If all the big fights this past weekend in Los Angeles were only possible because of women’s MMA trailblazer Gina Carano, then Marion Reneau was only happy to see the day. The bantamweight Reneau was there at the Staples Center to watch Ronda Rousey defend her 135-pound title against Cat Zingano on Saturday night.
But she only came to the sport after watch Carano do her thing a decade ago. With no Carano, there might not have been a Rousey-Zingano -- and there most certainly wouldn’t have been a "Belizean Bruiser."
Reneau was a guest on Monday’s MMA Hour, and the suddenly very relevant 37-year old "prospect" said that Carano got her in the game.
"[Carano] is absolutely the first person I saw and I was like, that is what I want to do," she told Ariel Helwani. "She is getting paid to hit people in the face? How can I do that job?"
It’s been a scenic route to the UFC for Reneau, who rattled off two impressive victories in a seven-week span between January and February against Alexis Dufresne (decision) and Jessica Andrade (first round submission). For 11 years she’s worked as a high school physical education teacher in Farmersville, California. She has a 13-year old son. She’s had trouble balancing everything, and even more trouble finding fights.
A couple of years ago, she tried out for The Ultimate Fighter 18, but didn’t make the cut.
"I actually made it through the first day, through the interview -- and all through the interview they were like, well, you’re 36, you’re on the cusp," she said. "And I was like, I know, but I’m like fine wine. I get better with age. I kept trying to encourage them to look past my age, I’m an athlete, you’ve got to trust me on this.
"Unfortunately I got a call the next day from [matchmaker] Sean [Shelby], and he was like, we want you to get a couple more fights. We want to see where you are with it, and you are on the cusp of the age thing, so we’re going to kind of play around with it, and that was my goodbye."
So she did against Leslie Rodriguez and later Maureen Riordan in RFA, both of whom she finished in the first round. But as time went on, and she was spending time away from her family and was having trouble getting bouts, she thought about getting out of the sport after only five professional fights.
"I at one point wanted to quit," she said. "I was at a point where I was just like, I am working out, I’m missing time with my son, I’m putting a lot of effort in and I’m getting fights but they’re backing out last minute. I was just to a point where I was like, you know, maybe this is not a place I want to go. Maybe it’s just not meant to be. So, at one point I wanted to just do jiu-jitsu. I thought maybe I should just focus on jiu-jitsu tournaments, really just try to get good at jiu-jitsu, get sponsorships for jiu-jitsu, but my coach was like, no, you’re not quitting."
Good thing she didn’t. With back-to-back victories in the UFC, she’s now in a place where she can start calling out top ten opponents. On the show, she said she wouldn’t mind facing Holly Holm next in the summer, if that’s available. If not, she’d be happy to fight Jessica Eye, or Bethe Correia, all of whom are in the running for a shot at Rousey’s belt. That’s a pretty quick turnaround from somebody who was on the verge of hanging up the gloves.
So, how far away does she think she is to a shot against Rousey, or even being mentioned in the conversation?
"Hopefully one or two more fights," she said. "I have been, in my mind, mentally preparing for that fight for a very long time. It’s one of those things you just think about. I know everybody, all the females have thought about it. Everybody has thought about that number one spot, and who they would have to go against, and they’ve thought about what they would do. So, I’m no different."
As a spectator on Saturday night, she was asked what she thought of Zingano’s go-for-broke aggression that ultimately cost her the fight 14 seconds later.
"I was like, oh man," she said, pausing. "I was just, in my head I was like, ‘noooo, what are you doing?’ And before you know it, I didn’t get to finish my sentence and it was over."
Asked if she felt bad for Zingano, who was heartbroken after the loss and in a state of denial as she processed what happened, Reneau said she did.
"Absolutely," she said. "You know, even though I’m a competitor, I still want to see a good fight. The fans want to see a good fight. We want to see a display of all the hard training she just put in. So my heart did kind of go out to her, but the person who makes the biggest mistakes is going to end up losing, and unfortunately that was a huge mistake on her part. I know she realizes it now. We’ll see what happens. I know they want to give her a rematch, so we’ll see how that goes."