Four years ago we spoke with Swayze Valentine, a pioneer in the sport of mixed martial arts. Now being featured more regularly on some of the televised UFC broadcasts, Valentine’s stardom as an MMA cutwoman has skyrocketed. Tony Reid of MyMMANews.com caught up with Valentine to discuss her career.
Tony Reid – Being the first in anything is special. Being the first female in a position in a male dominated sport like MMA is really special. We have seen Kim Winslow as a referee and Shannon Knapp heading up one of the largest MMA promotions to name a few. What does it mean to you to be the first mainstream cutwoman in the sport?
Swayze Valentine – “It is very special to be on the list as one of the firsts, nothing can ever change that. But what means more to me than being a first, was to have found what I love to do and to have these fighters allow me into their world and be a part of their careers. Without them I can’t do what I love.”
TR – Who or what inspired you to pursue a career as a cutwoman? Who are some of your inspirations?
SV – “The decision to become a cutwoman was not only driven by my love for the industry but it is in my blood. My grandfather was a professional boxer for many years and he boxed for the Golden Gloves three times. He unfortunately passed away before I was born, so I never had the honor of meeting him. It is also about me doing the most meaningful and rewarding part of the industry…taking care of the fighters. I am a mother. I love to take care of people. To wrap the hands of a fighter and to take care of them in the cage or ring is the greatest honor for me. My kids are also a big inspiration. I strive to be the best role model I can for them. I want them to know that they can do anything they want to do, no matter the stigma or how unattainable their dreams may seem. They inspire me every day to be a better person and mother. Another person that has been an inspiration in my career is Ronda Rousey. A few years ago she gave me some advice, she said, ‘Don’t let anyone make you feel like you don’t deserve to be there.’ I take that advice and apply it to every situation in life that poses a challenge or doubt.”
TR – I don’t think many grasp what it truly takes to blaze a trail or break ground like you have. You worked for free for three plus years to learn the craft. What was that particular time period and sacrifice like to work through?
SV – “Well, I started my journey in 2006. I lived in Alaska at the time I started and the industry wasn’t big there at that time. So I did what I could when I lived there. I ended up moving to the lower 48 (States) which really opened up the opportunities for me to expand my knowledge. While I lived in Mountain Home AFB, in Idaho, I found a MMA gym called Combat Fitness, which was 65 -70 miles away in Boise. I would drive there every day to wrap fighter’s hands for their sparring sessions. While I was there, I started to travel to all the surrounding states including, Washington, Oregon and Nevada to get to know more fighters and their camps. I needed to get myself out there to gain their trust. All these guys see is some chick and had no Idea what I could do or why I was there, so building these relationships while being somewhat of a challenge, was so valuable. The relationships were successful and I still work with a lot of them to this day. But traveling to all these places was expensive and only got more difficult. I was a single mother of two children.
“I went through a nasty divorce/custody battle during this time. I was left with nothing in the end, No money, he took my kids for months, later he would take my only vehicle as well. I pawned what items that I had left from the divorce, for gas/plane ticket money. I donated plasma countless times to get money to go where I needed to. This was the hardest time in my life. I had to make a new life for myself and my children. I had to go big, so I worked even harder. Of course for free. I would go to Vegas often since it would be the best place for me to gain more ground. There I met, whom would be my future mentor, Adrian. We worked a MMA event together in Las Vegas. I was still only wrapping hands at the time. He, like all the others, wasn’t too sure about me. A few days after that event, I contacted him to see if he was willing to train me the cut side of the job. After weeks of convincing, he finally agreed to take me in and teach me the craft. I would travel to Vegas many times through a few years and he taught me every inch of the industry. I am so thankful for his time. He helped my career blossom into what it is today.”
TR – You also paid your way around the country to travel to different gyms just to learn the craft and gain experience from a multitude of people. How was it being a tourist in so many gyms?
SV – “It was fun! I loved going to new gyms and meeting new people. Meeting fighters and knowing their similar struggles made me not feel alone and it inspired me to keep truckin’.”
TR – Is it true that you put yourself through mock scenarios in gyms in Vegas before doing it at live events?
SV – “Usually the night before every event, I go over my supply list… about 3-4 times (Laughs), I will sit in the hotel room and make swabs and set up my tray (that I bring cageside) I make sure everything is packed and ready to go for my call time the next morning. On fight day, I meet with everyone in the lobby. We load up and head to the arena. Then I get my list of fighters fighting that night and mark the ones that need their hands wrapped. Once we all have determined who needs their hands wrapped we discuss who is working who’s corner. After that, we go to the fighter corresponding locker room and get them rollin’!”
TR – Some of the trials and tribulations you fought through involved physical attacks by men in the sport. Can you tell us about those not so nice experiences?
