Happy Easter and welcome to March’s Rule Your Nation Awards!
Today we have two amazing athletes who fought the odds and expectations placed upon them. So far, they’re winning, but as you’ll see from their stories, they have no intention on letting up just yet. Read further, and you’ll see why.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in North Omaha, Nebraska.
Were you an athlete as a kid?
No, I wasn’t an athlete. I played sports with friends, but I was a troubled kid, so I would get kicked off the team for fighting or cussing the coach out.
I didn’t have a father growing up, and I was passed around from family to family. I lived in eight different households. I found love with friends in the street, so I was always hanging out in the street.
How did that shape your mentality?
I always felt like I had to look out for myself because, even though I was passed around, they took care of me, but I wasn’t their priority. So when I got in trouble, they were like, “He’s too much trouble. He got to go.” With a parent, they can’t just let you go. So I always felt like I had to take care of myself.
What you made you join the military?
I joined the military because being where I was from and getting in a lot of trouble, I started to see if I didn’t leave, I was going to end up in jail or dead.
I was hanging out with friends and we were part of a gang. I was getting in fights, getting shot at, getting jumped. It was to the point that my own family didn’t want to hang around me. People were like, “You’re smarter than this.”
I looked up and guys found out where I lived and started shooting at my house. I decided I had to leave before somebody close to me got hurt.
My grandma offered to pay for me to go to school, but I knew guys in college who came back to Omaha and did the same things. So I left for the military because I knew it would get me out and give me discipline.
My uncle told me about it, and a went to a recruiting station. Within a week, I was signed up. Two weeks, I was gone. May of 2007 was when I first left. I was 18, approaching my 19th birthday.
You started boxing in 2010 because you were looking for a new workout. When did you decide to take it seriously?
As soon as I started boxing, within a week people were like, “How long have you been boxing?”
I said it was my first week, and they said I was a natural. I thought boxing was hard and people were way better than me. So I thought I could be a gatekeeper and make a little money off of boxing. I had my first fight a month after I started and looked good.
In a year I had my first All Army tournament. At first I fought at super heavyweight and moved down to heavyweight and beat everyone in my weight class. In the finals, I lost by a point to a guy named Charles Blackwell. Everybody felt like I won, but you know, they all knew him, and he was the golden boy for the Army.
What’s a gatekeeper for those who don’t know?
Somebody who is good, but they’re not like the best at that level, and they get you to that next level. Say you’re fighting C-level fighters, a gatekeeper would be at B-level, and beating him gets you to that next level. They have gatekeepers for championships too.
Can you give an example?
Zab Judah right now is a gatekeeper. He’s older. He’s a prior champion. He’s good, but he’s old and on his way out. Another gatekeeper that comes to mind is someone like Gabriel Rosado. He’s a good opponent, but he seems to lose on that high level when he gets to those big name fighters
Would you consider the guy you fought for your pro debut a gatekeeper?
Oh, no. He’s an initial opponent. He’s what they call a tomato can. I fight under Top Rank, and a lot of people don’t fight under a big promoter. They’ll usually give you a sound opponent. My understanding was that he would be a good fighter. He was 7-7 in MMA, and he switched to boxing where he was 1-0 with a knockout. I thought it would be harder, but as you can see it went different. (He won by first round stoppage. -Ed.)
How has your experience in the Army, including serving in Afghanistan, influenced your life as a boxer?
Oh, man. My experience in the Army was awesome. I had a great time in the Army because the Army’s a world in itself. Some people have a good experience or a bad experience. The units I was in were all good units. One of them was special forces, and that’s like the A-Team in the army. They get the best equipment and get to keep their beards . It’s more relaxed on a first name basis.
Then I was airborne and had fun getting paid to jump out of planes. Then my job was satellite communications, which is one of the highest jobs. Then I made the Army boxing team, and my job was to get up and train and go to all the national tournaments and compete, all under the expense of the government and they pay you to compete.
How do you think it shaped your life as a boxer now?
It showed me what dedication was. It wasn’t like I did boxing freelance and did it when I wanted. It was my job, so I did it everyday. I was dedicated. It showed me what hard work was. We had a strength and conditioning coach. We had to get up early and go back at night.
Now as a pro, it’s nothing to train two, three times a day. It’s nothing to get up every day.
So I hear you’ve trained with a couple stars, particularly Terence Crawford who is a childhood friend of yours. How did sparring with a lightweight champion help your career?
Sparring with him shows me what it takes to be a world champ because he’s on that level and I’m with him on a daily basis. Sparring with him, I don’t get to trade power shots because he’s smaller and faster, so I can’t load up and punch my hardest. It teaches me to punch and go back on defense because if I don’t, I’ll get countered. He’s a great counter puncher and it helps with my speed and timing. So when I get in with the bigger guys, it’s like, “Oh, I saw that punch from two days ago.”
You also sparred with Andre Ward before your pro debut. What did you learn from him?
I learned a lot of tricks and trades from sparring him. And he also showed me where I belong. Sparring with him, we were exchanging blows back and forth, and he had his days and I had my days. He’s the best pound for pound right now. He hasn’t lost a fight since 12 y ears old, so sparring with him, he shows me what level I’m at.
Any predictions for his fight against Sullivan Barrera?
I don’t think it’ll be a one punch K.O., but I think it’ll be a stoppage. Barrera is slow, so he’ll throw one punch and Ward will land two or three in spurts.(Ward won by unanimous decision-Ed.)
Any advice for someone who looks up to you as a role model?
