In the ’90s, everyone surrounding the Mixed Martial Arts world was still finding their footing. Oftentimes, it wasn’t even the intention for those who wound up leaving their marks to get involved in the first place.
Currently residing in Orange County, California, and working as a boxing coach, Erin Toughill has seen it all over the years – she never would have assumed that would have been the case when she was just 18.
Using a fake ID as a rebellious young adult, Toughill would sneak into bars before turning 21. Ultimately, this led to a major life change as one night out she met her future coach Sean McCully – the brother of eventual UFC veteran Justin McCully.
Exchanging some drunken words, McCully asked Toughill if she thought she was tough to which Toughill proudly answered with confirmation. Offering her an invite—or perhaps a request—to show up to his gym the very next day, Toughill did just that and these rest, as they say, was history.
Four years later in September 1999 and an opportunity presented itself for Toughill to professionally debut in the sport of MMA. At a time where footage was less than readily available of fighters, Toughill recalls ordering video through Black Belt Magazine to do any sort of opponent studying.
“I remember distinctly watching it on the big screen and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I can beat this bitch,'” Toughill told MyMMANews. “Little do I know, because we don’t know any of this because there are no records running around – she was 4-0 or 3-0 in MMA and it was my pro debut. But she was like 40-5 in kickboxing.
“I’m 20 and she’s basically my age now, 38. I get there and we’re gonna get a thousand dollars – a thousand dollars is pretty rad because even nowadays people don’t get a thousand dollars (laughs). So I’m like whatever, Sean’s brother Justin was going to fight, Heath Herring was on the card, Gilbert Yvel, it was a pretty big f*cking thing. And I’m like… I think I’m badass… I think. Then I see this chick.”
Off to the Dutch Island of Aruba, Orange County’s Erin Toughill was only aware of who she was facing in her first career fight – Holland’s Irma Verhoeff. It wasn’t until she arrived that the rules and regulations had been laid out… along with some added “hospitality” from the locals.
At the World Vale Tudo Championship 9 event, the men’s bouts were 30-minute one-round fights whereas Toughill and Verhoeff were allotted half of that. No winners via decisions, no weight classes, Toughill remembers entering at 165-pounds but still being outweighed.
“The point is, I knew nothing like I do now,” She said. “I did probably more Jiu-Jitsu compared to her. She was a stand-up [fighter]. There was no comparison, I wasn’t going to beat her standing up. So it was just take her f*cking down.
“I ended up getting a draw, I loved it. It was one of the scariest things I ever did in my life because I walked into this cage on the beach in Aruba. The whole week, the Dutchies were like, ‘This chick’s gonna f*cking beat your ass.’ It was scary but when I came out of there, maybe because I’m an athlete, I love competition, it’s very much different than playing on a sports team, I went… I think that’s kind of when you know, win or lose, you just go; ‘I can do this again. I want to do this again.’ And I did.”
Admittedly understanding the insanity of her decision to pursue more fights, Toughill notes that that’s just how it was back in the day. Crazy people wanting to fight because they’re crazy, there were no big sponsor deals or otherwise in place, no career value – especially for the women in particular.
They didn’t fight because they thought people were watching, and it wasn’t until many years later that fights were even more accessible to be viewed.
After drawing in her first fight in Aruba, the now 43-year old Erin Toughill went on to enjoy a great career with 10 victories to three losses. Her early days were majorly spent in Japan where after fighting Verhoeff she was a part of what history looks at as the women’s version of UFC 1; the ReMix World Cup 2000.
Yet again an openweight affair, this one-night tournament allowed decision victories and Toughill earned the first of her career via split decision to advance to the semifinals. Falling short to the largest competitor in the competition, Svetlana Goundarenko, the years of 2001 to 2004 that followed saw Toughill build her record to 6-2-1 including a knockout win over future Strikeforce champion Marloes Coenen.
By this time, MMA had started growing more in the U.S. and allowed Toughill some more opportunities than the boxing matches she’d been sprinkling in between MMA contests.
From 2006 to 2009, Erin Toughill went 4-0 stateside and even signed herself a nice deal with the aforementioned Strikeforce. Potential huge fights at 145-pounds with Cris “Cyborg” Justino, Amanda Nunes, and a Coenen rematch were all discussed. Unfortunately, Toughill never stepped foot into the Strikeforce cage due to a painkiller addiction that forced an early retirement in 2011
However, the Chicago native did make a comeback to boxing in 2019 and still remains hopeful that she can do the same for MMA in 2021.
“I. Want. To. Fight. Kayla. Harrison. I’ve called her out seven f*cking times, I follow her on her f*cking Instagram, I messaged her the other day,” Toughill said. “With all due respect, she is not disrespectful No. 1, but I love talking sh*t – I can really talk sh*t. But she’s never been disrespectful. I don’t feel the need to because I think that’s classless to create something that doesn’t exist. I have total respect for her, she’s a f*cking legitimate athlete but PFL is f*cking sh*t and they’re giving her—which is fine, they’re padding her f*cking record—this next girl that was a 125-pound champ.
“I tagged her on something and I was like bro, come one. I’m old, right? Like I’m some f*cking old-ass bitch who’s 40, if you can beat me then okay. I can beat her, I can knock her out.”
Having been living that fighter lifestyle and mentally for the past 25 years, Toughill believes her inactivity is a non-factor as she never stopped training. Aside from that, it just helps her state of mind.
Currently walking around at about 180-pounds, the MMA pioneer is open to making that necessary cut that would be needed to face the so-far unbeatable 8-0 Kayla Harrison in a 155-pound lightweight clash. As alluded to, the PFL next season is about to start next week and for Harrison, she returns and kicks things off against Mariana Moraes on May 6.
In terms of name-value, experience, and size, Erin Toughill automatically makes for a solid candidate for the PFL’s tournament where fellow veterans like Cindy Dandois and Kaitlin Young stand out as far superior to the rest in terms of MMA accolades.
“I’m one of the best there ever was in MMA, I don’t give a sh*t if I’m not fighting,” Toughill exclaimed. “I was supposed to fight two years ago on that Chuck [Liddell] and Tito [Ortiz] Golden Boy undercard. I hadn’t had an MMA fight for eight years and f*cking eight girls turned it down. I train every day at The Bodyshop, Antonio McKee, his kid AJ McKee, all the dudes that train there… You want to talk about a murderer’s f*cking row?
“Do I think she’s an easy fight? Of course not. Do I think it’s a fight I can win and I can knock her the f*ck out? F*ck yeah. And she don’t want this smoke, I messaged her f*cking manager, that Azeel, whatever the f*ck his name is.
“I never said I was the best in boxing – I fought some of the best,” Toughill added. “But I am one of the best that ever was in MMA and I know that.”
In the rare instance that Harrison did reply to Toughill, it was to tell their managers to get in touch. It’s not personal for the boxing and MMA star as she respects the Olympic gold medalist Judoka – she just doesn’t respect the competition she’s had in her first eight MMA fights.
For Erin Toughill, it just goes to show that once that fighting spirit begins burning, it never quite goes out.
“If I’m so f*cking easy then murk me, starch me. If someone was calling me out the way I’m calling her out, I’d be like, ‘Let’s f*cking go!'”