t finish that cobra twist was because we were against the cage and I couldn’t do half of the transitions because I didn’t have that side of me open,” Baszler recalls. “That’s not the be-all, end-all of that position. There’s half a million submissions from there and I just kept flowing from one to the next based on what she was giving me.
“If you’re on the offensive, they’re always on the defensive. I limit their choices. You make their choice either A or B, if you can, and then you know the answer for both of those and react accordingly. With that position, the cross-body ride, it isn’t very common in submission grappling so it’s easier for me to stay a step ahead of the game. That’s a position that I do all the time in the gym with my guys, so I know all of the ways that I’m going to go. Not only am I familiar with it, I’m also familiar with all of the ways that people are going to act.”
When the cobra twist failed and Baszler was unable to sink in a rear-naked choke, she brought the crowd back to life by repeatedly slamming her foot down against D’Alelio’s Achilles. To those watching, it appeared that Baszler was merely frustrated and looking for a way to deal out some extra damage. In reality, she was using her catch wrestling experience to try to set up a toe hold on D’Alelio’s damaged ankle. She might have gotten it if not for the “death grip” that D’Alelio had on Baszler’s arm.
D’Alelio made it out of the first round, but she lost her balance while throwing a punch early in round two and fell to the mat. Baszler quickly took advantage by securing a rear-naked choke on the ground to earn her 14th career victory by way of submission.
At a time when many of the sport’s veteran female fighters have been struggling to compete with the new breed of talent, Baszler is one of the few who remains at the top of her game. She cannot pinpoint one specific reason as to why this is, but has a number of ideas as she reflects back upon her career.
“I’ve been doing this for ten years now, but I’m just now starting to feel like I’m figuring it out and just now feel like I’m not a rookie,” Baszler says. “Women’s MMA is still very young and we’re just now getting to that point where we’re watching the old greats get old. That’s not me yet and I’m just hitting my stride.
“The road map has been set for me. [Coaches] Erik Paulson and Josh Barnett, these guys are champions and they’ve done it,” she adds. “I get to hear a guy like Erik, who has to warm his joints up to get out of bed every morning, tell me about all of the things he should have done in order to prevent that. They have a lot of experience to advise me. I’ve taken some beatings, but maybe not the beatings [that others have]. I haven’t been in many knock-down, drag-out wars. Maybe [my continued success] is the luck of the draw or maybe it’s karma and the universe owes me this.
“I have a keen eye for things, mechanically, and I think that serves me well. Especially with my joints and things like that. There are fighters who just go in and don’t care, and they take a beating and it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying that I don’t have that edge because if you don’t have it you’re not going to be successful, but I think I’m also able to sit back and look at the mechanics of the whole thing.”
Baszler’s confidence on the ground comes from years of training. It’s not the offensive grappling that gives her confidence, however, but rather the defensive. Baszler has complete faith in her ability to escape an opponent’s submission attempt and feels safe even if, to an observing eye, it looks like she shouldn’t. Learning cool submissions is great, she says, but believing that no one can submit you is much more important.
“I am 100% confident against anyone once the fight hits the ground,” Baszler says. “The whole X factor is what I’m doing to get [the fight] there or where I’m starting when it hits the ground. I’m super confident in my grappling against anyone in my weight class.”
Baszler holds a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, but some of the strongest and most time-tested lessons that she learned in her grappling career came early on.
“I always say that blue belt was my favourite belt in BJJ because everything was still new and you’re always learning new things,” she recalls. “It gets to a point in submission grappling where it’s not so much about the cool submissions, but rather about the cool ways of setting up the submissions. Even though my style isn’t as orthodox as a jiu-jitsu style, I think that’s true even for me. It’s like, I know this cool submission, but now it’s about coming up with 100 different ways to get there.
“So if you go and watch me hit the ‘Shwing’ [modified Kimura hammerlock] on Roxanne Modafferi on YouTube and you’ve trained on how to defend if I get there, that’s great, but guess what? I have 1000 different ways to set that up. So it’s not about the submission anymore, it’s about the creative setups.
“I’ve been encouraged throughout my entire grappling career to think outside of the box. When I first started training with Bruce Hoyer, we used to have a thing called the ‘Midnight Club,’ where we would open the gym at Midnight and goof off. That’s where a lot of my more creative submissions came from. Then, working with Josh and the pro wrestling background, you don’t know how many hours I spent on YouTube looking up things like ‘Top Pro Wrestling Submissions Ever’ and watching highlights.”
This level of innovation and willingness to try unorthodox attacks has made Baszler one of the most talented and feared female grapplers in MMA today. What has eluded her thus far, however, is a major title for a prominent promotion, but she is hoping to change that in early 2013.
With the future of Strikeforce and its 135-pound women’s division in question, Baszler welcomes the chance to challenge herself against even more of the sport’s top female bantamweights if Strikeforce goes by the wayside. She believes that the bantamweight division is still the deepest and most interesting of the female weight classes in MMA and feels that Invicta FC could benefit greatly from the addition of the Strikeforce talent.
In particular, she hopes that it could lead to a rematch with McMann.
“All of the girls signed to Strikeforce are awesome and they would really bolster the division [in Invicta],” Baszler says. “The only downside of [them coming to Invicta] is the decreased visibility, of course, not being on Showtime. I think that Strikeforce is a little more visible being on Showtime than Invicta is right now, but Invicta’s got a good thing going. Plus, you think about the girls like Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey who already have a bunch of attention, so the attention that they would bring to Invicta would be awesome.
“I’ve really wanted the McMann rematch since the moment they announced [her as the winner]. In a perfect world, McMann beats Carmouche and gets a title shot at Rousey and wins the belt, then has to come over to Invicta after Strikeforce folds and we have an epic rematch for the ultimate belt of all belts. That would be my perfect scenario, so I’m pretty much the biggest Sara McMann fan right now.
“I’m super happy with Invicta,” Baszler adds. “I’ve fought for just about every major promotion that’s come and gone that has had female fights and Shannon and Janet are doing things right. I think the more hardcore fans are going to know that the Invicta title is the belt to have because they have the toughest girls. That being said, if they called me tomorrow for a Strikeforce title shot, I would do it. I think it’s dumb to be in the sport and not have aspirations to be the best, so whatever path it takes to get there and do that, I’m happy to take it.”
In the end, we come full circle and return to the topic of beer. Baszler’s fans have posed a unique question to her and she wants to make sure that they receive an answer.
“I had a few fans asking me what my first beer was that I had after I fought,” she says. “The first one was a Celebrator, which is a Belgian doppelbock, and then I had a Young’s double chocolate stout. Those were the first ones I had right after my fight.”
Baszler will have a chance to celebrate once again after her next fight inside the Invicta FC cage. She is expected to be one-half of the inaugural Invicta FC Bantamweight Championship bout next year.