Shayna Baszler begins final chapter with UFC debut

To the novel or perhaps casual fan of mixed martial arts, Shayna Baszler is known as one of "The Four Horsewomen," a training partner of Ultimate Fighting Championship women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir, a contestant on "The Ultimate Fighter" and an avid personality on Twitter who's a diehard professional wrestling fan.

But there's nothing new about Baszler's presence and status as a player in women's mixed martial arts.

"For more years than people have known about women's MMA, she's been a top-10 fighter," said former UFC heavyweight champion and PRIDE Fighting Championships star Josh Barnett, a longtime coach and corner man for Baszler.

Nearly 11 years ago at an unsanctioned mixed martial arts event in her native South Dakota, Baszler made her victorious professional debut in a sport still struggling to emerge from its dark ages in North America, with female fighters just under a decade away from competing inside the UFC's caged confines.

It was the genesis of a career that has seen her compete in 10 states and three countries, fight 23 times against a who's who of the best of the best in women's MMA under the banner of just about every notable organization that has housed women's MMA other than the UFC. She's fought friends, champions, Olympians, "Cyborgs," "Happy Warriors" and "Ally-Gators" (twice), while persevering through myriad injuries, canceled cards, lost opportunities and one helluva tumultuous season of reality television.

And finally, Baszler's long and winding road to the UFC's octagon will reach its destination Saturday in Sacramento when "The Queen of Spades" toes the line with Bethe Correia in a three-round, women's bantamweight bout live on pay-per-view for UFC 177 at the Sleep Train Arena.

"Twelve years or so ago – I'm one of those old people that doesn't even remember how long ago they've fought," said the 34-year-old Baszler of her career, recalling her start back in October of 2003 when she showed up to a Reality Cage Fighting show just hoping she would have an opponent to fight to arriving upon the doorstep of the most prominent MMA league that has ever been. "I'm very aware of where I'm at in my career. By no means am I saying I'm ready to retire, but I'm very aware that this is the start of the final chapter.

"I'm in the winter season of my career and this is the pinnacle."

Standing in the way of Baszler (15-8) penning a triumphant lead to this chapter is Correia (8-0), who brings with her a 2-0 UFC record, a No. 10 UFC ranking and an already built-in storyline as it relates to her opponent. Correia is coming off a unanimous decision win over Duke at UFC 172 in April. In the aftermath of the win, Correia held up four fingers — the hand gesture signifying "The Four Horsewomen" and, before them, the professional wrestling group "The Four Horsemen" that the former pays homage to — and put one finger down.

Hence, in May it was announced Baszler, who trains at Edmond Tarverdyan's Glendale Fighting Club, would be the next Horsewoman who Correia would face. And Correia hasn't hesitated in the lead up to Saturday to say she doesn't intend on Baszler being the last of the GFC quartet she plans on facing – and defeating.

"I'm not in the UFC to be just another fighter. I will get to the title one way or the other," Correia told "I will get there. I want a title shot and I will get there by talking or fighting — or both. I want the title and nobody can stop me.

"I think I deserve a title shot. I will be 3-0 in the UFC with another win. That's my dream and that's what I'm fighting for."

But before Correia has a chance to face Rousey for the title and contemplate defending her signature armbar, she has to fend off a grappler in Baszler who boasts one of the most diverse ground games in MMA – male or female.

"She's more of a grappler by nature, she strikes well, too," Barnett said. "She has a very excellent grappling game, especially on top. She's very heavy. It's one thing to be on top, but to be a ton of bricks there is another thing. I don't think that's a secret that her grappling is her bread and butter; it's a matter of can you stop it?"

Baszler's catch wrestling background has led to 14 submission wins in her 15 victories. Perhaps just as impressive as the number of submissions she's produced is the diversity she's showcased en route to a tapout. She's won by armbar, choke, Kimura, kneebar and even the rarely seen twister — which she's pulled off twice.

"It's hard to simulate the things that I do," Baszler said. "I discover a lot of things on my own."

