It is always an honor to hear from someone with a passion for something. It encourages us to learn about new things and inspires us to think about our own passions in life. For Melissa Gardner, her passions are boxing/Muay Thai and BJJ/wrestling. Muay Thai- often referred to as the “Art of Eight Limbs”- uses the entire body as a weapon through eight points of contact. BJJ (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) is a martial art and combat sport that centers on grappling and ground fighting. Both sports are becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. In sports that are primarily male-dominated, it has been truly refreshing to hear from a woman MMA fighter.
Despite her busy schedule as a social studies teacher at Raritan High School, Melissa stills finds time to train at The Institute for Muay Thai, Rhino Wrestling for wrestling, and Garden State BJJ for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
BA : I’ll start off with an easy question. What is your background in MMA?
MG: I have been training boxing/Muay Thai for 4 years and BJJ/wrestling for about 2 ½ years. I started at Daddis Fight Camps in Hamilton, NJ and trained at Pellegrino MMA for the past 2 years before starting at the Institute, Rhino, and Garden State. I have had two amateur kickboxing fights and competed in a number of grappling tournaments. My first amateur MMA fight was scheduled for April but was cancelled because my opponent was unable to fight.
BA: How did you get into the sport and how long have you been involved?
MG: I have been involved in MMA for about 4 years. I never actually planned to become involved; it sort of just happened. I had watched UFC events a few times with friends but was never really interested in it. In my twenties, I went through a number of traumatic experiences and suffered a lot with anxiety/PTSD. I wanted to get involved in something that would help to relieve my stress on a regular basis. I had danced competitively for most of my life but wanted to try something a little different, so I decided I wanted to learn how to box. The closest gym to my house that offered boxing happened to be an MMA gym. I started boxing and quickly got hooked on Muay Thai too. It took me another year or so to feel comfortable starting Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
BA: How many days/hours do you train each week?
MG: I train 6-7 days a week; averaging 2-5 hours per day depending on the time of year and fight preparation.
BA: Which team(s) are you training with in preparation for your next bout?
MG: I am training with the Institute Muay Thai in Morganville, NJ.
BA: On a personal note, how has MMA enriched your life?
MG: At the risk of sounding crazy, I honestly don’t know where I would be at this point in my life if I hadn’t been introduced to MMA. The sport has completely transformed my life and helped me to become a better person all around. It has given me the confidence to make some tough yet necessary decisions that have made me much happier, and it has gotten me through many tough experiences without falling apart. The fighter community is nothing short of amazing. It’s sort of ironic that in a sport with such a brutal reputation, I have met some of the most caring, genuine, and unique individuals out there. I often refer to the gym as my “sanctuary”. It’s really a safe place where I can leave my problems at the door.
BA: What do you want to be remembered for at the end of your career?
MG: I fight solely for the love of the sport, but I do hope that I am remembered by those I train with as a dedicated, supportive teammate and those I fight against as a challenging yet respectful opponent.
BA: Where do you see yourself going with MMA?
MG: I’ve never set long-term goals in the sport. I’m going to keep competing and fighting until there comes a time when I no longer enjoy it or my body gives up on me; whichever comes first. I hope to stay involved in the sport recreationally for the long term. I would love to help coach others one day.
BA: As a woman, I always feel empowered when I watch women’s MMA since it tends to be a male-dominated sport. Do you find you’ve run into more obstacles being a women in MMA and can you touch upon what it’s meant for you to be a woman in MMA?
MG: I have found it difficult at times to be a woman in a male-dominated sport, but there have been so many strong women breaking those barriers for years that I am lucky to have come in at a time when it’s pretty much accepted in most places. My male training partners have always been pretty great at taking into consideration my level/size when sparring. It’s rare that I come across someone who goes too easy or too hard, and they are usually beginners who don’t know how to control it. The biggest issue that I have faced has involved finding opponents for fights. I have had many bouts cancelled at the last minute due to injuries, medical issues, or other factors. It’s usually too late to find a replacement since the pool of women is smaller. In the past year or so I have trained for 6 fights and only fought 2 of them. The weight cut element of the sport can also be a bit tricky for females since there aren’t many of us around to consult and our approach to weight cuts often differs from that of males due to anatomy.
BA: How is your family supportive of you and your sport?
MG: My family has been supportive for the most part. They were nervous/skeptical at first since it’s so different from female dominated sports, but I think that they have seen how happy it makes me and have come to accept it. My mom still doesn’t like to watch me fight since she’s afraid I’ll get hurt. I actually made her watch an MMA fight online so she would be mentally prepared before watching it in person. They also had a tough time understanding the weight cut stuff around holidays but they now know that I always bring my own meals.
BA: What type of training have you been doing lately for your workouts?
MG: I have been attempting to do 2-3 workouts a day since I’m fighting soon. During the week, I wake up early to either run or do other conditioning for an hour before work. I usually do 1-2 hours of striking/sparring right after work. Then I take an hour break followed by 1-2 hours of grappling. On the weekends I have been incorporating more intense running and sparring sessions into the mix.
BA: Which fighters do you like the most/who do you use as your role models (if anyone). Do you like fighters with the same style that you use or does it not matter to you?
MG: I consider all females in the sport to be role models because I think a majority of them are in it for the pure love of the sport. If I were to choose a favorite I would say Cat Zingano because she’s worked hard to overcome so many struggles in her life. I’m also a Miesha Tate fan because she fights with tremendous heart.
BA: If you could change the rules of MMA and tweak them to your liking/fighting style, what would you change?
MG: Honestly there’s not much that I would change.