Tough Love: As women step up to mixed martial arts, one student is empowered by her big sister's success in the octagon
[wzslider autoplay="true" info="true" lightbox="true"]After the steel cage slammed shut, Alyssa Venable watched her sister transform from a caring mother into a vicious fighter.
Several seconds into the fight, two women exchanged punches to the head and body. Venable's early anxiety for her sister's safety was dashed when the bout took to the ground.
"It was intense," the Clare sophomore said of her older sister's second mixed martial arts fight. "I had never seen that side of her. Afterwards, she couldn't calm down. It took hours for her to relax."
Autumn Hale mounted Chauntel Wallace and delivered a barrage of punches to her opponent's face and neck until the match was stopped by a referee. Venable's fear for her sister quickly turned to pride as Hale defeated her opponent in the first round.
"I'd seen other fights before, but knowing how gentle she is, you could see the change in her eyes," Venable said. "It was a little weird."
As Venable continues to watch her 35-year-old sister pummel contenders, she is certain women will one day lead the sport of MMA, and Hale will be a contender.
Harrison resident Autumn Hale practices Jujutsu with Riverdale resident Cheryl Jacob during one of their daily practice sessions on October 30, 2013 at Clare Family Fitness in Clare, Michigan. Hale practices every week night for two hours.
Harrison resident Autumn Hale talks on the phone during work at Clare Family Fitness in Clare, Michigan on October 31, 2013. Hale spends most her time at the gym, working there every day for 10 hours. Hale has been managing the gym for a few years now
Harrison resident Autumn Hale expresses the heaviness of a wedding dress she tries on for her upcoming August wedding on November 2, 2013 at David's Bridal in Saginaw, Michigan. Although this is her second wedding, this time around it means much more to her.
Harrison resident Autumn Hale holds her daughter Aliyah close to her on November 3, 2013 at their home in Harrison, Michigan. Hale tries to dedicate every Sunday to spending time with Aaliyah because she feels she doesn’t get enough time just the two of them because of work and practice. Aliyah goes to her father’s every other weekend and spends her weekdays at her grandma’s and daycare.
Harrison resident Autumn Hale and fiancé Joe Pnacek listen to their coach and pro-fighter Brett Shardella as he explains and demonstrates the next move they will learn during practice on October 30, 2013 at Clare Family Fitness in Clare, Michigan. Hale met Pnacek through the gym and family friends.
Harrison resident Autumn Hale swings at her opponent during an MMA fight on December 14, 2013 in Midland, Michigan. Autumn won this fight in less than three minutes. Autumn has won 4 out of the 5 pro fights she has participated in.
Autumn Hale kisses her fiancé, Harrison resident Joseph Pnacek, during an after party celebrating both of their MMA victories on December 14, 2013. Hale and Pnacek spent the whole day apart because Joe prefers to be alone in preparation for a fight.
Daytona Niles | Staff Photographer Harrison resident Joe Pnacek kisses Autumn Hale on the forehead after winning championship belt.
Daytona Niles | Staff Photographer Harrison resident Autumn Hale twist the arm of Michigan fighter Sara Leonard during their fight in Midland December 14 2014.
Daytona Niles | Staff Photographer Autumn Hale helps stretch two members of Clare Family Fitness, where Hale works, during their workout on November 1, 2013. Each of the women come in every week, sometimes more than once, to benefit from Hale's assistance.
"It's breaking down stereotypes," Venable said of her older sister's bouts. "I've always been proud to be able to say my sister does it, rather than a brother. It's definitely a little strange, but she's always just done whatever it takes. It's that determination you don't see in other fighters."
Venable looks forward to the future of MMA involving more women to expand the sport and raise the level of competition.
She sees Hale as a key contributor to making MMA more than just for men.
Hale's coach, Brett Sbardella, 25, said while the women he trains have little to no prior experience, they are eager to accept his form of training and lessons.
"A lot of these girls aren't coming from a wrestling background," Sbardella said. "The ground work isn't there, so you're usually starting from scratch. But there are also no bad habits to overcome."
He was skeptical of women getting into the ring at first, but after working with Hale, he sees the future of MMA changing.
"Initially, I didn't know how to take it," Sbardella said of female competitors. "It's typically been a man's sport. Now the chicks are stealing the show. They put on the best fights."
Hale is also supported at ringside by her fiancé, Joe Pnacek. He has been fighting for seven years, and continues to train with Hale despite suffering from knee and leg injuries.
"It's brought us all closer together," Hale said of MMA and her family. "We all do it together. You have that support that they know what you're going through when your nerves are going 1,000 miles per hour."
