The MRI showed a notch in the spinal cord. A ruptured disc had taken a triangular bite, like the swing of an axe into a soon-to-be-felled tree. You need emergency cervical fusion, the doctor told Cindy Hales. One wrong move could make you a quadriplegic.
It was 2005, and Hales had just won the under-140 lb. weight class of the Pro Division at Grapplers Quest, a prestigious Brazilian jiujitsu (BJJ) tournament that draws competitors from around the globe. She tore through her bracket, winning her semifinal match in less than 30 seconds before taking the title in overtime.
Videos of Hales’ matches show an aggressive, explosive athlete; her feet are in constant motion as she circles her opponents and tackles them to the mat. Then, in a tangle of limbs, she outmaneuvers them to reach a finishing move, an application of leverage that forces them to submit. It’s reminiscent of those nature documentaries in which a predator seizes its prey with startling quickness, then slowly snuffs it out over the course of a drawn-out, spasmodic struggle. Watching the video, you’d never guess that Hales’ arms and hands were numb during her matches, or that she was on the brink of paralysis. (She knew something was wrong going into the tournament, but deliberately put off the MRI until afterward, as she didn’t want the results to prevent her from competing.)
Hales’ nickname is “Sleeper,” a nod both to the submission holds she uses to put opponents “to sleep” (to cause them to go limp and submit) and to the way her unimposing physical appearance leads others to underestimate her. She wears her hair in a shaggy mop-top, the sort you might find on one of the teenage boys she coaches when not competing herself. And with her deceptively muscular physique, excitable eyes, tattoos, toothy smile, raspy voice, dude-ish speech, and propensity to wear oversized sunglasses and give a thumbs-up to the nearest camera, she could pass for the sister of Jackass star Steve-O.
But perhaps the real reason she’s been able to sneak up on people is the stunning speed with which she mastered BJJ—a testament to her natural talent and unnatural focus.
In 2002, Hales didn’t know the difference between an armbar and a crowbar. (The former is a grappling armlock, the latter a tool for removing nails and breaking into houses.) Instead, she was busy climbing the corporate ladder at Starbucks, having gone from barista to call-center manager in less than a year. The same restless energy that helped her get promoted also caused her to find the work dull. Her husband at the time, John Ledington, suggested she visit Marcelo Alonso’s BJJ gym down the street, and Hales obliged.
By 2005, Hales had earned wins at Grapplers Quest in Las Vegas and the Pan-American BJJ Tournament in Los Angeles, two of the world’s most prestigious grappling events. By 2008, she had expanded her career to mixed martial arts (MMA), scoring a fight against perhaps the world’s best female fighter, Megumi Fujii.
Brazilian jiujitsu is a highly technical sport, one in which novice viewers often have trouble discerning who is winning and losing matches, which are usually decided when one competitor puts another in a position to choose between acknowledging defeat or enduring fracture, dislocation, or unconsciousness. MMA adds punches, elbows, knees, and kicks to the mix. So it’s no surprise that Hales’ rise has come at a price. The endless hours on the mat have given her arthritis of the knees and spine, resulted in bone spurs on her vertebrae, and snapped her anterior cruciate ligament—which, as of a December 29 surgery, has been replaced by a tendon from her hamstring.
At 34 years old, with a busted-up body, Hales has lost a handful of matches that haunt her, and likely has only a few remaining years to compete. For now, she’s rehabilitating her knee, designing workouts she can do on one leg, and, like a fearsome Santa, making and double-checking a list of the women she wants to take down when she returns.
Winning the Vegas and L.A. tournaments took Hales from regional up-and-comer to international powerhouse. But like her BJJ forebears, she felt the pressure to prove herself in a broader form of combat.
In 1993, a BJJ black belt named Rorion Gracie teamed up with an advertising executive named Art Davie to develop the Ultimate Fighting Championship, an eight-man tournament to determine the world’s best fighter. Rorion is a member of the famous Gracie family, known for developing much of BJJ—including its own trademarked schools (in which Hales has always trained)—and for its “Gracie challenges,” open invitations to practitioners of other martial arts to fight members of the Gracie family in anything-goes matches. The first UFC tournament was held in Denver and drew competitors of all sizes, disciplines, and nationalities, as well as a pay-per-view audience of more than 86,000. The winner: Royce Gracie, Rorion’s 176-pound younger brother.
