One year, eight months and nine days have passed since the last time 31-year-old veteran Shayna Baszler competed in the sport of MMA. The grappling ace is just a few months shy of entering her 10th year as a professional fighter, but after such a lengthy layoff between fights, the “Queen of Spades” is ecstatic to headline Invicta Fighting Championship’s second event on July 28 against Sara McMann in Kansas City, Kan.
“It’s kind of weird that it’s even happening,” Baszler told The MMA Corner. “Usually a few weeks out [from a fight], I’m angry. I’m usually tired of training twice a day and dieting and I just want to fight, but it hasn’t been like that. I haven’t reached that point where I’m hating life. I don’t know if it’s because I haven’t fought in a while, this opportunity is so great, the respect I have for my opponent or a mixture of those things, but I cannot wait for this fight.”
Baszler’s excitement comes following a stretch where multiple fights have fallen through. Yet, despite the frustration of being on the sidelines, the South Dakotan sees a silver lining in the series of events.
“[The time away] hasn’t been intentional, that’s for sure,” explained Baszler. “It’s just the way the cards have fallen. I was in a weird place in my career. I was too well known for mid-level shows, but I wasn’t getting the opportunity to fight on big shows. I was stuck in the in-between.”
“I actually went through a couple of training camps because of those fights that fell through. A few promoters told me they were going to find a replacement or move it to a later date, so I stayed in camp on the hope it would happen. It’s a crappy way to go through fight camp, but it all worked out because Invicta is the best opportunity out there.”
But it wasn’t just training that kept Baszler occupied during that stretch. In addition to her usual regimen of video games and heavy metal, she added a few more accomplishments to her already diverse resume.
“I had to up my superhero quotient, so I took some time to get my EMT license,” said the 135-pound fighter. “I can fight off bad guys, but I have to be able to fix the good guys too.”
“Also, I’ve been running off-skate strength and conditioning for a local roller derby team. I go to practice about once a week. If I didn’t fight, I probably be playing. Those girls are badass. They get more injuries than I do, and I get punched in the face for a living.”
Luckily for the rest of the women in the world of roller derby, Baszler’s attention has returned to her usual job of submitting opponents in the cage. Now, as the Strikeforce and EliteXC veteran brings her skills to the Invicta cage for the first time, she believes she’s found a home.
“I think this is an organization that is finally doing everything right,” declared Baszler. “This whole women’s-only promotion is old news; it’s been done before. The key is that they’re not changing what they would do if was a men’s card. The entire staff is what you would expect: Mauro Ranallo announcing, “Stich” Duran as a cutman, “Big” John McCarthy as a referee. It’s all the same familiar crew that you would see at any other event. This is a real MMA show. It’s not just some token women’s fight on the card. They’re doing it for real.”
“On top of that, they’re doing their research. They’re not bringing in slouches, they’re not bringing in people just because they’re a name. Even the prelim card is full of girls they’ve done their research on. We’ve all been to those local shows where we ask, ‘really, you’re trying to fight?’ Invicta is bringing in girls that are legit. On paper, almost all of the fights could go either way. It’s awesome. As a fan, I’m upset that I won’t get to watch my own fight.”
Baszler’s opinion is firmly supported by her own fight with Sara McMann. While Baszler’s grappling credentials are some of the best in women’s MMA, McMann carries an undefeated record along with a silver medal in Olympic freestyle wrestling. The match-up is a grappler’s dream.
“She’s arguably the best wrestler that women’s MMA has right now,” Baszler said of her opponent. “[Her wrestling] is going to be a major factor. When you look at MMA in general, wrestling is the most important skill set to have. Whether it’s taking the fight to the ground or stopping the fight from being taken to the ground.”
“She’s so proficient at what she does. There’s girls like me or Miesha Tate who tout wrestling as our strength, but let’s be honest, put us in a circle on a wrestling mat and McMann is going to be able to out-wrestle any of us. The good thing is that this is MMA and there are other factors.”
Those other factors include two things that heavily favor the “Queen of Spades”: submissions and experience. McMann will be entering just her sixth professional fight, whereas Baszler is set for her 21st. And of her previous 20 bouts, she’s attained victory by submission 13 times.