SV – “First I want it to be clear that I have had by far, MANY more positive experiences than negative ones. But, it is no surprise that being a woman in a predominantly male atmosphere, I will have to overcome some adversity. The largest challenge I continually struggle with is acceptance. Being a woman I have to prove myself over and over again. No matter how many times I do something right or how well I close a cut someone will say “It wasn’t good enough.” Just because I made it to the ‘Big Time’ doesn’t make anything easier, in fact, it is the opposite. I am under a lot more pressure, there is more competition to get work. Some fighter’s camps don’t want me to wrap their hands, or work their corner, which even the veteran male cutman face this same challenge. I have dealt with the whole spectrum of assault. I ‘have been verbally assaulted, sexually and physically assaulted.
I have been bullied and still get bullied. Even though these experiences have been unfortunate, it can happen anytime, anywhere to anyone. You cannot judge the industry as a whole by a few bad apples. I want to share my good and bad experiences with everyone. A lot of people believe my road to being a cutwoman has been an easy one, and like many others whom are blazing a trail, it’s rough. Crazy as it seems, I am so thankful for every bump. Each bump has made me stronger and had taught me something, and if me sharing my experiences with the world can help inspire others to not give up and to keep going, or to help my children through a hard time, then it is all worth it. If I would have gave up, I would have never made history or have had the other opportunities I have had. Every life has a story and there is something to learn from each one. I love what I do. So sit back, relax and get to know me because I’m not going anywhere!”
TR – How did you received the “Queen of Cuts” nickname?
SV – “One day I was at a gym in Las Vegas doing a video Q & A. As I am answering questions, Stitch Duran walks in with some supplies that my mentor had gave to him to give to me. We took a break and I went over to see what he had brought me. As I was looking through my goodies, the film team asked if they could film me wrapping Stitches hand for the video. When I finished up his hand wrap, he gave me the name “The Queen of Cuts” and it has stuck ever since.”
TR – There are steps and levels in what it took to get to where you are and what you do today. You wrapped hands exclusively for years before ever progressing to greasing, right?
SV – “Yes. I wrapped hands for years. To be a good cutman/woman, you need to master this skill first. There are no organizations that will hire you if you do not know how to wrap hands. It is also a great way to build your relationship with the fighter and their camp. I know for me, wrapping hands is my favorite part. That is the time I get to know my fighter as a person. I get to talk and joke with them and build a more intimate relationship with them. This is a great time for me to prove that they can trust me. I value my one on one time with them. When you’re in the cage, it is also a very special moment, but in a different way.”
TR – Speaking of steps and levels what does the licensing process consist of? Did you have any difficulties or were you treated differently along that path?
SV – “It is actually very easy to get licensed. So easy that all you have to do is pay your money and you’re licensed! It’s great that it is so easy, but you have to have the skill to back it up. Included in being licensed, it is giving you permission to carry/use potentially dangerous substances like Epinephrine, so I strongly recommend you gain as much information as you can about these substances before you go and get licensed. Plus, you can only get Epi from a doctor.”
TR – Your first UFC event was UFC 170. What was the experience like finally making it to the big show after so many years of trials and tribulations in smaller shows in and in the shadows?
SV – “It was unforgettable. I was really nervous. Having a love for the sport, I watched a lot of these fighters on TV. Like seeing Joe Rogan for instance. I was a huge fan of Fear Factor, and here he is walking right by me. It is an honor walking the halls with so many elite professionals in all aspects of the sport. I had to talk my nervousness down a few times. I would have to lie to myself in saying, ‘This is just a regular fight and you know what you are doing. Don’t pass out!’ It was really intimidating. Because even though I have done this for years, it is different when you hit the biggest organization in the industry. But the UFC made my transition beautiful. They take such amazing care of everyone involved. They made me feel extremely comfortable the whole night.”
TR – What was the most memorable hand wrapping of your career so far?
SV – “It is hard to pick just one experience. I know a few languages (not fluently) so I love to check the fight card to see who is not from the USA. If I don’t know their language, I will study a few days before the fight to learn a phrase or two. I love to surprise the fighter with communication in his/her language when I sit down to wrap their hands. I like going that extra mile to make your fighter as comfortable as possible while being out of their country. When I sit down in front of a fighter, is the best experience. I am so thankful that they are trusting me with their future and that means the world.”
TR – What is your most memorable greasing moment or memory?
SV – “Most memorable greasing moment would be when I was working a fight and the I just got done greasing my fighter (we only grease the mask of the face) I stepped aside after I was done and the fighter grabs my arm and pulls me back in front of him . I pull back to the side and he grabs me again then motions me to put grease on his lips. The fighter didn’t speak English, so he didn’t understand why we were not granting his request. So, he wipes the grease off my glove and puts it on his lips himself. Do to the commission’s rules for that state that we were in, this was not allowed. So I had to wipe it all off and do it again. Because of that experience, I now know the language!”