The Fighter

After years of self-neglect, Megan Farnham rebuilt her life around mixed martial arts. So why won't anyone fight her?

Cameras flash from beyond the chainlink fence as the gray-jacketed announcer, a fight card in one hand and a microphone in the other, steps into the center of the cage.

“First . . . introducing . . . fighting out of the blue corner . . . from Lakeport, California . . . weighing in at 122 pounds . . .
Miss Amanda Brackett!”

Bracket, in her corner, briefly raises her arms above her head, quickly adjusting her helmet and mouth guard, her eyes darting over to take in her opponent, a tattooed young woman now bouncing up and down on the other side of the combat area.

“Next . . . fighting out of the red corner . . . weighing in at 124 pounds . . . from Santa Rosa, California . . . Megan Farnham!”

It’s Saturday night, Oct. 20, 2012—fight night at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, a series of mixed martial arts matches featuring male and female amateur cage fighters.

Though the video doesn’t show the audience, from the sound of it, Farnham has a lot of fans out there in the stands. Cheering, whistling and whooping, the noisy crowd shouts their support at deafening levels, as Farnham stands in her own corner, waiting for the bell, mere seconds away from her first official cage fight.

The bell rings, and the fight is on.

Farnham, all focused energy and pent-up anticipation, throws the first couple of punches and the first kick. The fighters trade more kicks, more blows, blocking and bobbing as the battle gradually scoots closer and closer to the perimeter of the cage. As their kicks and punches catapult back and forth, the opponents circle each other, semi-waltzing at arm’s length, now moving back through the center and over to the opposite side of the cage.

Brackett pulls up a surge of energy and attacks Farnham with a barrage of blows to the body and face, driving her back for a brief few seconds. Farnham responds with her own re-energized attack, as if drawing inspiration from each strike she absorbs. Brackett begins to weary as her opponent drives her back across the arena, until a kick from Farnham is intercepted, Brackett holding on firmly as Farnham is forced to hop on one leg.

This looks bad.

But Farnham, after a few awkward seconds, turns the move against Brackett, forcing her competitor to the ground and gaining a firm hold on her from above. Brackett throws desperate punches that miss their mark, as Farnham pulls her to her feet and tosses her off. Moments later—after Bracket briefly drives Farnham to the fence—the fighter from Santa Rosa moves sharply forward, grabs Bracket by the arms, and throws her to the ground.

Bracket rises quickly and steps into a fierce volley of punches to the face that clearly exhausts what remains of her determination. Driven back to the fence, Brackett feebly blocks the punches, absorbing a few additional kicks to the leg and stomach before turning and walking away from Farnham, who follows for a few seconds, not yet understanding that she’s just won her very first fight.

The referee, recognizing that Brackett is done, ends the match.

“The winner, by referee stoppage—Megan Farnham!”

In the video, the expression on Farnham’s face, as she resumes bouncing, both arms raised above her head, is priceless. Farnham is grinning from ear to ear, not so much a look of triumph as an expression of gradually dawning awareness that after years of setbacks, disappointments and extremely hard work, this is what it feels like to be a winner.

‘Ground and pound! That’s when the fight has been taken to the ground, and now you’re basically wrestling,” explains Farnham, describing one of her favorite combat moves. “You’re moving and striking, while not getting up. You’re trying to hold them down, to pin them to ground and to strike them at the same time. Ground and pound!”

She’s grinning again.

It’s two years after her first fight. As Farnham talks, she organizes a row of glasses tucked behind the bar at Jack & Tony’s, where until recently she worked as a bartender. Having just learned she’ll be fighting in December’s Ultimate Reno Combat in Nevada, Farnham is clearly pumped up for a chance to fight again. Since 2012, she’s been training hard, but has only landed a handful of fights. She remains undefeated, and is hungry for more chances to take her training to the cage.

For some reason, though, in recent months, opponents have made a habit of withdrawing just before the fight, commonly citing 11th-hour injuries. One of her most recent matches-that-never-happened was a cage fight in Petaluma. With three different women lined up to take her on—all in the same weight class, with similar experience levels—Farnham and her trainers assumed it was a done deal and were preparing hard for the event.

All three opponents declined to fight at the last minute.

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So today, a day before Halloween, with her sights now set on Reno, Farnham is psyched. Voted the best amateur mixed martial arts (MMA) production in America, the Ultimate Reno Combat will be a big move forward.

“People told me it was a bad idea to have my first fight in my home town,” Farnham says of the 2012 fight, video of which can be easily found on YouTube. “The thought is, fighting in front of your friends just puts too much extra pressure on you,” she explains. “But that was a big deal for me, and I wanted my friends there. And I think it actually helped me. I wanted them to see me up there, in shape, ready to go, in the cage—because there were those who said it would never happen.”