It can be difficult to distance himself emotionally from the carnage, Pnacek said when the woman he loves is in the ring.
Avoiding fights on the same nights, Hale and Pnacek are always at ringside during each other's matches.
"You have to distance yourself from the intimate relationship, and be someone who is a teammate and coach," Pnacek said. "Most of the time, I sit in the corner and cover my eyes if I need to. I've fought all the tough guys, but I've never been more nervous than when I watch her fight."
In the octagon, Hale is an extension of Pnacek.
When the couple both fought on the same night, in December, Hale's anxiety threatened to distract her from her own brawl. But she was still able to submit her opponent that night with an arm bar before the end of round one.
"You're worried about him, but you have to focus on your own fight," Hale said. "Sometimes it can be pretty bloody and brutal. We will never fight the same night again. It's too much."
The mom machine
A dedicated mother and stepmother, Hale began training and competing in MMA in late 2012. Her first fight, in March 2013, ended in a unanimous decision in her favor after three rounds.
"They had a girl and nobody to compete against," Hale said of her first fight. "I always liked boxing; it was a bucket list kind of thing. I'm a tomboy at heart. I got into the ring and it just took one punch. She hit me and it was like 'oh no!'"
Since her first competition, fighting has empowered Hale's life.
With a 3-year-old daughter, Aliyah, and a 13-year-old step-son, "Little Joe" Pnacek, both showing an early interest in the sport and the physical fitness required, she said she hopes other women will continue to look to her as a role model for what they can accomplish, both physically and mentally.
"(Fighting) has definitely made me a stronger person," Hale said. "I'm stronger-minded than I was before. It also feels good to have other women look up to me.
"It's not like you're getting into a cage to beat someone up. It's a sport, and it's very empowering. It shows your children discipline."
She is careful, but open to introducing her daughter and son to the violent sport.
Her son, Little Joe, even trains with Hale at the local gym, Clare Family Fitness. Little Joe said he aspires to fight in televised "Ultimate Fighting Championship" bouts, or play football for the University of Michigan.
"If I'm ever mad, training calms me down," Little Joe said. "I'm not scared, I want to get in the ring. I like fighting on the ground, it's a lot funner than getting punched in the face."
While Hale keeps her daughter, Aliyah away from some matches, she isn't afraid to show the 3-year-old a hold or two.
"The grappling, I don't mind her seeing," Hale said. "She doesn't take anyone's crap. I just don't want her to get in trouble at school."
Recently divorced from Aliyah's father, Hale shares custody on weekends, sending her daughter to stay with her dad in Detroit.
Life as a fighter can be chaotic, sometimes too turbulent for a 3-year-old. On top of training, Hale said she also struggles to make time for her daughter.
"I bring her to practice, but I don't want her to get hurt," Hale said. "When she stays with her dad, it's a bit of a relief because I know she is spending time with him and I can spend more time training."
Working at Clare Family Fitness during the days, Hale and her son train after he gets out of school.
"I usually pick up my son, make sure he gets something to eat and then we go to the gym," Hale said. "Joseph wants it so bad. He's come a long way. As long as I know they're prepared, I'm not worried."
Train for pain
As heavy metal blares from a back room at Clare Family Fitness, the screams of agony could still be heard over the music.
This is where Hale trains.
As several participants struggled to keep up, a man more than 6-feet-tall heaved over a trash can, expelling his dinner, but resolving to keep going. Contorted faces and wide puddles of fresh sweat are a common sight during training sessions.
But some are right at home in the pain and musky haze of the gym.
This is where Hale's family is.
"You're a totally different person when that door closes," she said, "but when it's over, back to normal."
Hale trains with her son every night for at least two hours under the tutelage of Sbardella,"The Spider" who has been training and coaching fighters for seven years.
Watching Hale transition from the striking-based Muay Thai style learned during a 2-year stay in Thailand, to the more grounded Jiu Jitsu, Sbardella said he was impressed by her conditioning and dedication to get stronger, while overcoming personal issues in the cage.
Hale has suffered myriad injuries in fights and during practice. During a fight in August 2013, Hale's opponent stomped her feet, leaving massive damage to tendons in her shins. June 2013 saw torn cartilage in Hale's neck following a choke hold.
Despite increasing medical bills, Hale said she will continue to fight as long as she is able.
"When it comes to conditioning, (Hale) is in another league," Sbardella said. "It's something that can't be taught: that drive. She never comes in and breezes through it. She makes sure she gets the most out of each practice.
"Everyone has their own demons, they have reasons for what they do," he said. "When you get in there and go to war – that's it. All the bad that happened is out the window."