FROM TRAGEDY TO TRIUMPH:
CAST OF FOX SPORTS 1'S ALL-FEMALE "THE ULTIMATE FIGHTER(R)" OVERCAME CHILDHOOD TRAGEDIES TO HELP TROUBLED YOUTH
Contestants on 20th Season Include Bullying Victims, a Russian Orphan and a Woman Born Addicted to Heroin
The 16 women who comprise the first all-female cast of The Ultimate Fighter(R): A Champion Will Be Crowned train, kick and punch harder than most men their size. But several of these 115-pound ladies, whose fierce battle for the first-ever UFC women's strawweight championship belt premieres on Wednesday, Sept. 10 on FOX Sports 1 (10:00 PM ET), possess a softer side many would have thought impossible a few years ago given their backgrounds.
Several have overcome unthinkable tragedies and struggles, but strip away the gloves and game faces, and standing at the center of the Octagon are tenderhearted individuals using their experiences and their love of mixed martial arts (MMA) to help others, guiding troubled youth through some of their darkest moments. Among the cast is a therapeutic wilderness guide for teens; a childhood bullying victim who now works with troubled youth; a former Russian orphan whose adopted father died one year after bringing her to America; and a fighter born addicted to heroin, who later shattered her spine, skull and shoulder after falling down three stories, prompting doctors to predict she'd never walk again.
While their life stories vary greatly in origin and specific challenges, each woman emerged triumphant and stronger than ever, able to transform the negative hand life had dealt into a helping hand for others.
"My mom was a really bad heroin addict and used through all her pregnancies," said Angela Magana, 30, from Farmington, N.M. "My older sister and brother were taken from her due to her drug use. I remember eating out of trashcans and her leaving my sister and me, saying she'd be right back, but she wouldn't come back. The cops picked us up numerous times. Luckily, my grandparents came into the picture and took custody of my sister and me when I was eight. My mother would tell us she was coming back to see us, but she never did, and that was really hard."
As a little girl, Justine Kish also yearned for a more normal parental environment.
"I spent the first five years of my life in a Russian orphanage before being adopted and brought to America," the 26-year-old Cramerton, N.C. resident said. "It was a roller coaster ride. When the orphanage officials told me I was being adopted, I was like, 'Oh my gosh! I can't wait!' I started learning as much English as I could on the plane ride over so I could impress them. I learned 'Mama,' 'Papa' and 'I love you.' I wanted to say those words to them as soon as I met them at the airport."
"Justine spoke three words of English when she came to us," said Laurel Kish, Justine's mother. "Everything was new to her. We adopted her around Thanksgiving, so Pittsburgh was all lit up for Christmas. Seeing all the lights was incredible for her because she had never even seen streetlights before. They were so deprived in the orphanage. They didn't even have a bathroom at the time. The kids never got baths -- they just stood them in a sink once a week and washed them. This little kid came to America and was so excited to get a bath and have clean clothes. It was a wonderful moment for us, but also heartbreaking in some respects."
While Kish was overjoyed to finally have a family of her own, a part of it was ripped from her tiny grasp when an automobile accident claimed her father one year following the adoption.
"I got the impression she knew a lot about death, although we hadn't talked about it," Laurel Kish recalled of the conversation in which she told her daughter of her husband's death. "She said, 'I'll never see him again. He was my special Daddy. Am I staying here? Who's going to take care of me?' I responded, 'You're my daughter. Of course I'm going to take care of you.' I think she'd seen death before in the orphanage, which caused her reaction. I think some fear of abandonment surfaced with his death, and who could blame her?"
Magana, now a single mother to her 12-year-old daughter, also lost a parent at a young age. Her mother overdosed when Magana was only 13. The grief didn't end there, however. Magana's fiancée was killed in 2009 only six months after they became engaged.
Other cast members battled identity crisis, low self-esteem and bullies as children and teens.
"I struggled with my identity as a teen, and that identity crisis is incredibly powerful," said Emily Peters Kagan, 33, who now serves as a therapeutic wilderness guide for troubled youth in Maine and New Hampshire. "I found myself in some dark places, but thankfully, I had a supportive family. Teenagers are oftentimes rejected by society as many people are made uncomfortable by the changes teens go through and the ways they act out their inner conflicts. But it's for that reason, among others, they need the most help and guidance."
