The MMA journey of Marina Shafir
Sitting quietly along the ring apron in the background of a bustling gym, Marina Shafir is approached for an autograph.
Shafir happily obliges and proceeds to scribble her signature across a martial arts belt, signing her very first autograph in the process. It certainly wasn’t her last.
That was in March. Since then, Shafir’s stock and status in the world of women’s mixed martial arts has only risen despite the fact that she’s still yet to make her professional debut.
Upon an initial meeting, Shafir comes off as relatively shy, but that doesn’t last long. In many ways, it’s a trait emblematic of her career thus far, as she’s beginning to make some noise.
Later in March, Shafir dismantled another amateur opponent to improve to 3-0. She was then part of close friend, training partner and roommate Ronda Rousey’s coaching staff on “The Ultimate Fighter” and, on her way to her fourth amateur bout on Friday night, interviews, stories and her overall recognition have increased and have made her a star on the rise.
Indeed, Marina Shafir’s MMA journey is well under way.
“I’m getting better every day, exponentially,” Shafir says. “I don’t have any thoughts in my mind of slowing down.”
Ronda Rousey has been up training since 5 a.m. as she sips coffee on a late Monday morning inside the Glendale Fighting Club. Her day, though it’s long ago started, isn’t close to wrapping up as her training camp for her Ultimate Fighting Championship women’s bantamweight title defense against arch nemesis Miesha Tate on Dec. 28 is in full swing.
But when asked about meeting Marina Shafir and their ensuing friendship, Rousey’s face is curved by a genuine and far-reaching smile.
Traveling in the same judo circles when they were pre-teens and teenagers, Shafir tells one story, while Rousey tells one a bit differently.
“Over a decade ago, I was 12 or 13,” the 25-year-old Shafir says of their first meeting. “She was a little punk; I didn’t like her. She was mean to me for no reason.”
“No,” Rousey, 26, grins, “this is not true.”
As Rousey tells it, she was listening to “Rage Against the Machine” getting ready for a tournament and was “just in it,” when Shafir tapped her on the shoulder.
“She comes over and pokes me,” Rousey says. “Then she tells me, ‘You’re listening to Rage.’ I’m like, ‘You came over to stop me and tell me I’m listening to Rage?’”
Not long after, a long standing friendship seemingly always rife with lively details would blossom thanks to a “booty shake” and “the chicken sacrifice in Belgium,” Rousey says of time in which the two were in a judo tournament in Belgium.
It wasn’t a live chicken, mind you, just a roasted dinner that the two polished off before, “we sacrificed chicken bones to the judo gods,” Shafir grins.
The booty shake was Rousey showing a side to Shafir that, literally and figuratively, nobody had seen. Hardly your average starting point of a friendship, but nonetheless the onset of a relationship that has endured for more than a decade, across the globe, through living on separate ends of the country and through the rise of Rousey becoming a female pioneer in mixed martial arts and a mega star with magazine covers and roles in major motion pictures.
“We’ll die for each other,” says Rousey with complete sincerity. “We’ve been tested; we’ve had our fights and our blow-ups. No matter how mad we ever got at each other, we’re always there for each other.
“We’re real with each other. We don’t sugar coat it. She’ll tell me if I’m being bitchy. She’s no ‘yes man’ for anyone.”
Judo isn’t just for anyone and Shafir took a liking it to it when she was just 6.
“I was always outside, I was a tomboy,” says Shafir, a native of Moldova who moved to New York when she was 5. “As soon as the sun came up, I was outside playing. As soon as the sun went down, I was still outside playing.”
But after her time on the junior circuit, Shafir said good-bye to judo in large part due to injuries and the incurring cost of participating taken on by her parents.
“I just quit,” Shafir says. “There was no reason to do it anymore.”
Thereafter, she took on jobs bar tending and at coffee shops, but it was her time taking up jiu jitsu that accelerated her path toward mixed martial arts.
“I didn’t really know about MMA until I was 18 or 19 and I went to a restaurant and they were playing [the fights],” Shafir recalls. “I didn’t take too much interest in them. Once I started to go to jiu jitsu, I started to take more interest.”
