Today is August 26 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you believe you belong?” For many people, navigating the chaos involves being a pioneer as the first one trying to do something.
Swayze Valentine believed she belonged in the world of professional fighting and in so doing became a pioneer. Valentine is the first and only female cut woman - working ringside to wrap fighters' hands and tend to their wounds - for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
Valentine grew up near Homer, Alaska, was homeschooled, and at 16 received her EMT certificate, only to discover that she needed to be 18 to do the job. She never got around to it. After high school she went to work at Burger King, where both of her parents worked in corporate.
At 19, she married an Air Force cadet. Watching Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) competition on television became a fixture in her house. In 2006, her husband and a few friends bought her a nosebleed seat to an Alaska Fighting Championship. There, watching from the back row as these amateur and semi-professional fighters went at it in the cage, she got hooked on the energy, excitement, and atmosphere at the event.
On a whim, Valentine looked up the promoter of the event and called to ask how she could get involved. "If you look good, you can be a ring card girl," she recalls the man saying. She decided to give it a try. The promoter signed her up to work, for free, at a two-night tournament. She put on a skimpy Tinker Bell costume and, between rounds, strutted around the ring apron holding a sign that no one was looking at while the whistles and catcalls rained down from the darkened audience. It was Valentine's last gig as a ring card girl. She knew it was not for her.
She does not regret it, though, because while backstage with the other card girls, Valentine got her first glimpse of the MMA world up close, brushing shoulders with the fighters, trainers, coaches, and officials. She was in awe. And it was back in the locker room that she caught a glimpse of a man wrapping a fighter's hands. "It just seemed to me that there would be no greater honor than wrapping the hands of the athlete," she says. Valentine had no idea what a cutman was or what they really did, but at that moment, she knew she wanted more than anything to be one.
Two weeks after Valentine discovered the 'honor of wrapping the hands of the athlete,' she found out she was pregnant. Being a cutman would have to wait. She became a stay-at-home mom who worked nights at the front desk of a hotel on her husband's Air Force base. A second son was born a year-and-a-half later. The couple moved again, this time to Idaho.
It wasn't until 2009 -- three years after her first and only stint as a Tinker Bell ring card girl -- that Valentine turned her attention back to MMA. She emailed legendary boxing and UFC cut man Jacob "Stitch" Duran, who advised her to research hand-wrapping online and go to her nearest boxing, martial arts or MMA gyms and beg to wrap as many hands as possible -- the skill would be her key into the business.
The nearest gym was in Boise, 69 miles away. She squirreled away her money for gas and $5 rolls of gauze, ace bandages, and white medical tape. After getting the gym owner's permission, she set up shop in a metal chair in the corner, where she sat with her purse in her lap, waiting to approach each fighter who seemed amenable. The guys were all good sports. Still, it was Boise. Business was slow. "After six months, I was 24," Valentine says. "I realized, 'Man, I've got to be in Las Vegas, the fight capital of the world.'" But she couldn't uproot her family. With airfare usually too costly, she'd pack her sons in her car and make the eight-hour drive to Xtreme Couture, the training center started by MMA pioneer and former UFC Champion Randy Couture, where Valentine had arranged to set up shop on weekends.
There, in 2011, she got her break by meeting longtime UFC cut man Adrian Rosenbusch. He took Valentine under his wing, helping her perfect hand-wrapping as well as showing her the art of the cut. Working on a mannequin, he drilled her on hitting the wound with an ice bag or an ice-cold enswell (a small metal iron) as quickly as possible and holding it as long as she could to apply pressure and reduce the swelling. He also taught her how to use a cold towel to clean and cool the laceration, before swabbing with epinephrine to reduce blood flow and then a coagulate to halt it altogether.
Unfortunately, as Tony Rehagen wrote in a December 2016 ESPN article, Valentine “could not stop the bleeding back home.” Her constant travel had put a strain on her relationship. Reflecting upon that time in her life she said "My husband was not supportive, and he thought I was selfish for doing what I wanted before my kids were 10 years old. I disagreed. Our marriage crumbled." After the two divorced in 2011, Valentine became desperate. She was now a single mother trying to work a job that was hundreds of miles away and still paid nothing. She donated plasma for $30 a stab -- sometimes twice a week.
Like most people who navigate the chaos, she persisteted and relied on her grit. She held firm to the belief that she belonged. Soon, and thanks to Rosenbusch's recommendation, she was working small amateur tournaments. She made monthly trips to Vegas while the kids stayed with her parents on the weekends and with their father during the summer. She pieced together part-time jobs at Petco and Outback Steakhouse and continued to give blood. She started buying gauze and tape in bulk.
Finally, in 2012, Valentine landed a paying gig with a professional minor-league promotion, World Series of Fighting, when a senior cutman recommended her as a last-minute replacement. Word of mouth helped Valentine rise quickly through the ranks in different organizations such as Titan FC, King of the Cage and Bellator. She was the first female cutperson at every level.
That distinction came at a price. Some promotions did not want her to work major events. She was repeatedly cursed out in the cage and told to "fuck off" when she tried to do her job. Some thought a woman incapable of doing the job. Others did not want their fighters distracted by a girl. A few were just superstitious. "I initially didn't want [Valentine] as my cutman," says Juan Archuleta, a featherweight who now counts Valentine as a good friend. "I've heard stories. Some people say it's bad luck to have a woman in your corner or anywhere near you before a fight. It's an old-school boxing thing." Archuleta, like many fighters, only needed one session with Valentine to change his mind.
In February 2014, Valentine got the call to the UFC. Hernandez remembers that, despite some initial unease in the brighter spotlight, the young cutwoman was quick to learn. "She was nervous," he says. "I told her 'You have to shut that off. You can't think; you have to react.' She understood that right away."
Recalling her decade’s long journey and battles, Valentine said
“It was a really long journey. It was about 10 years from when I originally started to where I got called for my first UFC event. I've been physically assaulted. I've been cussed at. A lot of my hand wraps have just been cut off right behind me because they didn't like what I did. I've been told that I'm not allowed to touch certain fighters. It just comes with the territory, you know. I'll always have those little challenges, but that's what keeps me going, is overcoming each obstacle as it comes along. I am not going to let anyone make me feel like I do not belong here.”
Nowadays, Swayze works in a post office six days a week and reserves her Sundays and vacation days for UFC events, but in the end, for her, it is more about the work than the money.
So, let us unpack Valentine’s story and reflect upon critical lessons from her ability to navigate the chaos:
She entered an industry where she had no training.
She had a dream of doing a job no woman had ever done.
She knew no one in the industry when she started.
She had no money to support her dream.
She worked low paying jobs to make ends meet for her family.
She divorced an unsupportive husband.
She cared for her two children while pursuing her dream.
She dedicated herself to learning as much as possible.
She hustled for over 10 years.
She traveled outside her comfort zone all the time.
She never let the sexist behavior of men stand in her way.
She pursued a position that lacks significant pay.
She decided to work a day job to pursue her dream on the weekends and holidays.
She was not going to let anyone tell her she did not belong.