While subsequent UFC events were a commercial success, the gruesomeness of the spectacle—bloodied, bare-knuckled competitors delivering head-butts and groin strikes—sparked public outcry. Arizona Senator John McCain termed the sport “human cockfighting” and called for it to be banned, which led to lost pay-per-view contracts. To quiet critics and remain viable, the UFC put gloves on its fighters, tightened its rules, and instituted weight classes. Today it is a commercial juggernaut, with a net worth that Forbes estimates may be as high as $1 billion.
The UFC isn’t open to women, and the two best-known female leagues, Japan’s Smackgirl and the USA’s bodogFight, both folded in 2008. Even when those leagues were running, they offered little more than token prize money. And female fighters looking to work their way up had to navigate a series of unaffiliated, makeshift bouts, in which promoters and matchmakers were as cavalier with promises as a horny boy on prom night.
Hales entered this world in 2007. (She spent all of 2006 rehabbing from her cervical fusion.) Having separated from Ledington in early 2006, she began dating her trainer, Eric Dahlberg, an MMA fighter who runs Ring Demon, a small gym tucked away in an industrial Tukwila office park. While her BJJ successes had her pegged as a hot MMA prospect, paradoxically they also prevented her from booking fights. Established fighters didn’t want to risk losing to a newcomer, and novices avoided her because they were sure to lose.
But thanks to a slippery matchmaker for Fatal Femmes Fighting, a California MMA event, Hales scored her first fight in November 2007. The matchmaker approached Lana Stefanac, who was managing a female fighter named Shawn Tamarabuchi. Stefanac is a heavyweight BJJ and MMA champ who knew of Hales from the grappling scene. “The guy said Shawn’s opponent would be Cynthia Hanes,” she recalls. “I told him, ‘That sounds an awful lot like Cindy Hales.’ There was no way I was going to let my girl fight Cindy Hales.”
He assured her that Hanes and Hales were different people. Stefanac and Tamarabuchi didn’t learn otherwise until the day before the fight, which Hales won. “It turns out six or seven girls had turned down the fight before Shawn took it,” says Stefanac, who later added Hales to her team for the Princesses of Pain event in New Zealand.
One month later, Stefanac won the open weight division of a prime-time televised Tokyo event put on by Smackgirl. On the same night, 115-lb. Megumi Fujii won her own match in just 80 seconds, maintaining her unbeaten record and her reputation as, pound for pound, Japan’s—and probably the world’s—best female fighter.
In an interview after the fight, Stefanac was asked if anybody could beat Fujii. “Yeah,” she responded. “Cindy Hales.” Within a week, Hales was offered a February 2008 fight against Fujii in Tokyo.
Up to this point, Hales’ story reads like a Rocky knock-off, in which a hardscrabble unknown is given a make-or-break shot at the champ. But while Rocky’s spartan combo of raw eggs for breakfast and raw language from Mick made for a tough training regimen, he never endured anything like Hales did to prepare for Fujii.
The fight was set at 115 pounds, Fujii’s natural weight. Hales weighs 135 and fights anywhere between there and 120, but had been “eating up” to 145 in hope of filling an anticipated opening in that weight class in the Princesses of Pain event in May. What’s worse, the weigh-in for the Fujii fight would occur just four hours prior to the event; in most fights, it occurs the day before, allowing fighters to cut water weight and then rehydrate. Hence, Hales would have to lose the weight for real. The circumstances were so adverse that Dahlberg advised her against accepting the offer. Stefanac says she would have done the same, though she knows it wouldn’t have worked.
“Cindy didn’t care,” recalls Dahlberg. “She’s just like, ‘You put the whole world against me, I’m still gonna come at you.'”
To make weight, Hales went on a 500-calorie-a-day diet and began taking human chorionic gonadotropin, a hormone found in pregnant women that some believe enables the body to release stored fat. For six weeks, her daily diet was as follows: one serving of fruit for breakfast (e.g., an apple, an orange, or six strawberries), 3.5 ounces of lean meat and 3.5 ounces of vegetables (usually broccoli or lettuce) for lunch, and 3.5 ounces of lean meat and one serving of fruit for dinner. To keep herself hydrated, she drank lots of water and Crystal Light. To keep herself from keeling over, she took phentermine, a stimulant that helps with weight loss, and limited her training to 30 minutes a day. (Smackgirl didn’t test for performance-enhancing drugs, though many American outfits test for and prohibit the use of phentermine.)
