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Emily Corso is a former professional MMA fighter turned self-defense coach and personal trainer. Though she trains both men and women, she particularly enjoys working with women and girls to increase strength, confidence, and functional fitness. Emily lives in Portland, Oregon and frequently hosts fitness fundraisers for badass non-profits. Learn about her next event here, or visit her website for more information.
I took a self-defense class in college to fulfill a PE requirement.
While roughhousing on the first day of class, I found myself in a back control position on another student and the coach got very excited and yelled loudly. I was halfway through my freshman year at Reed College at the time, and I felt underwater trying to keep up in classes filled with sharp kids from fancy private schools. Jiu jitsu was just what I needed to feel confident again.
I took my first MMA fight about six months after graduation, on a week and a half’s notice. At that point, I’d been doing jiu jitsu casually for a few years, and boxing for a few months. I’d essentially never seen an MMA fight before, so I didn’t really grasp what I was getting in to. I won that fight, and the feeling of exhilaration had me hooked.
After about several years of fighting as an amateur, I went pro in 2014 and had a whirlwind year. At my professional debut in Montana, I had the opportunity to take two fights in the same night. I won both fights by submission in the first round. A few fights later I made it to the rank of #1 pound-for-pound female fighter in the Pacific Northwest, and #11 female flyweight in the world.
Though I fought professionally for only a short time, I’d already been competing for several years by then and I was burning out.
Weight cuts were getting more dangerous, commuting to practice was time-consuming and stressful, and I hit the end of my rope with hearing sexist garbage from male fighters and “fans”. After my fourth pro fight, I left the coach and teammates that I had been with practically from the start. At the same time, I signed a multi-fight contract with Invicta Fighting Championships—arguably the biggest women’s MMA promoter in the world—and accepted my first fight with them, thinking perhaps new management would renew my zest for competing.
For years, getting to Invicta had been my dream. For a woman in MMA, Invicta is top of the line, and a very real stepping-stone to the UFC.
On the same day that I announced my first Invicta fight, I was game-planning with my coach, Dylan, when I stumbled and stubbed my big toe. Unfortunately, that “stub” caused a serious dislocation and partially severed my big toe from the inside out. (See it here, if you have a strong stomach.)
I had been coaching self-defense and fitness at the time, and had to regretfully put that on hold to take some down time for recovery.
When I took on that self-defense class at Reed College, it was the first time in my life that I broke out of my shell. I started doing jiu jitsu when I was 19. I was just becoming an adult, let alone a human. By the time I stepped away from MMA competition after my toe-pocalypse, I was 28 and had been doing combat sports for a third of my life.
Because I had been so wrapped up in MMA for so long, I wasn’t sure who I would be without fighting. My purpose as a fighter had been to show not just what I could do, but what women can do: that we can be just as skilled, athletic, and successful as the male fighters.
I hadn’t been keyed into sexism much before I became an athlete, but when your world is so quintessentially physical, gender becomes much more visceral and immediate. I think that’s part of why powerlifting has become such a big part of my life, because when I lift I simultaneously feel beastly strong and feminine.
Strength is not just a physical trait. I feel it in my belly when I succeed at a heavy deadlift: I am a strong person. (Not strong for a woman, just strong.) And that doesn’t end when I walk out of the gym.
My former MMA coach Nick made an offhand comment during a jiu jitsu class a few years back, and it has stuck with me. He said that we can succeed both from the opportunities we create, and by learning to see and take advantage of the openings that offered by our opponents.
In jiu jitsu, it takes finesse to recognize and accept an opportunity for success without forcing it into existence, or trying to make it go away because it’s not what you would have chosen.
I didn’t leave MMA because the training was hard or because some people were jerks or because I had to make sacrifices. All of that had always been true. After my accident I saw that the sacrifices I was making for MMA were no longer bringing me closer to the life I wanted to live.
I saw the opportunity to make a change, and decided to pivot from competing in MMA to putting all of my effort into growing my business, Bold & Badass Fitness, so that I can have a more direct impact on the world.
Fighting is the reason I went from being a shy adolescent headed for a Masters in Library Science to being a nerdy entrepreneur with a love for non-random acts of violence and picking up heavy objects just for the hell of it. MMA and fitness are how I uncovered my “inner badass”, and that gave me the confidence to take on far scarier tasks than cage-fighting (e.g. starting a business, speaking in public, teaching pre-teen girls to fight).
The tagline for Bold & Badass Fitness is the invocation to “live a badass life," because finding that inner strength is the most valuable reward that fitness can offer. It certainly was for me.
This is the twenty-seventh profile in our Society Nine Storytellers series where badass female fighters across all sports, media and culture in our community share their definitions of femininity, strength and empowerment and discuss what they fight for.
Have a story to tell? Submit it here! Tell us who you are, a little bit about your journey and what you fight for – in life and sport.