There are many misconceptions about mixed martial arts (MMA). It’s barbaric cage fighting; a bloody way to beat someone up in the quickest time possible. There’s no discipline; it’s all for show. And one of the biggest misconceptions of all: it’s only for men.

MMA is a complex sport that combines wrestling, grappling and striking in an intense five minute long battle fought in the ‘cage’, a hexagonal, fenced-in ring. It’s also the fastest-growing sport in the world, with more than 1.2 billion people watching fights every year. In South Africa, the top MMA promoter is Extreme Fight Championship (EFC) with more than 120 fighters on its books. EFC opened a women’s division last year, and currently has nine women signed to it.

The promoter Last Fighter Standing has signed 16 women fighters, and wants to create equal opportunities for women fighters. Part of this is equal prize money of R200 000 for its biggest title fight. Marie Claire went a few rounds with four of South Africa’s top women MMA fighters.

Danella Eliasov

‘When you’re in the cage, it’s a game of human chess,’ says 33-year-old Pretoria-based fighter Danella Eliasov. ‘You need to understand how to strategise and use your intellect to beat someone.’ Danella spends most mornings and evenings training at her gym and says she fights because she finds MMA mentally and physically engaging. ‘Being an MMA athlete means you have to learn many skills, including wrestling, boxing, judo and taekwondo.’

Danella Eliasov | By Steve Tanchel

Danella Eliasov | Steve Tanchel

Danella is signed with EFC and says it’s a struggle for her to find an opponent in her weight division, since she only weighs about 48kg. Fighters sometimes undergo intense weight-cutting before a fight, dehydrating their bodies to drop kilograms and fit into a weight category. ‘I’m quite small, so it would be dangerous for me to compete against a larger fighter who has undergone weight-cutting to qualify,’ she says. ‘I’d rather wait to compete against someone my own size, though we only get paid when we fight.’ She doesn’t fight for the money, though, and donates her winnings to charity.

Danella’s also a psychiatrist, and often has to defend her reasons for being an MMA fighter. ‘People ask, “Isn’t what you’re doing harmful? You studied the human brain and now you’re destroying yours when you fight.” Any contact sport carries a risk of brain injury, though,’ she says. She sees MMA as part of her journey of self-discovery. ‘I am prepared to face the relatively small risks involved for the greater benefits and enjoyment that I derive from the sport.’

Bunmi Ojewole

Nigerian-born, Durban-based orthopaedic doctor Bunmi Ojewole moved to South Africa in 1998 and took up kickboxing and jiu-jitsu in 2013. She joined an MMA gym in Durban and took part in her first amateur fight last year, after her coach encouraged her to enter the cage.

Bunmi Ojewole | by Valentina Nicol

Bunmi Ojewole | by Valentina Nicol

Bunmi is signed to Last Fighter Standing, which has different weight classes for women, and is currently the only black woman MMA fighter in the country. She says that, unlike the racially diverse male division, the women’s section is dominated by white fighters. This is mirrored internationally too, with only a few women of colour competing professionally, such as Dutch UFC fighter Germaine de Randamie and Angela Hill, who was UFC’s first black female fighter.

Bunmi disagrees with drastic weight-cutting. ‘Losing high volumes of fluid in a short time can damage your kidneys,’ she says. She’s been very successful so far, beating one opponent with a triangle choke in the second round. Her family supports her but she doesn’t let her mother watch her fights. ‘She gets too worried about my safety and then I get worried about her being worried! So it’s better if she’s not there,’ Bunmi says.

Amanda Lino

‘I love the release you get from being physical,’ Amanda says. ‘Most people don’t get to punch someone in the face every day, but as a fighter you get to release that stress in a controlled manner.’ Amanda, who is based in KwaZulu-Natal and signed with EFC, says she got into a lot of trouble and fights as a young girl and was drawn to MMA because it offered a different channel for her aggression. ‘I wanted to transfer the negative energy into something useful and positive,’ she says. ‘I found a gym in Ballito and my coach at the time told me I had a natural flair for fitness and MMA.’ Today she owns her own MMA gym, where she trains clients and up-and-coming fighters.

Amanda Lino | Valentina Nicol

Amanda Lino | Valentina Nicol

Women MMA fighters aren’t immune to the sexism and misogyny directed at female athletes, and Amanda says as one of the top fighters in the country, she gets her fair share online. ‘People sometimes make negative comments on social media, but I have learned to block it out,’ she says. ‘I ignore it and walk away. If I didn’t, it would be crippling.’

Shana Power

In a sweat-drenched gym in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, 23-year-old Shana Power is getting ready to take on her biggest fight to date. She’s fighting Amanda Lino at Sun City in a few weeks, competing for EFC’s first women’s title, and needs to perfect her striking and grappling moves. ‘I’ve been competing for a year, and now I’m the number-one female fighter in South Africa,’ she says.

Shana Power | By Steve Tanchel

Shana Power | By Steve Tanchel

Shana was introduced to MMA six years ago. After a tough upbringing, she found solace in the sport’s mental and physical discipline. Her first amateur fight was in 2014 and last year, she won her first professional fight.

Gearing up for her fight with Amanda involves cutting more than 10kg from her 70kg frame in order to qualify for the flyweight category. Since the women’s class is so small, this is the only weight category in which they can currently compete, which means all female fighters need to weigh less than 57kg to qualify.

‘I don’t think weight cutting is necessarily good for anyone,’ she says. ‘But with so few women competing, I can understand why it’s happening. I cut weight with the help of a nutritionist.’ She loves competing, despite it not paying the bills. ‘Women don’t get paid as much as men,’ she says, even if they compete at the same level. At a fight earlier this year, she got paid less than her male counterpart. ‘We both won and were both putting our lives at risk. We should have received the same amount.’

Shana gives MMA classes to men and women, and believes an increased awareness of the sport is integral to it becoming more inclusive. ‘I’m surrounded by men,’ she says. ‘I’m the only woman in the gym who fights and competes but if more women and girls see fighters like myself, they’ll be encouraged to join.