Through it all, she worked full time managing the warehouse at Redapt Systems, an Eastside tech company. “People at work thought I was dying,” Hales recalls. Her mother, Normandie Hales, says her daughter “looked like a walking skeleton.”
At the weigh-in, Hales tipped the scales “in a tiny bathing suit” at 114½ pounds, just eight ounces below the limit. Having lost roughly 25 pounds in six weeks, she immediately bolted for her hotel room, hoping to restore lost fluids and strength with a last-minute IV. But she was thwarted by the effects of her crash diet.
“I was so skinny, my veins were collapsing,” she recalls. “I was spewing blood all over the hotel room.” After six attempts, she gave up, leaving her arms covered in large bumps from burst veins. Instead, she replenished in the conventional manner, stuffing herself with bagels, chocolate protein bars, fruit, and meat, washing it down with the sport drink Cytomax.
As Round One begins (a video of the fight is on YouTube), Fujii clearly appears the fresher fighter, a springy 5’3″ ball of muscle. By contrast, the 5’7″ Hales looks lanky and lethargic, like a basketball player who accidentally wandered into the ring after a long practice. Though she lands a few solid shots, Hales loses points on a takedown and for punching a kneeling Fujii. (Unlike American MMA leagues, Smackgirl prohibited its fighters from engaging in what is known as “ground and pound”—punching a non-standing opponent in the face.)
Then there was the issue of her prefight feast. “I was vomiting in my mouth,” Hales recalls. “I held it in and went and spit it in my corner in between rounds.”
Round Two is much shorter and even less favorable to Hales. About 20 seconds in, with the fighters in boxing poses, Fujii jumps at Hales, seizing her right arm and straddling the taller fighter. As they fall to the ground, the hyper-flexible Fujii manages to wrap her left leg around Hales’ head. Within seconds, she has Hales in an armbar. Hales taps out, ending the fight.
After the fighters embrace, Hales staggers to her corner and leans exhaustedly into the ropes. She looks dejected, but says she was “just glad it was done.” Fujii’s finishing move “was pretty standard,” Hales adds, claiming it wouldn’t have worked if she hadn’t been so physically drained. (She later learned that, in addition to everything else, she had been fighting with three stress fractures in her right foot.)
A few weeks after they returned from Japan, Hales and Dahlberg split up, both romantically and professionally. (They remain friends and he still provides informal coaching.) Hales resumed a normal diet and, after taking a month off to let the stress fractures heal, began training for the Princesses of Pain tournament in New Zealand under Mike “The Mouth” Gavronski, a 24-year-old who won the “Golden Boy” award as the best amateur boxer at the 2008 Golden Gloves tournament in Tacoma.
Their sessions were a thawed-out version of the Rocky IV training montages: flipping 300-pound tires in a field (“Cindy has superhuman strength,” says Gavronski), hitting them with sledgehammers, chopping wood, and running sprints in the mountains.
“I just decided that, ultimately, this should be fun,” Hales says of the new training regimen, which helped her win the fight. “I’m not making any money and I’m getting my ass kicked. There should be something fun and rewarding about it.”
The youngest of three children, Hales spent her first nine years in rural Nebraska, not far from Omaha. At the age of 2, she developed an obsession with putting on shirts. One day, her mother recalls, Hales walked into the kitchen wearing 17 shirts.
“We counted them as we took them off,” says Normandie Hales. “We couldn’t stop laughing.”
It was a telling episode. From the beginning, says her mother, Hales was “driven, obsessive, opinionated, stubborn” and “very, very, very athletic.” Putting on 17 shirts at age 2 is a fairly remarkable physical feat—though it pales in comparison to swimming and riding a two-wheel bike, which Hales also accomplished at about the same age.
Here, Hales credits her older brother Justin. “He just put me on a bike and pushed it. I crashed until I eventually figured it out.” He also introduced her to combat sports: Justin and the older brother of one of Hales’ friends would force the two younger siblings to fight for their amusement.
To round out her career preparation, he built up her pain tolerance. Hales recalls that she and Justin would play a game in which she sat on his shoulders while he spun around as fast as he could. One day, she let go and flew off, crashing into a wall and breaking her collarbone. Afraid of getting in trouble, he made her sit in a closet until she stopped crying. Her parents didn’t realize she was injured until several days later.
