Local female MMA fighters face off in high-stakes bout

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 28, 2013 

Neither Jessica Bakan nor Mari Mata believed they'd be amateur mixed martial arts fighters two years ago, although the clues were scattered throughout the pair's upbringing.

Mata, a 22-year-old Mount Baker graduate, gravitated toward sports during her youth and wrestled in high school, placing eighth in state as a senior. Bakan, a 26-year-old mother of three who has been living in Whatcom County the past five years, always wanted to join karate classes and longed to wrestle in high school, but her parents would never sign the permission slip.

Now the two are on a collision course they both hope will elevate their careers in arguably one of the most violent sports in the athletic realm.

The two are set to meet for a 145-pound bout during A-Town Throwdown 9 when fighting begins at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28, at Soccer First Indoor Sports in Arlington.

"It was kind of a dormant dream," said Bakan of MMA fighting. "I met my boyfriend and he was really into MMA. We started grappling at home, just playing around and about six months ago I went to (a UFC fight). That kind of resparked it for me."

Even though Bakan's fight against Mata will be her first official octagon fight, Bellingham MMA instructor Jeremy Saunders said she is the most impressive female fighter he's ever worked with. That's saying a lot given Saunders' background, which includes 11 years of fighting, 10 years of training fighters and a number of years as an MMA referee.

Bakan has spent six months training at Bellingham MMA, entering two tournaments. She placed first at both and even took second in one of them in the men's 155-pound division.

"I'm definitely excited," Bakan said. "Again it's my first fight, so there are things. Will I make weight? What will it be like in the cage? Am I going to freak out because there are walls around me and I've never experienced that before?"

So how is Bakan battling all that anxiety? She's putting it into training and has wowed her coach with her work ethic, putting in three-to-four hours of gym work a day nearly every day of the week.

"I guess I'm an obsessive person," Bakan said. "I really want to get something right (if I'm going to do it). I really want to be good at it. I'm really competitive with myself, so I just really want to be good at it, not just push through with strength and brawn, which I've been working on."

Bakan stands 5-foot-9, weighs just over 150 pounds and is visibly well sculpted. Admittedly, she hasn't developed a specific fighting style yet, but she's preparing for anything a more-experienced Mata might throw at her.

Most likely, that will be wrestling, thanks to the Mount Baker grad's background.

Mata, like Bakan, took a unique path in her fighting career. She's always loved sports, playing soccer, volleyball and softball, but Mata really wanted to box in high school. With no high school boxing program, Mata settled for wrestling. A year and half ago she decided to fulfill her boxing dream and discovered Shayne Simpson's Martial Arts and Fitness in Bellingham.

Originally, Mata had no desire to fight. She solely wanted to learn some self-defense skills. But when asked whether or not she wanted to compete in a match, she agreed to do it.

"They asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said, 'No, I didn't sign up to compete,'" Mata said. "And they said, 'Just try it out,' and I did and I got addicted to it."

Mata, who stands 5-foot-5 and weighs 130 pounds, enters her fight with Bakan owning a 2-1 record, but she blames her last fight, a loss, on poor preparation. That hasn't been an issue this time, and even though she knows this is Bakan's first time in the octogon, Mata isn't taking her opponent lightly.

"Before we even knew we were going to fight, we became friends on Facebook, so I don't know her, but I know how she looks and kind of a little bit about her," Mata explained. "I know she lifts weights and does fitness. ... Being it's her first fight, I don't underestimate her. This is one of the fights I've been working harder."

And for good reason. Not only did Mata say she's been told her bout with Bakan has potential to earn fight of the night honors, she's heard a win would do wonders for career advancement. If all goes as planned, Mata wants to take 10 more fights, then turn pro. Bakan has professional aspirations as well.

"I definitely have my pipe dream of eventually getting to be a pro fighter and fight some of my idols," Bakan said, "but I just want to take it as it goes and see how I do in the cage. Some people go in there and can't pull the trigger. I don't think I'll be one of those people. I just want to take it one step at a time, but of course I have my lofty dream."

Another similarity exists between Mata and Bakan. Both anticipate a Saturday night victory.

"I'm expecting a win," Mata said with a smile. "I have been working really hard and trying to hard to win this fight, and I feel like it's going to be a win."

Said Bakan: "I'm definitely hoping for a dominant win. I definitely think I can get that. I think it's in me, so I'd really like to get her to tap out or get the ref to stop the fight."

Reach Andrew Lang at andrew.lang@bellinghamherald.com or call 360-756-2862.

A-TOWN THROWDOWN

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28. Doors open at 7 p.m.

Where: Soccer First Indoor Sports in Arlington

Cost: Tickets are $25

Course maps and more information: bellinghambaymarathon.org

Reach ANDREW LANG at andrew.lang@bellinghamherald.com or call ext. 862.

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