And when she was 23, Shafir submitted Denise Goddard in all of 44 seconds via armbar in her amateur debut in Massachusetts in May of 2012.
“Before I knew it, I had my first amateur fight and I fell in love with it,” Shafir recounts.
Meanwhile, Rousey had started revolutionizing the MMA world as she defeated Tate in just her fifth professional fight in March of 2012 to take the Strikeforce women’s title. It was a bout that was largely credited in UFC President Dana White’s decision to bring the women’s 135-pound division into the UFC octagon.
“She was actually the one that encouraged me to fight,” Shafir says of Rousey. “I called Ronda and told her about my fight. I’ve never felt her be so amped up for me.
“We both had something we were really passionate about again. It was cool, we had something we could be passionate about together as best friends.”
But while Rousey’s career boomed professionally, Shafir decided to keep working her way through the amateur ranks. She earned another first-round armbar submission in November of 2012 in her home state of New York.
“Personally, there was just more proving to do for myself,” Shafir says. “It was my own journey that I wanted to take.”
As 2012 came to a close, a new chapter began for Shafir, who decided she would go west.
She headed out to California, where she now resides with Rousey in Venice, and often trains alongside her.
“Ronda told me a lot about her,” says trainer Edmond Tarverdyan of the Glendale Fighting Club, where Shafir now trains along with other Southern California locales. “I told her that’s a great decision. I really loved the fact of Ronda doing that.”
With Tarverdyan in her corner for the first time along with Rousey, Shafir continued her amateur annihilation in March with a 59-second armbar submission of Danielle Mack at a Tuff-N-Uff event.
And so her current amateur record stands at 3-0 with three first-round armbar submissions after a total of 3 minutes 36 seconds of combined time in the cage.
“She’s very strong physically,” Tarverdyan says. “She has to learn to use her strengths. That’s what I want her to learn is who she is.
“She has three armbars, so I guess it’s working.”
Her record is currently identical to that of Rousey’s at the amateur level with all of Rousey’s fights ending via first-round armbar in the first round, albeit it in just an amazing total time of 1:44.
And so it goes that more often than not, Shafir’s name is not far from being accompanied by Rousey’s.
It’s perhaps a double-edged sword, as Shafir admits to enjoying her time sitting in the front row at UFC fights and traveling with a world champion who just so happens to be her best friend. But with all that comes added pressure and expectation, which Shafir, true to her character, is quick to confront without solicitation.
“I have to earn it. It’s nice that I’m her friend, but it’s a real wake-up call. It’s constantly a wake-up call for hard work,” Shafir says. “Everybody has the same expectations for me. I’m not her, I’m a different fighter.”
While Shafir will have to deal with the pressure of being so closely associated to Rousey, she’ll also, arguably, make her professional debut with more hype and buzz than the UFC champion did.
Shafir will make her debut into a women’s MMA world far different from March of 2011 when Rousey began her mercurial rise to stardom. Though Rousey was undefeated in the amateur ranks and was the first United States Olympian to medal in judo, the atmosphere surrounding women’s MMA was not like it is now — thanks primarily to Rousey’s impact.
The UFC didn’t yet have females fighting, so it certainly didn’t have a home for them on “The Ultimate Fighter.” The all-female Invicta Fighting Championships was still more than a year away from holding its first card.
So it goes to say that pressure and expectation will certainly be opponents for Shafir to fend off, right?
“I don’t think she’s an anxiety fighter,” Rousey says. “I think she can deal with pressure.”
An argument can be made that Shafir’s been dealing with the pressure for some time now, anyway.
“When she came down here, it was already crazy with Ronda,” Tarverdyan says. “Overall, she’s been handling it very well.”
Only time will definitively tell when Shafir makes her much ballyhooed debut in the professional ranks.
“I think there is going to be a lot of pressure on her,” Invicta FC President and co-founder Shannon Knapp says. “I think a lot of people are looking at Marina. Everybody sees how talented Ronda is and, being her training partner, expectations are certainly going to be high.
“The anticipation is certainly there.”