In mixed martial arts, fighters employ a combination of all the martial arts disciplines: Muay Thai, boxing, judo, wrestling, jujitsu, all at one time. So fighters must have command of a huge toolbox of moves and approaches.

They also need to be in incredibly good shape.

“You get somebody who’s a 10-year wrestler, does kickboxing and stuff, pitted against somebody who has six years in Muay Thai and only has a couple years jujitsu,” Farnham describes. “But they have the same number of fights, so you match them up that way, and it’s a ‘best of the best’ kind of thing.

“I have a boxing coach, a jujitsu coach, a Muay Thai coach,” she says. “I train everything separately, but I compete using the combination. Some people just train MMA. You’re kicking, you’re punching, you’re doing the ground-and-pound stuff, but there are a lot of holes in your training because of that, because you’re training MMA as an overall thing instead of hammering on the specifics. The specifics are where the power is. That’s where the muscle memory comes from in all of these different disciplines. So I train it all separate and put it together in the cage.”

Farnham works out six to eight hours a day, trading her fight training with other regimens, track running and sprints, bleachers and CrossFit exercises, with plenty of sparring and one-on-one work with her trainers, “hammering” those all-important specifics.

It is, Farnham allows, a full-on obsession.

“A friend stopped by the other day and said, ‘I haven’t seen you in a while. You must be doing good in your life.'” Farnham laughs. “Uh. Yeah. I’ve been very busy! Work and training is pretty much all I do.”

Such was not always the case. There was a time, not so long ago, when Farnham’s life looked to be heading off the rails.

“I was overweight. I was drinking a lot,” she admits. “I was working the bars and stuff, and not taking care of myself. I was in trouble with the police. I was in and out of the courts. All alcohol-related stuff.”

She was young. She’d found a niche as a bartender, where her friendly personality and gift for gab made her popular with customers. She was fond of nightclubs, frequently partying with friends, drinking hard with her brothers, whom she describes as “great big Irishmen.”

Then her mother passed away after a battle with breast cancer.

Worried about her daughter’s self-neglect and addictive tendencies, Farnham’s mother made her promise that she would take a hard look at her choices, find a way to take control of her life, her health and her future.

“I promised. And after mom passed, I just knew I had to make a change,” Farnham says. “Life is short. I’d wasted so much of my life, I just didn’t want to waste time anymore. I realized life doesn’t always give you what you want or need. You have to make it happen. So instead of drinking all day, I decided to find a way to get in shape that I could stick with, something that would really inspire.”

Even Farnham’s mother couldn’t have predicted she’d find that inspiration in a 30-foot diameter steel cage. But she surely couldn’t argue with the results.

“I lost 48 pounds between the day I walked in to my first training session and the day I had my first fight,” Farnham says proudly. “And I’ve kept it off since. It saved my life. Fighting saved my life completely.”

Her fight with alcohol was a different matter.

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She’d been training, gradually acquiring skills, losing weight and building confidence, but was still drinking, still landing in trouble—and nowhere near ready to begin competing as a mixed martial artist.

“Then,” she recalls, “another fighter, this girl who dated my brother—pretty much my arch-rival, I guess—she came in, and she asked me how my training was going. And I said, ‘You know what? I love my training so much! I’m going to get serious about it. I’m going to quit drinking. I’m going to lose some more weight, and I’m going to start competing as a fighter.’

“And she laughed,” Farnham continues. “She laughed! And she spat her drink out. I’ll never forget this moment for as long as I live. She spat out her drink, and she said, ‘Yeah right, Megan! There’s no way you can ever do that. Come on, girl. Let’s be real.’ And after that, I didn’t drink for a whole year.”

Maybe it was the inner MMA fighter that she gradually awakened, but this was one challenge Farnham knew she had to meet head on. She swore off drinking and went a full 365 days sober, just to see what that was like.

“It changed my life,” she says. “Now, because of that year, I can have a glass of wine once in a while, and then I’m done. I can just stop and go home. I no longer have the urge or the need to get drunk.”

“It took someone telling me I couldn’t do it to make me finally do it,” she says, laughing. “I quit drinking. I lost more weight. And then—just like I said I would—I started competing.

“And to this day, I’m undefeated. I just have a hard time getting anyone to fight me.”

Asked if she’s ever met her “arch-rival” in a cage, Farnham grins.

“No, but I’ve fought more times than she has. And I have a better record than she has. So I’ve never fought her—but I did once beat the girl who beat her—so that’s the same thing, right?”

‘Left hook! Right body shot! “Left hook! Body shot! Good job!”

