By: Tom Lotshaw
To some people, entering a caged ring to face off against a highly- trained martial arts fighter sounds like the stuff of nightmares. For Laura Sanchez '12, it’s hard work paying off. A dream come true. “Getting your hand raised in the cage, there’s nothing like it,” said the 6-foot-1-inch former Western Carolina University basketball player turned fighter. Sanchez has always been a competitor. She’s still a student, too. She’s just studying mixed martial arts now — an amateur world champion striving to realize her professional fighting dreams.
In fact, Sanchez has always wanted to participate in the martial arts. Several free, introductory Taekwondo classes Sanchez took as a child made that desire stronger than ever. But she couldn’t afford to keep the lessons going, so she took up basketball and fell in love with that sport. Sanchez still remembers the first basket she ever made. It was in the driveway of her Milwaukee home. Heaving the ball up to the hoop took all her strength, everything she had. It rattled in and Sanchez just kept pushing forward from there.
At Lincoln Trail College in Illinois, Sanchez helped the basketball team set a school record for victories, win its first conference championship and make it to the NJCAA Division 1 National Tournament for the first time in school history. A basketball scholarship then brought Sanchez to WCU for her junior and senior years and helped her earn her bachelor’s degree. Sanchez played some semi-pro basketball for startup teams in Alabama and Michigan after graduating and aimed to play professionally. But she also wanted to try the martial arts that had captivated her imagination for so long. “Even when I was playing basketball, I always knew I would get into martial arts one way or another, whether as a hobby or to compete,” she said.
Sanchez researched all the dojos in Milwaukee she could find online. She visited Roufusport Mixed Martial Arts Academy and signed up for lessons after a tour. Roufusport is known as one of America’s top MMA gyms. It’s run by a team including four-time world champion kickboxer Duke Roufus and former UFC Lightweight Champion and current PFL fighter Anthony “Showtime” Pettis. Turns out, kickboxing is good cross-conditioning for basketball.
When Roufus saw Sanchez practicing kicks one day he stopped
to talk. He told her basketball players often transition well to MMA fighting and the two talked about opportunities in the sport. He told her to let him know when she was done pursuing basketball. Sanchez was still trying to play pro ball, but had also been thinking about what she wanted to do next. She made up her mind then and there, telling Roufus she was ready to focus on fighting and to start a new chapter.
Sanchez ramped up her training. She studied techniques needed to build a strong foundation and advance in the martial arts. While flashy, offensive striking moves might come to mind — roundhouse kicks and spinning back fists — a lot of training focused on the basics. For a long, long time. Sanchez joined Roufusport’s fight team and started fighting matches about two years later. She went 6-1 as an amateur.
In November 2019, she traveled to Singapore to represent the U.S. in the Global Association of Mixed Martial Arts world championships, an Olympics-style event organized by the international governing body for mixed martial arts. She returned home as the first women’s lightweight GAMMA world champion from the U.S. “I have my hand wraps and medal framed,” she said.
Sanchez made her professional debut in early 2020 in Madison, Wisconsin. A hometown crowd watched Sanchez defeat her opponent about four minutes into round one, landing a knockout combination of punches and knees.
Sanchez was set to travel to fight in Canada later in 2020. But when the pandemic broke out it put professional fighting leagues on hold just like the rest of the world. Sanchez used the time to train when not working her day job as a support specialist for General Electric. Conditioning is a big part of basketball. MMA fighting takes it to a whole other level.
“You have to put yourself through the wringer to get in the best physical and mental shape to fight for 15 to 25 minutes or even 15 to 25 seconds,” she said. “It’s not enjoyable. But you have to be willing to take your medicine to get better.” Sanchez resumed fighting in mid-2021, when she saw two tough losses by decision.
“You have to put yourself through the wringer to get in the best physical and mental
shape to fight for 15 to 25 minutes or even 15 to 25 seconds.It’s not enjoyable. But you have to be willing to take your medicine to get better.”
Sanchez is pushing forward. She moved to Las Vegas — one of the world’s fight capitals. She’s doubling down on her training and physical and mental conditioning, enjoying the sunnier, warmer climate. She’s now working with world-renowned coaches, including John Wood at Syndicate MMA as well as Robert Drysdale at Zenith, a world champion Jiu Jitsu practitioner. It took all of Sanchez’s strength and courage to enter the ring for her first fight. Every time she steps back in, she learns more about herself, what she’s capable of.
Sanchez is fighting professionally now. But when it comes to pursuing her dreams and living life to the fullest, she’s always been a fighter. “I think when you have dreams and goals you go after them with everything you have as if your life depends on it, because it does,” she said. “So many people don’t do things just out of fear. What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
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