COLUMBIA — Marla Kay's red-and-black striped hair was not the only thing that set her apart from the other fighters at Friday night's mixed martial arts competition at the Blue Note.
There were 11 fights and only one of them was between women. Kay, a 24-year-old from Columbia, fought 26-year-old Stefanie Lavender of Mexico, Mo. After an exciting two rounds, Kay tallied her first victory.
"I really enjoy hitting people and letting out my anger in that way, so this is a nice way to do it without getting in trouble," Kay said. "I'm not going to jail because of this fight."
Kay was born in Columbia but raised in O'Fallon. She played male-dominated sports such as basketball, baseball and football growing up. She was the running back for her high school football team and the only girl on the squad.
"I'm used to being the only chick on the team," Kay said. "It definitely makes you feel like you're not one of the weaker links."
During the second round of the fight, Kay's father was yelling encouragement to his daughter as loud as he could. Kay rolled her opponent over and claimed the edge in the fight, alternating punches while sitting on top of her opponent.
While Kay's father clearly supported her during the fight, he could not communicate with her as well as he might have wanted because he is deaf. Both Kay's father and mother are deaf, so, though she loves fighting, she also aspires to be an interpreter one day.
"I knew how to sign before I could speak," Kay said. "I see how they have trouble communicating and doing just everyday things like paying bills, so I understand that, and I want to help others with that."
Kay says her mother is apprehensive about her fighting, but her father is a great supporter. Kay has two sisters who also support her fighting.
"They are blond-haired and have blue eyes and are as girlie as can be," Kay said. "I'm the only tomboy of my family."
Kay became interested in fighting last December when she watched her boyfriend of nine years, James Young, fight in his first MMA fight. She spoke to Rob Hulett, founder of the Midwest Fight League and owner of the Columbia gym Hulett House, and started training.
Young said initially he wasn't sure of Kay's decision.
"I looked at her and thought, 'Are you kidding me?'" he said. "But now I think it's great. She has a great chance."
Kay is currently an independent fighter but hopes to join the Hulett gym sometime in the future. Kay says she could have been fighting a long time ago if there were more women her height and weight to compete against.
"I don't get why more girls don't fight," Kay said. "I think they're nervous because it seems like it is a guy's sport and they don't want to fight in front of all of those people. But once they get over it, hopefully there will be more girls fighting."
Valerie Coolbaugh, a professional fighter and trainer, has been fighting for more than decade. She said more women don't fight because of the responsibilities they have.
"Women have a lot more responsibilities," Coolbaugh said. "They have kids, a household, work, and they just don't have the time to dedicate to training every day. For example, they don't have time to get in their cardio workout every day."
Lavender lost to Kay despite having fought in the past, though she is also new to the sport. Her first fight was in May, but she has practiced martial arts since she was 8 years old. She has a brown belt in jujitsu and purple belt in Aiko. She has practiced tae kickboxing for 10 years as well.
"When girls see the other girls doing it, they'll be doing it soon, too," Lavender said. "They just need to know it's not only a guy sport."
Kay said she hopes more women from around the Midwest come to Columbia to fight.
"I hope more women get into it, so I can fight more often," Kay said. "They just need to realize that it doesn't matter if you're a chick. Anyone can do it."