There’s a banner on the wall at Phas3 Martial Arts in Santa Rosa.

“Training People . . . Reconditioning Lives.”

This is the “essentials class,” where owner Ben Brown oversees a mix of novices and advanced students, all working the basic essentials of the Muay Thai martial arts discipline. He moves easily, with constant admonitions and encouragements, between the newcomers working out on the bags—”Don’t forget to kick! If you kick your opponent a lot in the first round, you’re going to knock them out in the second round!”—and the more advanced students doing drills in the corner ring.

After years of training at other Muay Thai schools, Farnham has found a home here, and a major supporter in Ben Brown.

“The most common definition of Muay Thai,” Brown explains after the class, “is ‘the Art of Eight Limbs.’ You hit with your hands, your legs, your elbows and your knees. Eight limbs. It’s the national sport of Thailand.”

Brown, who started training as a martial artist at the age of four-and-a-half, and who’s been teaching martial arts since he was 14, established his Muay Thai school on Summerfield 11 years ago.

“Megan’s an amazing girl, and pardon my language, she is a goddamned tough fighter, a tough fighter,” he says. “But she’s also a great representation of humanity. She’s positive, friendly, hardworking, and she has never failed to give me what I ask for during a training session. Even when I think it’s maybe a little beyond her, she delivers.”

Brown recalls his first training session with Farnham.

“Megan came in here with a little bit of post-traumatic-stress from negative experiences at her most recent gym,” he says. “Her confidence was a little bit wrecked. She’d been beaten down. She hadn’t been supported enough in her goals to get fights.

“But she was very, very hungry—I could see that,” he goes on. “In this business, talent isn’t enough. I’ve had plenty of talented people train here. Talent alone won’t do it. It’s about hunger. It’s about commitment. I’ll take a committed student over a talented student any day. And I could see from the moment she walked in here that Megan had talent, hunger and commitment.

“What she needed was the commitment of the people around her. I told her, ‘If you don’t quit on me, I will never quit on you.'”

What Brown soon observed, after providing Farnham with the kind of unconditional support she’d been craving, was a fighter quickly transforming into an even more powerful competitor—and more.

“This incredibly strong, wonderful, positive, friendly personality came out,” he says. “She became stronger at every level. Now she’s starting to help others with their training, cheering people on when they feel weak, encouraging them to dig deep.”

It’s the middle of December, a week after the Ultimate Reno Combat, where—par for the course—Farnham’s scheduled opponent pulled out of the fight with only hours to spare.

After months of training, focusing on this one, all-important fight, Megan Farnham was left in the lurch, all dressed up with no cage to work the ground-and-pound in.

“It’s really tricky because, honestly, things like this—this interview, publicity about her, and the various videos we’ve made, the YouTube footage of her fighting—all of that makes it hard for us to find someone willing to fight her,” says Brown. “Other fighters are scared of her.”

To be a fighter, there are a number of battles a competitor must survive before she puts on her gloves and steps into the cage. Finding the right promoter is one. Finding the right opponent is another. Agreeing on the correct weight for the match. Making that weight. And dealing with the anticipation that comes between the time she gets on the scale and the moment she throws her first punch.

“That’s five battles you have to fight before you face off against your opponent,” says Brown. “All the public sees is two people swinging at each other, but there were some hard, hard fights leading up to it, a series of very careful negotiations to put that fighter in a scenario where they can win.

“And female fighters, for good or bad, typically have a harder time finding opponents,” Brown shrugs. “It’s very hard for a good fighter like Megan to find someone willing to fight her. The pool of competent female fighters is small, for one thing—and coaches have a tendency to protect their female fighters more than their male fighters.”

Think of it as a metaphor for life.

A vast school of hard knocks, in which we learn how strong we are, help form the decisions about what kind of person we want to be and what we need to learn—and let go of—to be our best selves. And every so often, we step into a cage and do battle with whatever it is that stands between us and the best version of ourselves.

“Life is an exercise of commitment,” says Brown. “And MMA fighting, it’s definitely about commitment. So what does Megan do now? She does what she does. She nods her head. She takes a step forward. She gets her hands up. She keeps her chin down—and she keeps on training.

“And she trusts me to find her that next fight. And I will.”

But sometimes it turns out that another battle these fighters must survive is having their next fight fall out.

“That’s emotionally devastating for a fighter whose put everything into her training,” remarks Brown. “When Megan found out about Reno, you could tell it was a blow. A big blow. But while I know it really upset her, she took it on the chin. She took that news the same way she takes a punch to the face.

“She said, ‘Ouch.’ Then she said, ‘OK, What’s next?'”

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