Cast your mind back to when you were 19 years old — what were you doing? I was ‘studying’ during my first year at university, though my thoughts were largely dominated by going out and all the other external factors that enter a teenager’s brain.
Cory McKenna goes against the stereotypes of a typical teenage girl in more ways than one. By the age of 17, she had already won two amateur mixed-martial-arts belts and was beginning to be touted as one of the brightest female MMA prospects in Europe.
Two years on from her successes, she now trains full-time at Tillery Combat in South Wales alongside current Cage Warriors bantamweight champion Jack Shore and UFC bantamweight contender, Brett Johns.
The strawweight competed in her first amateur fight in 2014 when she was 15 after only two years of training. Despite this, she had started working on individual disciplines within mixed-martial-arts from at the age of 12.
The 2-1 fighter has certainly found her natural habitat within the confinements of an MMA gym: “I’ve been there since I was tiny. I don’t drink or go out, I’m fully committed to training full time so it’s never been a struggle, there’s no temptation there whatsoever,” Cory said.
She quickly adapted to a different lifestyle despite what her classmates may have thought. She explained: “I never really cared about people’s opinions anyway. It was just something that I did and it’s who I am. My friends don’t really acknowledge it, they would just be like — oh she’s fighting again.”
McKenna has been fortunate enough to be supported by her parents during the early stages of her career, allowing her to train morning, afternoon and evening and travel across the country in her Toyota Aygo. The one litre engine is similar to its owner — it may be small but it has an unwavering determination to reach its end destination.
Cory is extremely thankful for her parent’s support: “It has allowed me to train full time without having to worry about employment or any other financial issues. I help by telling them it’s an investment and one day it’ll pay off.”
Wendy McKenna is able to understand her daughter’s ambitions of reaching the pinnacle of the sport more so than most parents, as she has fought professionally in the octagon on three occasions.
In fact, her daughter has even cornered her in all the fights that she has been able to make after regularly sharing a mat together in the gym.
When asked about crossing the barrier of being your mum at home and your training partner on the mats, the 19-year-old said: “You mean I get permission to punch my mum in the face every day? I love it!”
She continued: “We understood that gym and private life are separate. On the mats we are training partners, we are not mother and daughter. We kept that outside. It wasn’t really any different, but it was handy to have someone my size to train with me.”
The young fighter has since outgrown her mother and has sought after alternative methods of finding training partners that match her size. One of the main ways she has achieved this is by training with team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. The gym is notorious for training some of MMA’s most highly skilled smaller fighters and was founded by UFC Hall of Famer Urijah Faber and is the current home for former UFC bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt.
On working with team Alpha Male, McKenna said: “Our family holidays were always based around gyms. I tried ATT, Kings MMA, Glendale, Alpha Male and a few others to try to find a place that I’d like to go to because I always knew that maybe I’d want somewhere high level, but with a lot of small people.”
The stylistic approach of the gym is also well-suited to Cory as her grappling is often considered her strongest discipline. One of the many benefits of training in Sacramento is competing with the likes of Cynthia Calvillo on a daily basis. The American is currently trying to break into the top ten of strawweights in the UFC rankings.
“It’s great to have someone of that calibre to compare yourself to on a daily basis. There’s a lot of smaller lads there as well that are always happy to jump in,” Cory said.
Cory is currently in unfamiliar territory going into her next fight against Fannie Redman, as this will be the first time she enters the octagon after coming off the back of a defeat. Her split-decision loss to Micol DiSegni in September is one that she hopes to move on from as soon as possible.
“I know for a fact that I didn’t do myself justice, but I’m still as confident as ever. Personally, I thought I won, but I’m also aware that I could have done a lot more. I can sit here crying about it all I want, but I’ve just got to keep training hard and do better in the next one.”
The manner in which she handled the defeat and the professional attitude in which she handles her own career is an example to any athlete, especially to some fighters who are almost twice her age.
She said: “I don’t look up to the people in the UFC. I look up to the people I see on the mats everyday. The pros, my coaches, my old and new teammates. I see the effort from behind the scenes, that’s more what I look up to.”
She has an understanding of what is required to reach the pinnacle of the sport and is aware that the path is arguably easier for a female fighter.
“There’re girls in the UFC that are 3-0, 4-0. Most men need at least 11 or 12 fights to get there. If you’re tearing up the scene as a woman, it is easier to get noticed because there’s less of us, but at the same time we don’t find it as easy to get fights.”
Although, she has reiterated that she intends to take it one fight at a time and hopes to be within reach of the Cage Warriors belt after four more fights. You can see the next chapter of Cory’s journey at the Viola Arena in Cardiff at the end of this month.
Featured photograph/Cory McKenna