One of the biggest champions in women’s jiu-jitsu history, Gabi Garcia, made a successful transition to mixed martial arts in 2015, defeating fellow newcomer Lei’d Tapa via first-round knockout at Rizin. But like in her grappling career, wins are followed by criticism.
With more than 10 gold medals in major grappling competition, including IBJJF world (six) and pan-american championships (three) and one ADCC title, Garcia was criticized for being way bigger than her opponents and smartly using that as an advantage, but in MMA, critics came in a different way.
In 2015, Garcia decided to join Kings MMA in California and prepare for her MMA career. Less than four months after her debut in Japan, she enters the Nippon Gaishi Hall in Jagoya to face Anna Maliukova, and the hate received in her debut fueled the jiu-jitsu black belt for Rizin Fighting Federation 1.
"I’m used to critics," Garcia told MMA Fighting. "Since I started my career in jiu-jitsu, I was underestimated, nobody believed in me. Actually, I’m kind of driven by that, by challenges, by people who don’t believe I can do it. People criticized me so much it doesn’t bother me anymore. I can handle that today."
Garcia got rocked by Tapa seconds into her MMA debut last December, but managed to come back and finish her opponent with a backfist.
"People thought I’d box like Manny Pacquiao and kick like Anderson Silva. That’s not how things work," she said of the critics of her striking. "The adrenaline when you enter the arena and see thousands of people there, the lights and the music, it’s crazy. Mike Tyson always said, ‘everybody has a plan until they get punched’. People think it’s easy.
"I’m learning the basics. It took me 16 years to win my first gold medal in jiu-jitsu, so I wouldn’t the best in MMA with one fight. I understand the expectation around my MMA career, but I believe that those who criticized me for my first fight will applaud me in the future. What I went through in jiu-jitsu makes me calm."
Garcia trained alongside some of the best fighters in the world at Kings MMA, including UFC heavyweight champions Fabricio Werdum and Rafael dos Anjos, and an advice from a former UFC kingpin helped her when she went down at the Saitama Super Arena.
"I was the only woman on sparring day. When I got knocked down the first time, I got scared. When I was knocked out the first time, I got scared. I eventually learned how to absorb a punch," Garcia said. "I remember Anderson (Silva) telling me ‘when you get punched and see like three or four opponents in front of you, aim at one of them’. When I got knocked down in 11 seconds, my hands were low, adrenaline was too high.
"When I went down, she could have jumped on me to knock me out, but she didn’t want to come to my game on the ground. In my mind, I was saying to myself ‘don’t give up, don’t give up’. I went back up and was still holding the ropes, I was kind of half unconscious. I just wanted to hit her back [laughs]. Many friends told me afterwards that I showed something in my debut that many fighters don’t have: heart. Many fighters wouldn’t come back after that, and I wouldn’t quit."
The victorious debut wasn’t perfect, and Garcia says she was able to fix several mistakes despite only having less than four months between fights.
"I saw the mistakes I made," said the Brazilian. "I never thought she would have heavy hands like that. She hit my chin. One of the things that made me fall in love MMA is that. Unlike in jiu-jitsu, where people would say ‘Gabi is the favorite’, there’s no such thing in MMA. One punch that lands on the right spot, it doesn’t matter if you’re big or small, you go down. I think it was great that I went through a scare like that in my first fight, that I went through a situation like this. Now I know which mistakes I made, and I worked on that."
"I got scared when she punched me in the face," she continued. "I know I have to work my hands and my defense, and also work on closing the distance to use my jiu-jitsu. I will never be a great boxer. I can box well one day, but I want to take the fight to the ground and use my jiu-jitsu, use what I know. I worked on that now. My defense is my attack. I will always be taller than my opponents, and I worked hard so I never eat more of those overhands again [laughs]."
Like Garcia, Maliukova is 1-0 in mixed martial arts after a career in grappling, and the jiu-jitsu ace knows what to expect from her opponent.
"She’s a two-time wrestling champion. I watched her MMA fight, and some of her wrestling matches," Garcia said. "She has experience standing, she knows what she’s doing. She’s heavy too, but she’s shorter than me. I didn’t have much time to prepare, only three months, but I had to adapt myself. Everything is too fast in Japan. I have to be ready for everything, and I am. Her style is actually similar to Ronda (Rousey’s) with the takedowns."
Being a female MMA fighter at 205 pounds sounded ridiculous at first. Even Garcia expected promotions to have trouble finding opponents for her. Six months into the sport, the Brazilian is surprised with the current state of the women’s light heavyweight division.
"As incredible as it may seem, there are many, many girls," Garcia said. "I already have some fights scheduled, and a lot of girls are calling me out. There are many girls for me to fight. The only thing they ask is time to prepare to fight me. I think that’s great for the sport because it’s a new division. It has everything to grow. Many heavier girls didn’t have a chance to fight before, and now I’m having that chance to fight a lot this year. I thought it wouldn’t be easy to find opponents for me, but there are a lot of girls calling me out."
Garcia is happy with Rizin so far, and says that she has signed a long deal with the promotion. And even with online critics weren’t impressed by her MMA debut, she claims that many promotions reached out to her earlier this year.
"Other promotions reached out to me," Garcia said. "Big promotions, promotions I never expected to me interested in me, reached out to me asking if I could make 185 pounds. I can’t do it, I’m too big. I have a four-year contract with Rizin and I’m happy to be fighting in Japan. The Japanese fans welcomed me wonderfully. I thought they would recognize me in the streets after three or four fights, something like that, but I couldn’t walk in the streets after the fight. It took me two hours to get out of the Saitama (Super Arena), people went crazy. I’m very happy. I loved fighting there, and I think Rizin will grow even more.
"I’ll do whatever the boss asks, but I also have to respect my body. My first fight was very emotional for me. All the pressure over me. I thought I would go out on vacation after that fight, but they set my next fight for April already, and also more dates for 2016. I’m ready to fight and will train hard, always, but sometimes it’s too much for your head, too. I’m always on diet, but it’s a different diet when you’re fighting. MMA is different than jiu-jitsu because you have sparring. It’s overwhelming, tiring. Whatever the boss says, I’ll do, but I have at least three or four fights this year."
At first, Garcia declined to reveal which promotions reached out to her, but eventually said that Ultimate Fighting Championship was on the list.
"It was one of them. It was one of them," Garcia said, claiming that the UFC was interested in creating women’s divisions up to 185 pounds. "I think that 185 pounds is their limit for women’s division, and it’s impossible for me. I made 205 and was in critical condition at the weigh-ins. I have to respect my body."
Despite Garcia’s claims, UFC officials told MMA Fighting that they haven’t contacted Garcia.
"It wasn’t my dream to fight in the UFC, you know?" she said. "When there was no Rizin, (the UFC) was the only promotion where I would consider me being at the top, but then Rizin came. I was always a Pride fan. The show, the production. I don’t have this dream to be fighting in the UFC. I want to build my career in Japan and put on good fights there. I have my sponsors, everything. I’m fine here. I don’t think I would fight as much as I’m fighting here, too. As long as Rizin wants me around, I’ll be fighting for them [laughs]. I hope the promotion grows and I grow with them."
With several major titles in grappling competition, Garcia has one goal in mixed martial arts.
"It’s the Rizin belt. Just like King Mo’s belt, if possible," she said with a laugh. "They will eventually create a belt for this division, and my dream is to win it and defend it. I’m working hard. Winning the belt and putting on good fights. My dream is to fight well, and don’t get hurt, so I can fight all the time."