After six years of approaching fighters in the locker room before their matches, Swayze Valentine can tell within a matter of seconds whether or not she’s welcome.
If she doesn’t know the combatant — which, with an ever-shifting Ultimate Fighting Championship roster of more than 400 competitors, is often the case — they are almost always initially taken aback. “I’m a woman,” says Valentine. “I get that a lot.”
Undeterred, she quickly launches into her pitch. She’s wearing the black cargo vest of a UFC cutman, so she doesn’t need to introduce herself. She just looks at the fighter and tells them that she is going to wrap their hands.
Sometimes they flat-out refuse. Other times, they’ll hem and haw and question her until their coach or cornerman steps in and politely asks if someone else, a man, is available. Valentine knows the issue isn’t always her gender. She’s a relative stranger. Her brown hair pulled tightly back in a ponytail, she looks much younger than her 30 years. And, she knows, these mixed martial artists’ hands are their livelihoods — they’re all just a bad wrap and a broken finger away from losing their jobs.
“In our sport, not only do you eat with your hands. You grab. You strike,” says Joe Stevenson, a veteran mixed martial artist and trainer, who has come to trust Valentine with his and his fighters’ most precious weapons. “And outside the Octagon, you need to pick up your kids, pick up a pencil, drive a car. Hurting them in the fight to get a win is cool and all, except you then have to live with that.”
Says veteran cutman Rudy Hernandez, who’s been working for UFC since 2005 and has mentored Valentine: “When you’re the new person, nobody wants you to wrap their hands or work their cuts. You have to earn your spot and do such a good job that next time, they’ll ask for you. And she’s earned that. It wasn’t easy. But it isn’t easy for anybody. We all went through it — it’s not just because she’s female.”
Of course, being a woman hasn’t exactly helped. But as Valentine continues to make a name for herself as the UFC’s first cutwoman, she’ll at least get the silent passive acceptance of an athlete in their zone, if not a nod or maybe even a smile, like the one she gets from lightweight Jeremy Kennedy before a recent UFC Fight Night deep below the Rogers Arena in Vancouver.
It’s Kennedy’s first fight in front of his home British Columbian crowd, and the 23-year-old is giddy and anxious. At 6 feet tall, he towers over the diminutive Valentine. But as the two sit down in folding metal chairs, they face each other on a level plane. She starts with the right hand, massaging from the wrist down each finger, loosening up the muscles and cartilage. Then she begins the wrap, again working her way up from the wrist, first with gauze, then a layer of athletic tape. All the while she’s asking his preference, if he has any injuries or areas of concern, and how this or that feels. “They’re my client,” she later says. “I talk with them the whole time.”
“Do you want the thumb wrapped?” she now says, essentially asking whether he’s a grappler who’ll need his thumb loose for grip or a puncher who’ll want more support for the opposable digit.
“Can you cut the thumb out?” Kennedy says. Valentine knows that’s not a sturdy construction. Instead, she wraps it separately in a layer of tape.
This is the part of the job Valentine dreams about, that she practices repeatedly for hours on her own hands, on those of her two young sons, and on the rough knuckles of any fighter who’ll sit across from her. To Valentine, hand-wrapping is an art. Five minutes and two rolls of 2-inch tape later, she snips the end of the tape with her scissors and lets Kennedy flex and examine her latest work.
“Wow!” he says. “That feels awesome.”
Valentine hopes the validation is sincere, that she has not only earned a repeat customer in Kennedy, but in some of the other fighters looking on too — that Kennedy’s grin will take some of the pressure off the spiel she has to deliver twice more before she’s summoned to the arena floor. There, from her cage-side seat, Valentine will get to witness the durability of some of her wraps and, if necessary, clean up and repair some of the bloody damage that those carefully packaged fists will inflict.
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