In contrast, Correia has showcased a stand-up base, with her left hook likely her best weapon and her ability to draw opponents into her pace and her fight being her strongest tactic. The 31-year-old made her UFC debut in December of 2013 with a very close split decision win over Julie Kedzie ahead of her win over Duke. Of her eight victories, seven have come via decision.

In contrast, Baszler has just one decision victory out of 15.

Correia comes in as the favorite, while Baszler clearly has an edge in experience, though it could be argued she would own that against any current UFC women's fighter. She's fought Alexis Davis and Sara McMann in two of her last three fights and those were Rousey's last two UFC title challengers.

She's 1-1 against Davis and also owns notable wins against the likes of Kedzie, Roxanne Modafferi, Sarah D'Alelio and Elaina Maxwell with losses to the likes of former Strikeforce champion Sarah Kaufman, former Strikeforce and Invicta champion Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino, Tara LaRosa and McMann, who many believe Baszler defeated in a razor-thin decision victory for the former Olympic wrestler.

All of those bouts – whether they were for Invicta, Strikeforce, Elite XC, Bodog Fight or whathaveyou – came before Feb. 23, 2013. That's the day Rousey won the first-ever UFC women's bout against Liz Carmouche at UFC 157, opening the door for future female combatants along with pioneers of the sport such as Baszler.

"Well, as soon as they announced they were going to have a 135-pound women's division, it was really a no-brainer to me for Shayna to be involved," Barnett said.

Not long after UFC 157, Baszler became a part of "The Ultimate Fighter" season 18 cast, which featured coaches Rousey and archrival Miesha Tate. Baszler defeated Colleen Schneider with a first-round armbar in the preliminary round of fights to gain access into "The Ultimate Fighter" house.

Rousey drafted her No. 1 and immediately pitted her against Tate's No. 1 pick, Julianna Pena. Pena pulled off a second-round submission in an upset that was shocking to many. Pena would go on to become the first-ever "TUF" women's champion when she defeated Jessica Rakoczy at the live finale.

Baszler was unable to compete on the card due to an injury. But she was determined that her stint on reality TV wouldn't be her first and only UFC impression or that an exhibition defeat would be her final bout.

"I have known, for me, that my fight in 'The Ultimate Fighter' can't be the way I went out," said Baszler, who became friends and training partners with Duke, Rousey and Shafir during 'TUF' tapings, which eventually led to her move west to Southern California. "I had to have this."

Baszler later signed to fight Kaufman in Canada, but another injury put those plans for a UFC debut to rest.

Finally came the bout with Correia, announced in May for UFC 176 on Aug. 2 at Staples Center. This time, though, it wasn't an injury to Baszler that prevented her from fighting, but one to UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo. When Aldo's injury forced the main event to be scrapped, the card's cancellation followed. But Baszler kept pushing forward.

"I think she knew she'd get her opportunity and really, she's focused on making the most of it," said Barnett, who will corner Baszler, along with GFC Sevak Ohanjanian and Duke.

As "The Ultimate Fighter" played across television screens around the world and fans and critics typed away on Twitter, Baszler's notoriety grew. The Four Horsewomen have become wildly popular and wildly scrutinized.

But that's hardly the whole story of Baszler and her long road in the world of MMA. It's simply the one that's garnered the most notice, as it's rather likely that many UFC fans only recognize Baszler as the "Four Horsewoman" she is now and not the groundbreaker of women's MMA who's already forged a stellar career.

"I think that's definitely true," Baszler said. "One thing I've learned is that a lot of fans' knowledge starts and stops with the UFC."

Upon a Saturday night in Sacramento, 11 years and 1,500 miles from a start in South Dakota, Baszler then and Baszler now will finally get the chance to come together under the bright lights of the UFC with Correia standing across from her.

"It's hard to explain and it might just be something invented in my brain, but there's something different about it now that the fight's been moved. This just feels different," Baszler said. "This fight is the one."



Follow Grant Gordon on Twitter: @TCNGrantGordon.