Dr Rosi Sexton: 'Fighting is a normal part of human nature'

The maths graduate and leading mixed martial artist, describes the sport's appeal

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The Independent Online

Rosi Sexton admits she sometimes gets funny looks at parent-teacher evenings. This is possibly due to the fact that the 36-year-old, who holds a first-class honours degree in mathematics from Cambridge, a PhD in theoretical computer science and a degree in osteopathy, essentially beats seven shades of hell out of people for a living. Well, that's how it may appear to the uninitiated.

Sexton is a mixed martial artist and recently became the first British woman to join its elite ranks – the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), the Premier League of the sport. Just don't call it cagefighting.

Next month, she makes her UK debut, her second UFC fight, in her home town of Manchester. She lost her first match to Canadian Alexis Davis in June, though she describes the loss as a close-run thing.

Her career choice has its awkward moments, not least when it comes to her eight-year-old son, Luis. "He's at an age where he thinks it's really cool," she says, speaking to The Independent on Sunday as part of our pledge to increase awareness of women's sport. "We had to have a conversation about exactly what he was telling his teachers. I was getting funny looks at parents' evenings."

Today, fighting is big business and broadcast to 800 million households around the world. Athletes at the top of the UFC, part of a current roster of 380, are multi-millionaires, often commanding millions of dollars for a single fight – and that's before sponsorship deals.

But for female fighters, the sport is relatively new, with the first woman signing to UFC last year. Now there are 13. Sexton doesn't think that disparity will end any time soon, but acknowledges things are changing slowly.

"I think it will be that way for the foreseeable future – you have more men who are attracted to the sport than women. But you've also got a lot of women who are starting to train now, whether for self-defence or to develop confidence or just because they enjoy it. Over the next few years, I think we're really going to see an explosion of talent within the women's division."

The sport is rooted in Ancient Greece when it was known as pankration and featured a combination of grappling and striking skills, similar to modern mixed martial arts. The modern incarnation can appear brutal and at times – when competitors are locked in wrestling holds – resembles a drunken brawl. Blood is a staple feature and is often found smeared on the floor of the octagonal enclosure in which the competitors fight. The sport's PRs are keen to stress eye-gouging and biting are, however, strictly against the rules.

In its more ruthless, early 1990s incarnation, the US senator and presidential candidate John McCain helped pass a ban in 36 states after his infamous "human cockfighting" comment. But, the new owners of the franchise have cleaned up its act, become profitable, and now claim it is safer than ever.

Sexton believes fighting is in our nature and always will be, and considers UFC a safer outlet for those who might yearn to express the darker side of their personality.

"Fighting is something that interests people," she says. "It's something they're drawn to. I think it [UFC] provides a safe outlet for some of that fascination with that side of our nature.

"It's in a controlled environment. But at the same time it's something that's quite real for the fighters and the fans. For me that's part of the appeal."

Despite this, she acknowledges that not everyone sees her sport this way and she hasn't yet let Luis see her fight live. She also hid it from her parents when she first entered the ring in 2002 while studying for her PhD. They only found out by chance in 2008.

"I didn't tell my parents for ages because I thought they'd worry. They're generally very supportive but it's the sort of thing that would absolutely terrify them, so I told them I was doing some martial arts competitions.

"They looked me up on the internet which kind of gave the game away and probably wasn't the best introduction, either. But they took it remarkably well and have been very supportive."

Now Sexton's star is in the ascendant, she just wants to improve her game and has no plans to reopen her maths textbooks. She still practices osteopathy part-time and, despite the two occupations appearing incongruous, she says she became interested in the health profession through the sport.

As one of the few women at the top of the sport, Sexton says it can be difficult to strike the right balance between being a champion for other women and concentrating on her own game.

"On the one hand you're conscious of the fact there are a lot of people looking at you and seeing you as a role model in a way.

"But you can't afford to pay too much attention to that because it does take away from that focus of what you're doing and keeping your head in the game."