Bellator women’s champion Zoila “The Warrior Princess” Gurgel enjoyed a rapid rise to stardom in 2010, but her newfound fame did not come without a price. Drastic weight cuts, coupled with harsh comments from critics who challenged her biggest victories, took a physical and emotional toll.
Gurgel is currently on the road to recovery after suffering a torn ACL this past year and she is eager to get back into the cage to re-establish herself as the best in the sport. Gurgel spoke at length with MMARising.com this week about overcoming challenges and life inside and outside of the cage.
Zoila Gurgel: First, I’d just like to say that answering these questions completely honestly will either get more people to dislike me or maybe they will love me for being real. Regardless, love me or hate me, it is what it is and I am who I am. I’m very confident and sarcastic, but also a nice and sweet woman. I can be mean at the same time, but it just depends on how people are towards me!
Sarah Goodlaxson, MMARising.com: Your life is obviously public, to a certain degree. One thing people aren’t very familiar with is your childhood. Can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up and your family life?
Zoila Gurgel: I grew up in Madera, California and lived in Fresno for eight years after high school. The childhood years of my life were amazing. It was a normal childhood with two loving supportive parents, Luis Frausto and Zoyla Grace, and 3 siblings: older brother Arthur, younger brother Luis, Jr., and younger sister Stephanie. We were all pretty talented, athletic and driven to succeed at everything we did, by ourselves and as a family.
Then out of nowhere, my parents got a divorce, and that threw my siblings and me a crazy curveball in our young lives. It was something none of us was prepared to deal with and it went on for years. They got back together, remarried at one point, and divorced again. All of that made my older brother and me angry with them, each other and at life. My younger siblings were lost in what was happening because they were so young. I turned into a terribly angry, rebellious teen.
MMARising.com: Your mother is extremely supportive of you and your career as a professional MMA fighter. What is it like to have that love and support behind you, and was there ever a time when you felt like you had to convince your family of this career path?
Zoila Gurgel: I never had to convince my family of what I wanted to do with my life. Though my father wanted me to finish college, he and my mother were always on the same page in motivating and supporting us in any dream we wanted to pursue in life. My father has always been a hardcore athlete and has always expected us to do our best in everything; even pushing us past our limits in sports.
I’ve been very fortunate to have such an amazing mother to be there for me my entire life. I owe the world to this amazing woman. If it wasn’t for her, there’s no way on Earth I’d be as successful in life as I am today. She’s showed me sacrifice, determination and what it feels like to be doubted and always come out on top. She has brought me closer to God and done so many other things that it would take a book to explain how amazing she is. If it wasn’t for my mother, there’s no doubt about it, I’d either be in prison or dead by now. She has shaped me into the better woman that I am today.
Like anybody else, there are plenty of things I can still work on, but she alone has helped change me for the better in so many ways.
MMARising.com: Before you started training, had you ever been in a fight or was this completely new to you?
Zoila Gurgel: Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot of experience in that department. It’s nothing to be proud of, but I have plenty of stories from high school that got me into a lot of trouble. It even went as far as kids at school calling me Zoila De La Hoya. People made videos of my school fights and I got expelled from school for it. I went from being a sweet, hardworking student/athlete to a very troubled and angry teenager. Many problems rooted from my parents going through a horrible divorce, twice.
I was an honor student and four-year varsity Letterman in three sports in high school with college soccer scouts looking at me in my freshman year, but I ruined my chances at scholarships by throwing it all away in anger during my last year of high school. I’ve definitely had more fights out of the cage than in it, but that’s all in the past, thank God.
MMARising.com: Looking at the present and your life now, give us an idea of what it was like for you in the beginning of your relationship with your husband, Jorge. In the future, do you see yourself starting a family and are there certain things you would like to accomplish before you have children?
Zoila Gurgel: It has been pretty exciting from our first encounter until now. When I first found out we were fighting on the same card, I was excited. From watching him on the second season of the Ultimate Fighter, I was an instant fan. Who wouldn’t be? You could tell he was a true fighter then. He had a great head on his shoulders for this sport, and you could tell he was a very passionate athlete, coach and person just by watching him on the show and watching him fight.
So, when I was called about fighting on the same Strikeforce card in Fresno as him, I was pretty stoked until I found out he was fighting my former teammate. Then, I ran into him at the Strikeforce photo shoot. He was getting ready to leave and I was just coming in to start. He looked right at me after I changed into my fight skirt and complimented me on my gladiator skirt and for just being myself. I made a smart little remark about maybe letting him borrow the skirt one day. Then I headed straight to the photographer. He left and we went on our separate ways. I was fight-ready.
Whenever it’s fight week, I’m usually extremely focused, so my mind was on my fight alone. Months later, we ended up running into each other in Vegas and exchanged numbers – for training purposes of course! I ended up visiting him in Ohio and I got called for a big fight in Bellator against Rosi Sexton. I started my camp there and, from that point on, the rest is history. He made me a world champion and somehow stole my caged heart!
