Thursday , November 27, 2014 - 11:55 AM
It's a cold, rainy fall Saturday morning in the Top of Utah, but in a gym tucked between small businesses in Draper, there is activity in the ring. Two women are sparring, working on gaining control in the clinches. One is Aubree Thompson, who soon will have the opportunity to win a title in mixed-martial arts. Her sparring mate is Lauren Chidester, a young mom of two who plans to make her MMA debut on the same day. Watching both closely is trainer John Valentine. He can’t yell instructions to Thompson because she’s deaf. Instead, he frequently stops the action and shows her what to do.
On this morning Hidden Valley gym is populated with more young women grappling, boxing, kick boxing, and pounding bags. In this modest location the finest women's MMA team in the West has been painstakingly assembled over the past four years. It’s compiled a win rate of 75 percent in Utah cages.
Assembled by Hidden Valley owner Mike Hermosillo, trainer -- and active MMA pro -- John Valentine, and trainer Scott Vincent, the team includes current headliner Thompson, two spouses of NFL football players, an MMA women’s pioneer, active Latter-day Saint women, and moms -- married and single. They come to the gym for serenity and to accomplish goals.
“Hard,” is Valentine’s answer to how the girls train. “They train with and alongside men which makes them tough,” he adds.
The team is a fixture at SteelFist MMA promotions locally, and several have competed at the Legacy Events Center in Farmington. Thompson's bout is Dec. 12 in Salt Lake City, an amateur flyweight title match against Jennifer Snyder, another prospect who owns a win over Hidden Valley fighter Becca Carter.
Thompson, 5-0 in MMA, has a son, 12, named River, whom she calls "her biggest fan." Deaf since childhood, the well-muscled contender considers Hidden Valley her family. "At first I started just to get in shape, then I fell in love with MMA," said Thompson, who has dreams of moving beyond the Utah scene in the sport. She recently won a kick boxing bout in Las Vegas.
“I just train hard to get ready for my next fight. I’m bringing home that belt. I want to show everyone, hearing world and deaf world, that anybody can do this,” says Thompson.
“Fighting MMA itself is challenging; now imagine you have to do it without hearing anything,” said Valentine, who is her chief handler in the cage. No verbal advice is heard, so “she has to rely on her visual acuity and short glances to me for hand language,” adds Valentine.
Teammate Rachel Kemker, 28, of Sandy, knows sign language and assists in an interview with Thompson. Kemker is “the pioneer” of Hidden Valley’s team. Besides being the first member of the team, she also competed in the first women’s MMA bout for the SteelFist promotion. “The Utah MMA scene has a very special place in my heart,” says Kemker, who, along with other women on the team, call their teammates and coaches “family.”
Thompson’s sparring partner, Chidester, 26, has been at the gym six months. She and her husband, Eric, have two girls, Serene and Cadence. Chidester was a black belt in karate as a teenager, but stopped martial arts training for several years. After having child number two, she decided to get back in fighting shape. On Dec. 12, she’ll see her first action in the cage.
One of the top prospects at Hidden Valley is Brenda Enriquez, 25. Called “the little hands of stone,” no opponent has lasted a round with her. The 115-pound fighter, who has a six-year-old daughter, Kimberley, and a sibling, Victor, who is also a fighter, plans to make MMA a career. “This is not a hobby for me. ... This is our church,” she adds. Enriquez “goes to church” several times a week. When she’s not at Hidden Valley, she does weight training at another gym.
Also on the team are the wives of two NFL football player. Jessica Kruger Bergstrom, is married to Tony Bergstrom, lineman for the Oakland Raiders. She’s undefeated as an amateur and plans to fight for a title in 2015, says Valentine. Traci Morris, wife of NFL player Rob Morris, owns her own fitness facility. She’s joined the team and plans to enter the cage next year.
The competitors learn that victories don’t always come easy. Team member Buffy Ogden lost her first two fights but didn’t give up. She won her third fight recently in Farmington and plans to fight again in Vernal soon. Alysa Westergard, a tall, slender 130-pounder, fought a war last November in Salt Lake City in her debut, but lost. Despite having to have surgery to replace an orbital eye injury, she’s maintained her enthusiasm. While she trains, her two young sons, Cade and Hagen, toddle through the gym. They feel comfortable among the MMA family.
Despite the loss, Westergard, who has been training about three months at Hidden Valley, is eager to get better and resume the challenge. “I like being a part of the team,” says the 23-year-old.
Another woman getting ready to make her debut is tall, 22-year-old Leah Steffensen, of Riverton. The muay thai specialist will fight in 2015. “I’m very proud to be an LDS MMA fighter,” says Steffensen, who spends about three days a week in the gym learning the transition from kick boxing to mixed martial arts.
The Hidden Valley women’s MMA team has won four championship belts so far. On Dec. 12, the team expects to win another with Thompson. According to Valentine, Enriquez, despite juggling two jobs, motherhood, and training, will challenge for a belt in 2015.
Hidden Valley gym owner Hermosillo sees the team as more than an MMA squad. “We teach the arts behind the fighting,” he says. The skills include jiu jitsu, muay thai, conventional boxing, judo, grappling, and more. The end result is a competitor prepared to enter the MMA cage and be successful.
And after the fighting days are over, teammates don’t plan to leave the sport. Both Kemker and Steffensen would like to be trainers. With the fine examples they have at the gym, many of the fighters will likely carry on to teach others the sport.
Doug Gibson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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