When Hales was in the fifth grade, her family began a four-year search for better-paying work and warmer climes, leading them to various cities and towns in Arkansas and Washington state. (Nebraska’s cold winters had grown exceedingly painful for Hales’ father, Mike, who had lost four fingers in a snowblower accident.)
Their first move was to Rogers, Arkansas, a town that boasts the original Wal-Mart. To keep her daughter occupied and ease the transition, Normandie began teaching Cindy racquetball. “In about three months, I couldn’t play with her anymore,” Normandie recalls.
Hales entered women’s tournaments but quickly ran out of challengers, so she graduated to playing—and beating—grown men. In an early example of the skepticism and chauvinism she’d later encounter in the fight and grappling worlds, the men would erase her name from the board whenever she signed up to play.
“I’d just go back and put it up again,” Hales recalls. By ninth grade, she was the nation’s second-ranked junior female. Her ascent ended there: She tore up her knee that same year and never played competitively again.
Needing a new focus for her prodigious energies, Hales discovered punk music and became a vegetarian—developments that further stoked her desire to leave Arkansas. She accepted an academic scholarship to Seattle University (her sister Sylvia was living in North Seattle at the time), but within a year she transferred to Evergreen State College in Olympia.
“I wanted to be listening to K Records, Kill Rock Star[s] stuff,” she says, referring to the labels that put Olympia’s music scene on the map in the 1990s. Evergreen’s independent study policies allowed Hales to earn credits for her work at a needle exchange in Olympia and at a riot-grrrl publishing outfit in Washington, D.C. Her only athletic activities were club rugby and the occasional racquetball game, which she played left-handed to make things easier on her overmatched friends.
After college, she married Ledington, bought a house, tried nursing school, and worked for Starbucks. “I thought I was supposed to settle down,” she explains. But it wasn’t long before her competitive restlessness kicked in.
It’s quite a transition from punk feminism to the testosterone-soaked milieus of BJJ and MMA, even with a layover in the corporate world. Female grapplers have a hard time getting noticed for their skills; despite their successes, Stefanac and Fujii are relatively unknown to the general sports fan.
The only female fighter with a big name in the States is Gina Carano, who just happens to have a model’s looks to go with her unbeaten record. When Hales had a Web site to promote her career, the majority of visitors arrived via links from wrestling fetish sites. She regularly turned down solicitations from horny fetishists—who’ll pay $300 an hour just to roll on the mat with a female pro—saying that “it would make me hate grappling.”
Nevertheless, Hales seems to have won the respect of her male cohorts. At Rodrigo Lopes’ Gracie Barra gym, the converted Airport Way warehouse where she trains and teaches, Hales is the life of the party, joking with and teasing her fellow grapplers, most of whom are men.
“When Cindy walks in, the room stops,” says Sean McCarthy, a local photographer and screenwriter whose teenage son, Conor, has trained under Hales for the past year and a half. “She’s kind of androgynous, very friendly, and competitive like nobody else. The guys are like, ‘Oh shit, Cindy’s here. I gotta wrestle Cindy.’ She’s kind of a force of nature.”
From her first day at Marcelo Alonso’s Tacoma gym, Hales would go against anybody, regardless of weight or gender. Back then, Lopes had yet to open his own gym and was training with Hales in Tacoma. “She didn’t have much choice,” he says, noting that the absence of women forced her to challenge men. Among her sparring partners were Army Rangers from nearby Fort Lewis—”those guys go apeshit,” she recalls—and recruits at the Des Moines Police Academy, where she’d sometimes take part in “combatives” training.
The process is the same whenever she goes to a new gym. “People will be like, ‘Do you know how to grapple?’ And then you beat ’em and they go crazy”—she mimics an aggro roar—”and they want to go again. I wonder, like, ‘How do you feel cool about that, dude? You’re like 200 pounds and you want to beat me up.'”
Sometimes they do beat her up. Hales recalls a session against a hulking, cocky recruit at the Des Moines Academy who, after she got him in an armbar, simply lifted her with his arm and repeatedly slammed her against the mat, a move that’s prohibited in BJJ. (She was relieved to learn the guy never became a cop.)
Nevertheless, Hales is grateful for the experiences. “I got to train at the police academy. Before, I would’ve never done that—I’d be like, ‘I don’t like cops, I don’t hang out with cops.’ Now I totally know all these cops; I go eat dinner with cops. I also go eat dinner with crazy thugs. I know all kinds of people.”
