Lana Stefanac can fight. The Danville resident is a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu champion, has fought in Abu Dhabi and Japan and New Zealand, and is undefeated as a mixed martial arts fighter. Just three years ago, at age thirty, she left behind her life in Ohio for California, drawn west in pursuit of a black belt. Today she is at the center of the Bay Area women’s mixed martial arts scene, matchmaking for fights, managing fighters, and now, with her newly opened school, training professionals at her own gym. Stefanac aspires to help other women acheive their own dreams of fighting — no easy endeavor. The sport’s largest and most popular organization refuses to hold fights for women, martial arts schools are filled mostly with men, and even fans of mixed martial arts are unfamiliar with most female fighters. All this makes Stefanac an underdog. At five-foot-ten and 210 pounds, Stefanac is a Goliath in stature, but her story is pure David.
On an unseasonably hot April afternoon, the air in Trinity Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Stefanac’s Oakland-based school, is humid and still. On the blue mat that makes up two-thirds of the floor, Sara Schneider is dressed in a black T-shirt over a black long-sleeve crew. Schneider, who arrived from Kansas City the day before, is one of the best of the fifteen fighters Stefanac manages, and has come for a mixed martial arts match Thursday in Lemoore, California. She is five-foot-three and 135 pounds, with a jawline like Heath Ledger’s, and hair tied into a thick, knotted braid that hangs to the small of her back. She is friendly and speaks at a volume just above a whisper, like a kindergarten teacher at nap time. That her opponent, Sarah Kaufman of Canada, is undefeated does not seem to concern her. “I’m not worried about someone’s record,” Schneider says in an uninflected voice. “I’m just focused on what I can do.” Fighters commonly have nicknames, and Schneider’s is White Tiger, Stefanac says. “Because when tigers attack, they go for the throat.”
In the last few years, mixed martial arts — where fighters punch, kick, and grapple for victory — has exploded in popularity. Ultimate Fighting Championship, the main mixed martial arts organization, took in a reported $250 million in 2007. Its pay-per-view events draw millions of viewers, mostly men. But UFC doesn’t put on women’s fights; the owner has said he doesn’t like to see two women fighting, though he has since softened his stance. Other smaller promoters mix in a few women’s bouts with their mostly male lineup of fights. The average mixed martial arts fan has little knowledge of female fighters, says Loretta Hunt, news editor at the mixed martial arts web site Sherdog.com. “There is no demand for women’s fights,” she says. “I think they’re still considered a novelty on cards.”
On first glance, Stefanac and Schneider appear to be opposites. Stefanac is twice Schneider’s size, with an equally outsized personality. She smiles broadly, laughs loudly, and curses heartily. But Stefanac also hails from the Midwest, far from California’s vibrant martial arts scene. A native of Ohio, Stefanac was working her roofing business and learning kickboxing on the side when one day in 2003 a short and slightly built Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioner came into her gym to teach a class. Stefanac was skeptical. “It looks cool, but I don’t know if I buy it.” The small man proceeded to subdue a string of muscled fighters with arm bars and rear naked chokes, two of the Brazilian martial art’s submission moves. Impressed and hungry to learn, Stefanac began attending Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes three or four times a week. Today she continues to learn by working out a few times a week. She even has a rack of books on martial arts technique in her bathroom.
Stefanac’s life took a dramatic leap forward in 2006. Early in the year she won the heavyweight women’s gold medal at the prestigious Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Pan American Tournament in Los Angeles. Then in June of that year, she fought her first mixed martial arts match, in Oakland. Her opponent was the female heavyweight boxer Martha Salazar. “I was scared shitless,” Stefanac says. She remembers the prognostications of a sports betting web site: 40 to 1 that Stefanac would be knocked out if the fighters stayed on their feet, but the same odds in her favor if the fight went to the ground, an acknowledgement of Stefanac’s grappling skills. Stefanac won at the 2:09 mark in the first round, with a standing submission. That same year, she began traveling back and forth between Ohio and California to see her partner and future wife, Sam Wilson, and to train with more skilled Jiu Jitsu teachers, a rarity back home. Then she stopped returning to Ohio and immersed herself in the Bay Area women’s mixed martial arts community. She just received her black belt in Jiu Jitsu, and has pushed her mixed martial arts record to 6-0.
