Living two conflicting roles

Last Updated 24 June 2016, 19:04 IST

The first thing I notice on meeting Bryony Tyrell, is that the petite 36-year-old is hobbling. As she ushers me into her Southampton home and puts the kettle on, it’s hard to reconcile this intensive care nurse and mum-of-two with the painful-looking limp she got just the night before. Because — as well as looking after her kids (Amber, 8, and Soren, 4) and undertaking life-saving work, there’s another side to cheerful Bryony: she’s a champion cage fighter.

Cage fighting — the more common name for mixed martial arts (MMA) —  is among the world’s most

violent sports. As she goes about making me feel at home, it’s hard to believe that — at night — Bryony, who has a master’s degree in nursing and a degree in molecular biology, transforms into one of Britain’s leading cage fighting prospects; inflicting pain instead of curing it. “Even I think my two lives are a contrast,” she says. “I’m very quiet and polite at work, so my life outside the hospital must seem crazy to my colleagues.”

After spending most of her day looking after others, Bryony admits it can be a struggle to leave nurse mode behind and pound her rivals in the gruelling sport. “When I’m in the cage, I just switch off until the fight is over,” she says. “I always make sure my opponents are okay after every fight, though. I’d hate it if I really injured someone — but unfortunately that’s part of it.” Being locked in a cage to face such moves as the twisting spine lock and neck crank may sound terrifying to most — with only the metal offering any protection from fierce blows that would otherwise fling fighters through the ropes.

But not to Bryony. “There are very few rules, so it’s brutal,” she says. “But that’s the beauty of it. You don’t know what tactics you’ll face — grappling, throwing, kicking, and punching with fists or elbows — so you must be prepared for anything. “It’s a bit like a game of chess; you need to see things coming and counter your opponent’s move.”

Scarcity is precious

Since the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) — the largest MMA promotion company in the world — started allowing women to compete in 2013, the popularity of women’s MMA has boomed. Says Bryony: “I’ve found that not only am I treated equally to men but I’ve been given a lot more fight opportunities and sponsorship deals than many of my male counterparts. I think that’s because of the lack of female fighters.”

After taking up MMA less than 4 years ago, Bryony’s tactical approach saw her rise up the rankings quickly. She became British amateur straw weight champion within 3 years, and successfully defended her title last year. When she recently turned professional, she was the most experienced straw weight amateur in the country. But fighting at professional level in MMA is far more dangerous. There are more techniques allowed that can cause serious injuries.

Bryony — who works 30 hours a week — trains 6 times each week, for 1-2 hours. It’s the last thing most of us would feel like doing after a long hospital shift and an afternoon with 2 energetic children. Not to mention running a new business, as she’s recently started up a franchise of her gym. It’s something her husband, Tom, 30, supports her in but, says Bryony: “He does think I’m a bit crazy. When I first starting competing in MMA he was anxious, but after coming to a few of my fights he’s got used to it.”

By her own admission, Bryony never dreamed she’d do this well. “To get to pro level and then win was beyond anything I thought I could achieve,” she says. But the road to success as a professional cage fighter has not been easy. “I’ve always loved martial arts,” she recalls. “I did ju jitsu and kick boxing for years, but when I turned 30 one of my instructors said I was too old to compete, which was a real setback.”

Undeterred, after having her second child, Bryony decided to put her martial arts together and take up MMA – what she calls the “ultimate fighting system”. Aged 32, she soon proved the sceptics wrong. “But unfortunately, there are very few top level female fighters at my weight in this country,” she explains.

Bryony says she’s relaxed about winning or losing — focusing instead on enjoying the sport. “Having children gives you a different perspective on everything,” she says. “They are my priority — so MMA is just something to enjoy.”

(Published 24 June 2016, 16:13 IST)

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