Zoila Gurgel: Evolution Of A Mixed Martial Arts ChampionTwo years ago, Zoila “The Warrior Princess” Gurgel was a self-described flashy kickboxer who shunned the ground game. In 2010, she became the first Bellator women’s champion at 115 pounds and now she is focused on transforming herself into a well-rounded, elite mixed martial artist.

The newly-married Gurgel has faced more than her fair share of criticism and negativity during her short career, but she plans to showcase her new skills and silence critics when she returns this Fall, and hopes that sponsors will take a greater interest in supporting talented female fighters in MMA.


An athlete from a young age, Gurgel (then Frausto) earned a black belt in taekwondo as a teenager and played competitive soccer until a knee injury forced her off of the soccer field. Always driven and striving to succeed, Gurgel took on a new challenge after college when she joined the Pro Buhawe team in Fresno, California and began training in boxing and Muay Thai. With mere months’ of experience, she won a pair of “smoker” Muay Thai bouts before making a quick jump to mixed martial arts. Less than 21 months later, Gurgel captured one of the most prestigious women’s titles in MMA, but her road to the championship was anything but easy.


The Flashy Kickboxer

Gurgel’s start in MMA was that of a kickboxer and not a mixed martial artist. With a love of Muay Thai, Gurgel believed that she did not need to train in wrestling or jiu-jitsu because no one could take her down. And if they did, she got right back to her feet. Gurgel was so confident in her striking game, which was considerably better than most of her early MMA opponents, that she spent just one day per week working on defensive wrestling. Jiu-jitsu and ground fighting were foreign concepts.

That all changed on March 26, 2010 when a 5-0 Gurgel faced top Strikeforce contender Miesha Tate in a pivotal bout that shaped Gurgel’s career. For the first and only time to date, Gurgel tasted defeat when she was submitted late in the second round.

The loss was both humbling and eye-opening for the future Bellator champion.

“The Tate fight made me a lot more humble,” Gurgel says. “A lot of people saw me as really cocky, but the way that I’ve always come across in any sport that I’ve played is, because I’ve always been so athletic, that I had confidence in what I did and felt that nobody was ever going to beat me.”

That confidence propelled Gurgel through her first five fights, but she allowed emotions to impact her training and performance against Tate; something that she vows will not happen again.

“I’d never really had emotion going into a fight before, but she stirred the pot a little bit when she started saying that I was green and started calling me all of these names,” Gurgel recalls. “I was just thinking, ‘Who is this girl calling me out?’ Miesha’s been around for so long, and she’s heavier than me and she wanted to fight me. I just brought way too much emotion into that fight because I was so angry at her. I wanted to knock her head off.

“I didn’t care how much wrestling training she had. Up until that fight, I didn’t do any wrestling. Even for that fight, I was only doing wrestling once per week. I figured that the same things that got me through my other fights – my striking, my confidence and my never-let-down attitude – would carry me through, and I was so angry and motivated to beat her and thought that would be enough. Going in with that anger and then losing that fight kind of brought me down and made me humble.”


A Change Is Needed

For the first time, Gurgel was faced with the reality that she would need to add more tools to her game and learn new skills in order to compete among the best. Rather than allowing the loss to drag her down, Gurgel used it as motivation. Believing that she could have defeated Tate had she been better prepared, Gurgel immediately began making phone calls and found a city college that was willing to take her in for wrestling training.

“I told them that I just wanted to learn anything and everything that I possibly can,” she says. “The Miesha Tate fight was the turnaround. It really made me open my eyes and I saw that I couldn’t just be a striker. Everybody around me was evolving, including people who have been fighting for years and years. I didn’t just want Muay Thai. I wanted to be well-rounded, so I went to wrestling camp for a few weeks and then, boom, I got another fight.”

That fight came on May 16, 2010 in local California-based promotion The Warriors Cage. Gurgel’s opponent was Michelle Ould, a skilled wrestler with a solid ground game. Gurgel struggled at times in the first round, but came back in round two and ultimately won after Ould suffered a fight-ending ankle injury. Gurgel credits Ould for scoring takedowns early in the fight, but feels that her cardio allowed her to take over as the fight progressed.

The win over Ould would be key in shaping the rest of the year for Gurgel. One week after the fight, she received a call from Bellator Fighting Championships, who were interested in matching her up against top-ranked 125-pound fighter Rosi Sexton in advance of a 115-pound women’s tournament in August. Gurgel was required to cut down to 120 pounds for the June 24th fight.

“I think I had about four weeks’ notice [to fight Sexton],” Gurgel recalls. “As soon as I found out, that’s when I came out to Ohio to see [now-husband] Jorge Gurgel and train jiu-jitsu. At first, they were just in awe at how much I didn’t know. They looked at me like, ‘How the hell did you win all of these fights? You suck on the ground.’ They didn’t say that, but I could see it in their eyes. Then they saw me striking on the heavy bag and they began to understand, but still, it was like, ‘How did you get this far?'”

Gurgel’s heart and determination were not going to be enough to defeat Sexton alone. Knowing that Sexton’s strengths were in wrestling, jiu-jitsu and “mauling opponents on the ground,” Gurgel phoned home to her team in California. After debating what to do, she opted to stay in Ohio for her training. It was a decision that paid dividends and Gurgel believes that it was the best training camp of her career.

“The way camp was run in Ohio was completely different from in California,” Gurgel says. “In California, you just went in to work out. There was no discipline or respect, and no bowing when you went on or off the mat. I wasn’t used to any of that. When I came here, it was about hard work and respect, and it just opened my eyes to what mixed martial arts was. I was motivated, even more than I ever had been. Not only that, but the fight was against a world-class fighter and it was an opportunity of a lifetime.

“Jorge helped out tremendously,” she adds. “The way he is as a coach and the way that he talks to his fighters is amazing. I’ve never felt so ready for a fight as for that one, and it showed. It completely showed. To this day, even over every other fight that I’ve had, [beating Sexton] was by far the best feeling in the world because I beat a number one girl in the world, and not only beat, but I put her away.”

With the knockout victory over Sexton – considered to be a significant upset – Gurgel then assumed Sexton’s spot in the Bellator 115-pound tournament in August. She was required to cut even more weight to compete in the tournament. What followed, Gurgel says, was “hell on Earth.”


(Continue reading on Page Two below.)



(Photo Credit: Casper Munoz)

  1. amazing artical!!!

  2. Great article. About sponsorships…. no comment. Have a great career, VMMA will always be rooting for you.

  3. Awesome article, gives a good look at some of the background haters never get to see.

  4. wonderful young lady ,very hard worker
    theses young ladies should be given more credit and good sponsorship.
    I had the pleasure of meeting Zoila and George at UF C 126.
    Not my 1st time meeting George but Zoila it was and she is great both are.
    I wish her all the luck best wishes as she continues to improve.
    No doubt her and Meisha,Cyborg are some of the toughest young ladies around.