To say that Kaitlin Young has seen it all in MMA would be an understatement.
Entering her 14th year as a pro fighter, Young has a staggering list of milestones on her record: She fought Gina Carano at an EliteXC card broadcast on CBS, the first time two women had ever competed in an MMA bout in prime time. She was an Invicta FC original (Young and Leslie Smith won Invicta’s first-ever Fight of the Night award) and later served as a matchmaker for the all-women promotion. She was even part of the ill-fated Ultimate Women Challenge reality show, which featured a number of future standout fighters and never actually aired.
Again, she’s been through it.
Up next for Young is a fight in Atlantic City, N.J., on Thursday night against Cindy Dandois in the season opener for the PFL’s lightweight division, which airs live on ESPN and ESPN+. The two were originally scheduled to fight over six years ago at Invicta FC 9, but Dandois withdrew due to issues with her visa and Young went on to lose a decision to replacement Raquel Pa’aluhi instead. That would be Young’s last MMA fight for three years.
“I was a little lost,” Young told MMA Fighting. “I ended up fighting Raquel Pa’aluhi—and I had a great first round and then I got out-wrestled—but I had just moved and I was still kind of finding my feet, so it’s definitely better for me that the fight is now. Of course, I remember certain things and I’ve seen more of [Dandois] since then. I remember planning for it and I think it was two or three weeks out she dropped because she was having some trouble with her visa or something like that.”
At the time, Young was on a three-fight skid (to future UFC stars Liz Carmouche, Leslie Smith, and Lauren Murphy), so there were already signs that something had to change. But had Young beaten Dandois or Pa’aluhi, she’s fairly certain that her break from MMA would never have happened.
Looking back now, she’s grateful that the cards fell the way they did.
“I don’t think I would have made anywhere near the same developments in my career had I won,” Young said. “You hate to be like, ‘Oh, I’m glad I lost a fight,’ because you never are. But say you just have a close fight and you win, it doesn’t kind of give you that same hard realization, like I need to change something. So what I did in those four years is I went back to Thai boxing and I was fighting very, very frequently, and I started matchmaking. And in both of those endeavors I just learned so much that changed the fighter who I am today. It’s good that that happened for me, definitely for my development as both a fight and a coach, really.”
“I think I lost four in a row or something and it was just, alright, clearly something’s not working,” she continued. “Raquel, she had been grappling a lot, but she came in on short notice, so I think that’s even more like, something’s off here. Not to mention I cut her up pretty good in the first round, I should have been able to [win], and I just wasn’t mentally where I needed to be.”
Young returned to her muay Thai roots, which led to a more active schedule and a cleansing of the palette, as it were. Her role as an Invicta matchmaker from 2016-2018 gave her a new perspective on the business and eventually led to her making a comeback to fight for the promotion.
Now, Young has added coach to her resume, having opened up her own gym, Striking Institute, in Minnesota. She recently marked the gym’s first anniversary, with its opening happening just before the outbreak of COVID-19. And again, it was her muay Thai connections that provided a solution.
“It was crazy,” Young said. “The thing that really saved us was when we opened we had been running a muay Thai competitive team of fighters and they all came with and were awesome and still supported the gym during the shutdown. So obviously, we weren’t making anything, but we didn’t go under. Because we didn’t qualify for squat because we hadn’t been in business a year, so it was just, like, we had some savings, but trying to pay your own rent, because we were all in on that, luckily I was able to fight in July. But yeah, it was challenging, for sure.”
The Dandois re-booking isn’t the only bit of deja vu that Young will experience in her PFL debut.
Young finds herself competing in New Jersey for the first time since she battled Carano at Prudential Center in Newark. Not only did that lineup feature Kimbo Slice in the main event and future UFC welterweight champion Robbie Lawler in the co-main, but Young and Carano were prominently marketed for the main card during a time when women were still only allowed to compete in three-minute rounds.
Young lost by doctor stoppage in between the second and third rounds, but beyond the outcome of the fight, Young recalls the experience being a sour one for other reasons.
“It was hard for me,” Young said. “It was really hard for me, all the media attention and the way people in your life start acting different when you get attention like that. It was really, really difficult, I think both being young and being knew to it because there was no gradual build-up of it. It was I’m taking these fights in the middle of the Midwest behind a bar somewhere and now I’m in front of five million people. The jump was really jarring for me. I’m kind of introverted too, so it was a lot.”
“We’re social creatures,” she continued. “Not everybody is this way, certainly, but anything that changes your social standing is going to change the way certain people treat you. I had always been a fighter, the only thing that was different was fame. It’s not even that much, it was one fight, but I think that the contrast was hard and it did make some people in my life act very different, some people in the gym act different. It was a real challenge and it’s something that now that I’m coaching I’m mindful of when we have people now coming into big shows. Just trying to help prepare them for that.”
Young is currently in one of the best stretches of her career, with wins in four of her past five fights. Her 11-10-1 record may lead to some overlooking her chances to contend in the upcoming PFL season, but she’s past the point where she worries about how accurately her stats actually reflect her accomplishments.
“I guess it’s not in my head,” Young said. “My thing is already, like, people look and go, ‘50-50,’ so my record is whatever at this point. I don’t think that’s as much of it, I guess I look at it more like I’m just taking the experience of all those fights.
“And sometimes you glean experience from things you do to other people and sometimes you glean experience from things that have been done to you. I look at it like I’m taking all that with me into the tournament.”
After Dandois, Young is guaranteed one more PFL regular season fight, and the field of potential opponents includes veterans, relative neophytes, and reigning lightweight champion and two-time Olympic judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison.
It’s a scenario that may have worried the Young of yesteryear, but now? Just another day at the office.
“I was in over my head a little bit when I was young,” Young said. “Now, going into these situations, it’s like I’ve been there, I’ve been in all these crazy situations, fighting internationally, super tough fights. There’s not much I haven’t seen, so I feel both physically, technically, and emotionally prepared for whatever the hell comes. Bring it.”