She adds that MMA and BJJ have been responsible for her only trips out of the country: to Japan to fight Fujii and to New Zealand in May to fight Australian MMA star Fiona Muxlow. (Hales won the latter face-off.) The result of her take-all-comers approach is a body that’s old before its time. “I honestly don’t think she’s gonna be fighting anymore,” says Gavronski. “Her knee’s all torn up.”
Still, nobody doubts that she’ll continue to try, even if doing so is somewhat reckless. “When she learned she’d torn her ACL, she went out and got one of those fixed-gear bikes,” says McCarthy. “She started biking several hundred miles a week. She was like, ‘My legs will be so strong, it won’t matter that I don’t have any ligaments.’ It’s a little dysfunctional on some level.”
Hales concedes that bicycling as a surgery substitute “didn’t work out so well,” but says she expects to recover from the operation in six to eight months, rather than the standard nine to 12. Her plan is to be ready to compete in the Pan-American and World Brazilian jiujitsu championships in the fall.
Beyond that, there are a number of women whom Hales wants to challenge in her remaining years of competition. First on the list, of course, is Fujii. “If I could get a fight with Megumi at 120, I think I could knock her out,” she says.
Should that day come, Stefanac likes Hales’ chances. “You could eat crickets and berries outside and have more strength [than Hales did on her pre-Fujii fight diet],” she says. “Fujii is no joke—she’s one of the best people out there. But Cindy can and will beat her.”
However, Josh Barnett, a Ballard High alum, pro wrestler, and MMA fighter who manages Fujii, says the chances of a rematch are slim unless Hales can raise her profile. “As it stands, there’s not much in it for Megumi,” he explains. Still, he says, if the fight were to be televised, Fujii’s interest level would be higher.
Hales is also taking aim at Sayaka Shioda, Fujii’s protégé, whom Hales beat en route to the 2005 Pan Am title but who beat Hales at the Abu Dhabi grappling tournament in 2007. And then there’s the American Fight League, a new MMA league whose top fighter, Tara LaRosa, says she’d like to see Hales join.
“I thought when she came up she was going to be the hottest prospect,” recalls LaRosa, who says she was “shocked” by the outcome of the Fujii fight until she learned of the same-day weigh-in. “She’s just been hindered by injuries—that’s what’s prevented her from being a dominant force.”
Hales began teaching Brazilian jiujitsu in 2004 at the private Annie Wright School in Tacoma, where Emil Verbovski, the director of physical education at the time, made BJJ a required course. Verbovski grew up at the National Sports Academy in Sofia, Bulgaria—one of the rigorous Eastern Bloc athletic factories designed to produce Olympians—where, along with gymnastics, wrestling was a staple of everyone’s training.
Already friends with Dahlberg, who had originally taught the jiujitsu class, Verbovski took an instant liking to Hales, and began sharing with her his lifetime of training knowledge. “She’s very competitive and at the same time very level,” he explains in his Bulgarian brogue. “And she’s extremely bright. If she can learn something, she will learn it.”
Verbovski has helped Hales with everything from her diet (she’s quick to note that he had nothing to do with her pre-Fujii regimen) to her teaching at Lopes’ school, where she’s imported into her classes Verbovski’s emphasis on motor skills and spatial awareness. The kids begin with tumbling exercises like somersaults and cartwheels, do relay races with bear and army crawls, then move on to “positive self-talk,” a practice in which they loudly declare the things they’re good at, such as “Legos” and “rock ‘n’ roll.” After that, the class vaults into BJJ technique lessons and games. All told, it’s like a mixture of gymnastics class, an interactive Mister Rogers episode, introductory hand-to-hand combat, and recess.
Hales has thrown herself into teaching with characteristic abandon, showing up early and staying late to work with students individually. She recently quit her job at Redapt Systems to instruct full time, and hopes to raise enough money to award more scholarships, charge on a sliding scale, and eventually create an after-school program.
If the generosity of those who know her is any indication, Hales’ vision may not be far off. Jeff Cornell runs Hidden Hand Tattoos, a parlor in Fremont. His daughter, Tucker, attends Hales’ class, and his business plans to sponsor Lopes’ school. Earlier this year, McCarthy paid for Gavronski to fly to New Zealand to coach Hales in her fight against Muxlow. And Verbovski and others continue to offer their insights free of charge.
“When you have the opportunity to see a phenomenon like this,” says Verbovski, “who the heck needs to be paid?”