We definitely plan on having a family. We already pretty much have one, along with my little sister and a bunch of fighters, but a real family? Yes, definitely. We plan on having two beautiful little monsters; a boy first (hopefully) and a girl! If we could, we would have them now, but there are still plenty of things that we both want to accomplish in our careers.
I’m giving myself maybe 3-5 years to be the best in the world at another weight class (125 pounds) before I retire, and we don’t plan on having kids until we are ready to devote most of our time into raising them and being there for them. We like to enjoy our newlywed time together and plan to travel the world and all of that great stuff before having kids. Plus, we still have to have our dream wedding in Brazil that was scheduled for this past year in December but we had to delay it due to a death in the family and other complications.
MMARising.com: Jorge has mentioned numerous times how he feels like you are the star of the family and he is obviously supportive of your career. What’s it like being married to someone who is so supportive of you? Not all women who fight have such a strong support system and it seems like you are very lucky in that respect.
Zoila Gurgel: I know how very fortunate I am to have all of the people in my life. My husband and family have always been very supportive of my dreams and goals, which is a major reason why I’ve been able to accomplish so much. Without love, I wouldn’t be here. God has blessed me with the people he has placed in my life, and for that I will always be thankful.
MMARising.com: You’ve mentioned before how hard your consecutive weight cuts to 115 pounds were when you were competing in Bellator in 2010. For those who may not know, outline what you went through and how hard that was for you, physically and mentally.
Zoila Gurgel: My whole experience – the weight loss, the women’s tournament, all of my challenges – was all mental more than physical. My knockout victory over Rosi Sexton (in what was supposed to be her showcase/warm-up fight before the tournament) was considered to be a significant upset. I then assumed her spot in the Bellator 115-pound tournament in August 2010. I was required to cut even more weight – more than the 27 pounds I had cut to make 120 for the Sexton fight – to compete.
The best way I can describe the consecutive weight cuts is “Hell on Earth.” That’s all I can really remember. People have asked me if any certain fight was hard or if anything hurt during any of those fights. The only challenge in the whole tournament was the weight cut. I knew that the healthier I got the weight off, the better I would perform in each fight. That feat was beyond difficult. Trying to intake all of the nutrients I needed in my body day-to-day in order to be able to perform and train at a high level every day, to prepare for each fight back-to-back, was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I felt completely drained about 80% of the time during training. It was very discouraging.
However, the more it hurt, the harder I pushed. That was the mental part of it. Every day was a struggle! Cooking my food, weighing every meal six times a day, sick of food, sick of life; at times I felt like I was falling apart. As strong as my mind is, a person can only take so much. If I didn’t have God, my family and love (Jorge, Mike, my coaches and team), I don’t know far I could’ve gone. I’m sure I would’ve pulled through, but doubt I would’ve been as successful as I was. It was really difficult, but I made it through.
Most days I just spent doing cardio, trying to get my weight down, which took me away from working on my striking and complete MMA game. Especially against the level of competition that I would be facing in the tournament, I should have been actually training much more than I was able to. However, I stood strong in my head and tackled each day the best way I knew how. Some days, I was so sick of eating the same food that I could hardly keep the food down.
As weird as it may sound, I fantasized about eating normal healthy food that I couldn’t touch like fruit, steak, fresh sushi, wheat pasta and regular Gatorade. That list goes on and on. I couldn’t sleep half the time, which also hurt me in the weight cut. I always woke up in the middle of the night. Sometimes I’d dream about food and wake up to wanting to throw up because I felt so heavy in my nightmares from eating too much and thought I wasn’t going to be able to make weight. I even pushed to the point of the beginning stages of bulimia. I thought even the nutrition I was eating was too much.
That was the scariest part because I knew then that what I was doing to my body and health was dangerous. I started to go absolutely crazy and was on an emotional rollercoaster. Some days I was sad, then angry. Some days I felt completely drained, but later on that day I felt like a complete animal and unstoppable, or vice-versa. It was like I was completely bipolar. There were so many other problems that I had to deal with on top of the fight camps (or I should I say “treadmill camps”). Just thinking about it makes me sick to my stomach and a little emotional. Not one person could ever possibly know what I went through unless they were in my head the entire time, but all and all, I knew I couldn’t give up or stop pushing through.
I would go through that hell all over again because I am a warrior and my heart will never allow me to stop until my job is done and I’ve given my very best every single time. No disrespect to any of my opponents, but not one woman at 115, 125 or even 135 scares me at all. The only person that scares me is me. I’m the only person and the only fighter who can beat me. Once I beat myself in my own head, I’m done before the fight even starts.
I love to fight. Fighting is the fun part and fighting is my passion! I’m addicted to the adrenaline; feeling like an animal, the flashing lights and the energy of a crowd, almost as if I was in a coliseum in the Gladiator days fighting for more than just a prize. It’s as if it’s to the death, for family, for pride!
On Page Two, Gurgel discusses the controversy that surrounded her Bellator tournament wins, being the target of criticism from past opponents, recovering from a serious injury and her future in the sport.
(Photo Credit: Casper Munoz)