Stefanac ascended the martial arts world alongside few women. “I came up the hard way,” she says. “I trained with men, I fought with men, I came up the Jiu Jitsu ranks with men.” Her experience informs the atmosphere of her school. “I see a lot of unfairness to girls now, where she may be too small or too little, they don’t give her the right attention,” Stefanac says. Trinity Brazilian Jiu Jitsu opened last September, and its clientele is about half male and half female. Stefanac’s gym has the feel of an old-school boxing academy. The talk can be coarse but friendly. (When a student can’t pay because she forgot her wallet. Stefanac shouts, “You can’t pay me? I’ll take your first born.”) Everyone has a nickname. And a professional fighter will occasionally drop by; pro fighter Tonya Evinger rolled with students recently.
For many women, Trinity offers the rare opportunity to train with other students their own size, allowing them to attempt techniques more difficult or impossible to use on much larger and stronger competitors. Not every person is training to go pro, but many are, making the school a meeting place of like-minded individuals. “There’s an enormous sense of community and family that comes along with having a group of people who not only take what you do seriously, but are passionate about the thing you’re passionate about,” says Shawn Tamaribuchi, the CEO of an adult-film production company and the first female fighter to sign with Stefanac. Katja Turner finds comfort in a group where her interest in martial arts fosters relationships rather than straining them. “Every woman I know has had some social barrier to them doing this, whether it’s family or work or other guys,” says Turner, whose father does not approve of her fighting ambitions.
Stefanac has led her team of women fighters, the Ladies of Pain, to tournaments in New Zealand and Japan. Her fighters, most of whom are largely unknown and have fought only a few fights, say she shows a genuine concern for them and their careers. “She cares,” says Amanda Lucas, the daughter of the director George Lucas. “She’s not going to put me up against somebody in an unfair fight.” Jackie Kallen, one of boxing’s first female managers and now a promoter for Fatal Femmes Fighting, a company organizing all-women MMA fights, said Stefanac’s fighters all bring a certain level of professionalism. “If you’re getting one of Lana’s girls, you know they’re going to show up, they’re going to make weight, and they’re going to put in a good fight.”
But will there be a place for these fighters to compete? Since 2007, two of the leading companies holding women’s MMA fights have folded. Fatal Femmes Fighting has spent the year reorganizing, bowed by the economic realities where there aren’t many people willing to pay $25 to see an all-women’s card. Sherdog’s Hunt thinks that women’s mixed martial arts is at the same point as the men’s sport was seven or eight years ago. “There’s a handful of really good athletes that know the sport, but there’s not enough opportunities,” Hunt says.
Stefanac has taken many risks in the pursuit of her sport. Student fees are just enough to cover the rent for her school. A few sponsors help provide clothing and funding, and Stefanac teaches self-defense seminars and classes at Krav Maga San Francisco. But mostly, Stefanac depends on Wilson, both emotionally and financially. “I have no job security, except the one I’m building,” she says. She is far from her family and best friends, whom she has not seen in three years. “Sometimes, really late at night, I miss people really bad,” she says.
An hour before Schneider’s fight, Stefanac says the bout will be vicious. And it is. At 1:43 into the second round, the referee calls the fight. Sherdog describes the fight as a beating. Stefanac remembers the thunking sound of Kaufman’s punches on Schneider’s face as she lay on the mat. Someone in the crowd yelled, “Pull her hair!” The next day the left side of Schneider’s face, from the top of her forehead on down, still runs red. The blot on her forehead slowly turns a thick caramel color.
Schneider, who works in her family’s hardwood flooring business, wishes she could move to California and train with Stefanac full-time. “My career would definitely be different if we didn’t hook up,” Schneider says. “In the back of my head I think I would still be stuck here, in my hometown, without any fights.” What Schneider says she needs from Stefanac now is that “Lana has to believe in me to help me,” Schneider says. “And I believe she does.”
Stefanac likes Schneider for many reasons: her toughness and her drive, but also because she’s humble and sweet. It is hard to imagine many male managers valuing Schneider for all of the same qualities. They would want the tiger, but not the lady. To Stefanac, a fighter can be both of these things, or neither of them. What matters is that a fighter has heart, and the willingness to take a chance.