“As far as MMA, I’ve seen it all. I’ve been picked up and slammed through the mat. I’ve been ground and pounded for three rounds until I looked like Sloth from the Goonies,” joked Baszler. “She’s not going to do anything to me that’s going to be like, ‘holy crap, I don’t know what to do.’ I don’t think she is at that point yet in her career.”
“I’m not saying I’m going to be the one to do it, but what happens when someone takes her down and ground-and-pounds her? What happens when someone puts her in trouble? What happens when someone stops her plan ‘A’? No one has done that yet. We don’t know how she’s going to react.”
“I’ve been there. I’m the old, crabby veteran of the sport. When a fighter gets in trouble, you always go back to what you know. Even if she comes in with the game plan that she wants to strike with me, as soon as she gets in trouble she’s going to go back to her wrestling.”
What makes the fight with McMann even more enticing is the fact that the two women have grappled together in the past. Baszler managed to get the better of McMann on at least one instance, but after McMann was able to avoid the ground game of another strong grappler in Hitomi Akano in her most recent fight, Baszler knows she’ll have to be crafty.
“I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” the veteran admitted. “We’ve grappled a couple of times, and the first time I caught her in a triangle. It was really basic. I had an arm, she escaped, so I moved to a triangle. Is there a possibility I’m going to get that sub? Sure. But she’s wise to it now. If I go for a triangle and she’s defending it, I’ve got eight or nine things I can do from that position. She’s got limbs that can bend in all sorts of different ways. I think the toolset I bring is a lot more broad than Akano.”
“I have a really unique ability to manipulate the body in ways that it shouldn’t be manipulated. I don’t fit the usual mold of someone who uses the armbar-triangle-omoplata submission combination. Of course, I know how to do that stuff. You can’t be good at the crazy stuff without being good at the basics. I go so far off the map that I don’t think those are the worry you’re going to have with me. Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m pulling off. I have the ability with my skill set to do things that are going to surprise her. She’s not necessarily going to know how to deal with them. “
Baszler’s own assessment of her submission game isn’t just from her time spent grappling during training; she’s backed it up in the cage. Long before the twister was made famous in the UFC, Baszler had pulled it off in MMA twice and multiple times in grappling competition.
“I actually called it before one of my matches even started,” she recalled. “It’s one thing to hit a home run, but when Babe Ruth gets in there and points at the outfield fence and then hits a home run, it’s even cooler. I was talking to Tara LaRosa about it before a grappling match and she called it ‘bullshitsu’ so I went out on the mat and did it.”
The credit for Baszler’s unconventional and yet equally deadly submission game goes to heavyweight Josh Barnett and her grappling coach Bruce Hoyer. The pair has helped her avoid falling into the same routine by working in moves seen in catch wrestling and even the world of pro wrestling.
“They’ve always encouraged me to keep my mind open. Just because you watch a submission on pro wrestling doesn’t mean that it’s completely false,” explained Baszler. “The thing about fun submissions like that is that you can’t get tunnel vision. You have to be solid in the fundamentals before you do stuff like that. I can’t forego something basic just because I want to hit these flashy subs. If I hit something in the main event of Invicta, I’ve already hit that in training hundreds of times. It’s not new to me by that point.”
In addition to her distinct advantage in the submission department against McMann, Baszler believes she’s fixed something that may have cost her in the past against former Strikeforce champions Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos and Sarah Kaufman.
“Somewhere along the lines I got too scientific about fighting. I forgot that fighting is just about going in there and trying to beat the crap out of someone,” Baszler said with a laugh. “Something changed. It seems so simple, but it’s not. You might get split open. You might get some bruises. But a week later it’s gone and you can’t even tell. It’s not like I’m strapping on an M-16 and going to war where I might not come home. It’s just a fight. I’m actually excited about it.”
Armed with a four-fight winning streak that includes one of the aforementioned twisters, Baszler’s ready to re-establish herself as a top-flight bantamweight after her lengthy absence. Coupled with a new mentality and skills that would make a superhero blush, don’t be surprised if the veteran does just that on Saturday night.
Top Photo: Shayna Baszler (Facebook.com/qosbaszler)
Top Photo: Shayna Baszler (Facebook.com/qosbaszler)