Live on pay-per-view from Kansas City on Dec. 7, Invicta FC will offer up its seventh event.
The all-female organization will feature the likes of Barb Honchak, Carla Esparza, Felice Herrig, Tecia Torres and even former Rousey foes Julia Budd, Charmaine Tweet and Sarah D’Alelio, among others.
In the coming year, Knapp hopes the promotion and women’s MMA will only grow.
“As much as everybody’s excited, and rightfully so, about what’s happening,” Knapp says, “there’s still a tremendous amount of work to be done.”
Though Shafir certainly won’t be on the December card and, more than likely, not on the company’s follow-up event in January or February, Knapp offers no hesitation that a fighter with Shafir’s credentials would have a home with Invicta.
“I certainly know who she is. I’ve been watching from a distance. She’s certainly on my radar,” Knapp says. “When she’s ready to go pro, I would certainly love to have her under the Invicta banner.
“I think Marina is an amazing athlete and I think she’s going to get better and better and we would love to give her the foundation to do that.”
While Invicta offers multiple weight classes for female fighters, the UFC currently only offers the 135-pound bantamweight class of which Rousey rules. It is reportedly set to add a 115-pound straw weight division in the coming year. Shafir fights in the 145-pound featherweight class. Hence, Invicta would be a likely fit.
“I love Invicta,” Rousey says. “I think Invicta would benefit greatly from picking [Shafir] up. Marina does have a fan base and a legitimate following.”
While the 145-pound weight class has housed some of the sport’s biggest stars such as Gina Carano, current Invicta champion Cris Cyborg and Rousey over her first four professional bouts, its depth has never matched its profile.
“It’s obviously always been a weight class that needs more nurturing,” Knapp says. “It’s a little more sparse than the others, but all of them were about a year or more ago.”
In a year’s time, Shafir hopes for big things. That could mean making her debut in Invicta and working up the ranks. Or maybe something else.
“Talking to you about my UFC debut!” Shafir exclaims of where she wants to be in a year. “Life is about goal-setting. I want to be the best of the best; I plan on it, that’s my goal.”
Of course, UFC doesn’t have the 145-pound division quite yet. But, if anyone knows how to bring a division into the organization, Rousey does.
“I think if Marina can generate enough buzz,” Rousey says, “they’ll find a venue for her.”
Perhaps oddly enough, while options seem to be abundant for Shafir, fights are hard to come by.
“She’s had a lot of the same problems I had as an amateur,” Rousey says.
Much like Rousey found opponents difficult to come by after her reputation for destruction had spread, the list of battered opponents and disjointed limbs left in Shafir’s wake has limited the list of opponents left in front of her.
“That’s what sucks as an amateur, you fight to get the experience, but then you can’t get anybody to fight you, like what Marina’s going through now,” says Jessamyn Duke, a UFC women’s fighter who was coached by Rousey, Tarverdyan and Shafir on “The Ultimate Fighter.”
Duke, along with fighter Shayna Baszler, now live with Shafir, Rousey and dog Mochi in Rousey’s Venice home.
“Marina keeps everybody sane and functioning together,” Rousey says. “She’s definitely the mommy of the house.”
And so Shafir finds herself with a foundation of friends she can count on with MMA experience and then some. She has made the move west to enhance her training. She has appeared in the limelight of “The Ultimate Fighter” as an assistant coach. She has done an increasing amount of interviews and press and been plenty quotable in the process. She now has her next amateur fight awaiting on Friday.
It would appear Shafir has done everything to assure that her future is an illuminating one.
“The options are there,” Shafir says five days from her next bout as she looks out the windowed walls of the Glendale Fighting Club and perhaps into the future. “I just really want to be smart with what I do. I don’t want to waste any more time.
“All I know is I want to do big things in a year. Whatever decision I make, it’s gonna be one that’s good for me and good for the sport.”
In the end, it’s not a story of Ronda Rousey’s best friend. This is Marina Shafir’s story that’s she’s penning one chapter at a time.
“At the end of the day, she does not walk in the cage for me,” Shafir says. “At the end of the day, I’m fighting my own fight.
“At the end of the day, it’s my journey.”