Uyen Ha training in Thailand.

Uyen Ha: ‘There is no aspect of MMA that isn't tough.’

‘Outsiders will never understand why we do it, but the rewards are great.’

For most students, striking up an appropriate work-life balance is tough. Yet, Uyen Ha, in the unenviable position of combining a Law/International Relations double degree with full-time combat sports training, seems to have her priorities in check. An Australian junior freestyle wrestling champion and member of the Australian Olympic Wrestling Shadow Team, Ha is also one of Australia’s most exciting prospects in the world of mixed martial arts (MMA). Right now, she is fighting for a place in Australia’s Commonwealth Games contingent at the Gold Coast next year. Despite this, Ha takes training for all disciplines in her stride: ‘Olympic Wrestling is different to MMA wrestling, however, the fundamentals are the same… training in one helps me with the other. I want to focus on MMA for the next few years. I am in love with wrestling however I only started it to supplement my skillset for MMA.’

The fact that this near Olympic-level athlete can seriously say that, despite her success in the discipline, wrestling is a lesser priority is a testament to her dedication to one of the most arduous and gruelling sports groups in the world. Training upwards of 28 hours a week, wrestling is only a small part of her training regimen. And, while that means that her training regime may involve more physical combat than would be expected of a wrestler, for Ha, the physicality is part of the art form: ‘what I love most about MMA is how raw it is. The sport goes to the very core of human nature. Fighting and violence is in our blood. The human body and soul on its own. It is maybe the most beautiful art form to me. If you watch a fight, you will witness a spectrum of emotions: anger, pure despair, tears, extreme happiness, hopelessness, fear… I think there is something really primal and amazing about it. And to feel all those emotions is even more incredible.’

It’s common for boxers to go from fighting in the Olympics at an amateur level before moving on to box professionally (Muhammad Ali and Anthony Joshua are two well-known examples). Though, it is less common for MMA fighters to double-up their work training in their chosen combat sport with competition in an Olympic discipline such as boxing, wrestling or judo. The reasons for this are clear — the fact that boxing is its own Olympic sport and MMA is not, is one clear example. But, for Ha, the challenge is made even more intense by the relative youth of women’s freestyle wrestling at an Olympic level (it’s only been contested for just over a decade). This is exacerbated by the public’s past reticent attitude toward not just MMA but female MMA in particular; ‘it is a much harder sport than people give it credit for.’

However, despite being a female trailblazer in a historically masculine sport, she feels no pressure to be a role model even if it is a function she knows she will have to contend with: ‘there is no pressure… I had a lot of female role models at the start of my career, and I wish to be one as well. I aim to continue on this path in order to be able to have a bigger voice in society and tell my story. A female fighter is a different breed and goes through different experiences to the average male fighter. Therefore, it takes a female fighter to be a role model to other young girls interested in the sport.’

Despite her success thus far, Ha is certainly not resting on her laurels. Having moved to Thailand full-time last year, she is hoping to make breakthroughs in each discipline that she competes in, moving into Commonwealth Games and Olympics squads almost as a by-product of her dedication to MMA. And it is a real dedication. Beyond the tens of hours per week that she puts into the sport, training in mixed martial arts is particularly tough: ‘there is no aspect of MMA that isn’t tough, you go to training every day, and you get beat up. You come home with injuries, you prepare for a fight and you put your head and your body into hell. It is mentally exhausting, and it is physically draining.’ For Uyen to be competing so fiercely while also dealing with her academic responsibilities reflects a determination and intelligence that will surely contribute to her great and continued success in the future. Especially considering that she only took up MMA at the age of 16, as well as the impressive improvements in the few short years since then, it’s difficult to gauge just how far she could go in combat sports.

She is a credit to the University and it is disappointing that we don’t get to hear more about athletes such as herself competing at the highest level. Perhaps it goes back to her initial point that ‘outsiders will never understand why we do it’ and a pervading sense that MMA — particularly in its female variant — is yet to be taken seriously as a sport. But, hopefully, with some more successful fights under her belt and representation of Australia at Commonwealth Games or Olympic level on the cards, we will be seeing and hearing a lot more about one of this country’s most promising combat sports talents.