My advice to anyone is, anything you see others doing or whatever you want to do, you can do it. All you have to do is take the time, learn everything about what you want to do, take advice from people who have already been there, and analyze people who are already there.
That’s what keeps me doing what I do. I have trades and skills from watching what other folks do and saying, “He’s a human being. So I can do what he does. I just have to figure out how.”
What advice do you have for your past self?
Do what’s best for you, Steven, and don’t look at what others say is best for you. Do what you feel is best for you.
I wish I would’ve known that 10 years before I figured it out. I didn’t figure it out until I was deployed in Afghanistan. I had so much time to grow as a man and figure out what life is about and realize how spoiled we are in America and how much we follow each other just because one person says it’s this and that instead of finding our path and paving it. I figured that out at age 21-21, and I wish I figured it out at 14 or 15 or earlier.
What about your time in Afghanistan showed you what really matters?
It showed me how precious life is and what really matters. Our blue collar way of life is like the rich people over there. Over there a regular person builds their own home from clay and whatever they can find. The things we find normal over here is like luxury over there. Even having your own bathroom. A lot of people don’t have that. They have outhouses and stuff. Or being able to turn a faucet on in the house and drink from it.
When you hear the phrase “Rule Your Nation,” what comes to mind?
Conquer everything that you’re a part of, and that’s what your nation is. Your nation could be being the best at your college, be the best at your job. Just being the best of whatever you’re a part of.
Where did you grow up?
I’m from Lubbock, Texas.
Were you an athletic kid in Texas?
Yes, I played roller hockey, volleyball, basketball, and I ran track.
Which sport was your favorite?
Volleyball. I liked the competition and team aspect.
I understand that you practice Brazilian jiu-jitsu. When did you start that?
I started about eight months ago. I went to an MMA school in 2012 after nationals in figure, and I needed something to compete in before restarting competition prep. After I got my pro card in September of last year at North American in women’s physique I’ve competed in eight jiu-jitsu tournaments, and I’m undefeated.
What’s the hardest part about training in jiu-jitsu?
The conditioning is really unlike any other. It’s unmatchable when you’re rolling.
And for how long have you been bodybuilding?
Five years now.
What inspired you start?
I’ve always competed in team sports, and I saw it as an opportunity to do something on my own without relying on someone else. I just tried a show and grew from there to compete in bikini, figure, and physique. It really just started as something on my bucket list.
Which division do you prefer?
Physique. There’s more stage time to show the work you put in. You get to do more poses while in bikini it’s only front and back posing and in figure it’s quarter turns.
How do you balance practicing jiu-jitsu and fitness competing?
I haven’t tried both at the same time, but I want to incorporate it for my next competition prep. My weight class is bigger in bodybuilding than jiu-jitsu, so I have to drop weight.
My understanding of combat sports is that your walk around weight is usually higher than your fighting weight. Is that a factor?
That’s the case with MMA, but there’s just not many girls my size in jiu-jitsu, so I drop the weight. Ideally in jiu-jitsu, you can fight at your weight. But I’ll be looking for my first MMA fight in 2017.
Why aren’t there many girls in your weight class?
There’s not many females who have the weight and muscle I carry. They usually carry more body fat than muscle. It’s especially true because I’m a white belt, so a lot of them are just looking to lose weight or get their conditioning up. I’m really strong, so there just isn’t as much competition. At a lower weight, they’re more quick and athletic, so it’s a higher level of competition.
At which weight class do you fight?
I fight at 150, but I walk around at 160.
Does having more muscle give you an advantage?
Well, it’s not all about strength. Technique will outdo strength every time, so I may have a strength advantage but not a skill advantage.
You mentioned earlier that you wanted to fight in an MMA match. Is that also part of your bucket list, or do you think you’ll pursue it further?
I would like to pursue it. I train striking right now with 10-ounce gloves, but that’s different than bare knuckle, so I’m very aware that stepping into a cage is different than sparring at my gym. So I can’t definitely answer until I’ve had my first fight. I don’t want to call myself an MMA fighter yet.
What advice would do you have for yourself from five years ago?
I definitely would’ve started MMA sooner. I’m 36 years old now, so I have to weigh the pros and cons, and if I pursue it, for how long. I’m glad that I stuck with bodybuilding and got my pro card after four years, but I would’ve liked to have started MMA training sooner.
Any advice for anyone who sees you as a role model?
Do and be whatever you want to be. Set goals and chase them. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do anything.
Has anyone told you that you can’t do something?
People still do. They say I’m too pretty to fight. There will always be people who say you can’t do something. I just never listened to those people. It didn’t affect me.
You mentioned that you’ve been called too pretty, and that sounds like you’re basically being told that because you’re a woman you shouldn’t do what you’re doing. Any opinion on that?
Yeah, I’ve also been told that bodybuilding is too manly and that I shouldn’t lift heavy because I’ll look like a man. I respect everybody’s opinion, but I think women should be able to do what they want. I don’t think their sex should deter them from doing what they enjoy.
I respect the idea that women should be feminine, but I don’t conform to what other people think. I just surround myself with positive, like-minded people.
I do respect the women who want to stay at home and raise children, but I also respect women who want to hang with the boys and lift weights.
When you hear the phrase “Rule Your Nation,” what comes to mind for you?
I think of empowerment. Be who you want to be, and be the best at what you want to be.
There you have it, folks. Though both award winners took very different paths in life, they have one thing in common. They did what was best for them, and you can see the results. Hopefully, you’ll do the same.
Rule well, my friends.