For Jessica Penne, 31, the bullying at school became so intense that it affected her personality and caused her to withdraw.
"I was always shy and introverted, so I was teased and picked on all through elementary school, but it became terrible in junior high and high school," the Huntington Beach, Calif. resident explained. "I had a really hard time making friends and was teased for my looks, what I wore and just about everything else. Junior high and high school were really rough on me. The bullying hardened me, and I found myself very angry. After high school, I decided I wasn't going to let anyone to do that to me anymore, so I just closed myself off from everyone."
While the emotional challenges faced by the contestants have been plentiful, so have the physical hurdles.
At age 23, Magana fell down three flights of stairs, shattering her spine, skull and shoulder, and was placed in a body cast for three months.
"The doctors weren't sure if I'd ever walk again and insisted I'd definitely never fight again," Magana explained. "I never believed them, though. I didn't accept the doctors' recommendation that we do spine surgery three times. Instead, I used my mind to heal myself and didn't let their predictions get me down. They couldn't strip me of my positive outlook. I knew if they operated and fused my spine, I'd lose my flexibility, and I needed that in order to fight."
Despite the predictions of medical experts, Magana booked her next competition and fought --and won -- five weeks after removal of the body cast. By the same token, the other women's histories of overwhelming heartache don't end with heartbreak; rather they conclude with resolutions and the imparting of life lessons to others saddled with similar battles.
"The gym I fought at had a lot of kids with behavioral issues at school or kids whose parents wanted them to be more disciplined," Penne said. "I knew the sport required discipline and brought out the best in children. Being able to help kids from disadvantaged backgrounds with no sense of direction was a tremendous feeling. Watching them light up with excitement when they learned a new technique was extremely rewarding."
This quartet of female fighters contends MMA can help teens cope with issues ranging from low self-esteem to anger and bullying.
"I'm a firm believer that MMA can help teens work through numerous problems they're facing, whether identity crisis, anger issues or other problems," said Kagan, who holds dual citizenship in Israel. "As a wilderness guide, I even incorporated some of the mitt work into my therapy with the kids. If they didn't hit it correctly or missed, they'd get mad, but I could talk them through that anger, bring them back to a calm place and start again. At various points in my early years of training, I was actually using my training as a means of better understanding and controlling my emotions. There were times when I was working through my own anger issues, and my martial arts training and study helped transform me."
An increased sense of confidence, self-respect and self-worth is a common theme that connects many competitors.
"I played sports through high school but never felt like I belonged anywhere," Penne stated. "But when I started training in MMA at age 22, I began developing confidence and strength and transformed into a different person. I began to respect myself and made others respect me. I had been floating through life with no direction or purpose, but MMA gave me both. Martial arts teach kids respect for themselves and others, build discipline and character and create a strong foundation for success later in life, whether in school, sports or business."
And in cases such as Kish's, MMA may also help children and teens find an outlet for their energy and serve as a calming influence.
"When I first came to America from Russia, I was all over the place and there was no settling me down," reflected Kish, whose birth name was Svetlana Nasibulina. "It got a little worse as I got older and attained more freedom. To get my energy out, Mom took me from school to gymnastics to soccer. I oftentimes did three sports in one day. Sports and later MMA helped channel all that energy.
"My heart goes out to all orphans," Kish continued. "I'm told that people in my situation typically don't turn out like I have. The average person from a background such as mine often becomes a negative and sad person. I've heard so many stories of adoptions gone bad or the orphan overwhelming the adoptive parents. I understand that because I know how much I overwhelmed my mother. But I was surrounded by love and she was determined to help me adjust and thrive. Between a loving family and MMA, I overcame the odds."
As did all the ladies competing on THE ULTIMATE FIGHTER. While it didn't happen quickly or painlessly, the women rose above their circumstances and now find themselves with a chance-in-a-lifetime opportunity to realize their dreams of a UFC championship.
"I hope to motivate others through my life story because my experiences, despite how terrible they might seem, are more of a blessing than a curse to me," Magana said. "How else could I know how strong and compassionate I could be if my personal strength was not tested every day? If you want something bad enough, you'll find a way to attain it. Water doesn't cut through a rock because it's strong. Water cuts through a rock because it never stops going at the rock."