Rosi Sexton was born on 16 July, 1977, and grew up in Crowthorne, Berkshire. Contrary to what it might look like, she wasn’t a sporty child, nor did she dream of competition or fighting another woman in front of thousands of people. Instead she played cello and piano with the Reading Youth Orchestra.
As such, her interests, passions and talents ripped up the stereotypical perception of a fighter. She came across restrained and modest during interviews, but throughout her career her competitiveness revealed itself in a constant strive to get better, learn more about herself, and learn more about the sport. After my chats with Sexton, my lasting impression was of someone who’d have been a success whatever career she chose.
She discovered mixed martial arts through a Channel 5 documentary, Natural Born Fighters, which starred Huddersfield’s Leigh Remedios and Sunderland’s Ian Freeman. The first Brit to appear in the UFC, Freeman smashed past Frank Mir at London’s UFC 38 show in 2002 and retired in 2013.
“I first watched the documentary in 1999,” said Sexton. “As soon as I saw it I knew MMA was something I’d like to have a go at. At the time I knew nothing about MMA but I started training for the same reason that everyone else does – self-defence.”
Sexton practised martial arts from a young age and at 14, she began learning taekwondo and judo around Berkshire. You could picture her grinding away trying to perfect techniques when she stated: “I wasn’t very good at first. I didn’t take to it particularly naturally, but it was something I enjoyed and wanted to get better at. It was when I moved to Manchester for university in 1999 that I realised taekwondo didn’t have much artistry and there was more to fighting than having a taekwondo sparring match.
“One of the things that prompted me to move to jiu-jitsu and other disciplines was that I wasn’t sure if the techniques I’d learned would work in real life. It got to a stage where I was teaching self-defence classes for people but I’d never been in a real fight, so I felt uncomfortable telling people what would work if someone attacks you.”
Sexton said in those days “everyone was winging it. If you remember the early UFC events people were still trying to work out how to put it all together. You were capable of finding fighters who were well-versed in more than one discipline, but they still didn’t combine the disciplines as well as today’s fighters. Nowadays you have Georges St-Pierre, Frankie Edgar… These guys do everything well. It’s all much better understood and we’ve seen that change and evolution in the sport in the last 15 to 16 years.
“But it was 1999 back then and you’ve got to remember people were still picking up techniques from grainy VHS tapes and practising in their mates’ garages. It was when I found Karl Tanswell’s Straight Blast Gym in Manchester that I began taking Brazilian jiu-jitsu and grappling more seriously. I also did sport jiu-jitsu which is a semi-contact, semi-sparring style of combat which a lot of people did back then. At the time there wasn’t a lot of women competing at all, certainly not in the UK.”
Apart from Lisa Higo of course. Given that both women trained at SBG they would be linked together throughout the 2000s, and would also feature heavily in some of the BBC’s first coverage of British women’s MMA – more on that later. You only needed to ask today’s generation to understand the legacy the pair left. Joanne Calderwood, Scotland’s UFC standout, told me: “Rosi and Lisa had awesome careers and maybe if Lisa arrived five or ten years later, she’d be fighting in the UFC now.”
While Sexton entered MMA due to a passion for learning, Higo began training for altogether different reasons – one evening in 1990 she was attacked in a street in Leeds.
Throughout writing this book I’ve thought to myself: “Would Higo have taken up MMA without that attack? Would young women know about the sport without Higo making her debut back in 2008, when the British scene was still growing?”
There was so much I wanted to speak to Higo about but after a while my emails, calls and Facebook messages fell on deaf ears. Higo has a young family and her own life to lead though, and when we did speak, her enthusiasm for the sport was infectious. She would sign off every one of our conversations by exclaiming: “Cheers love!” in her broad Yorkshire accent.
“I think if anyone is out there competing, achieving their goals, then good on them,” said Higo. “If British women keep going in the same direction there’s no reason we should be behind the men. We’re competing as well as them, if not better.
“When I started kickboxing in the early 1990s there were barely any women involved in the sport, the same with MMA,” said the strawweight, reinforcing Sexton’s point. “I was the only woman at my early kickboxing classes in Leeds. To start with the men just ignored me and probably just thought: “Oh, she’ll only be here for a few classes.” It was only until I stayed for a while that the coaches and other fighters began to really take an interest in me and act more positively towards me.”
Stand-up fighting was always an area where Higo prevailed. She won a WKA kickboxing title in 2003 and also claimed various karate titles. “When I won the WKA title my twins had just turned two so to put the icing on the cake for them was fantastic,” said Higo. “I put a lot of work into that like any other sportsperson would. You have to sacrifice a lot and sometimes family time gets put on the backburner.”
Despite her allegiances to her family, nobody could doubt Higo’s commitment to the sport, particularly in 2009 when she travelled to Indiana to win HooknShoot’s GFight Grand Prix. Higo even won the final against Angela Magana, who would progress to fight in the UFC. It was around that time in America that female fighters such as Las Vegas’s Gina Carano and Brazil’s Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino were beginning to gain traction.
“I wasn’t really expecting to win the GFight Grand Prix but for everything I do, I like to put a lot of time and effort into it,” said Higo. “To put the work in and then get the rewards was really overwhelming. I really enjoyed MMA and it was something I was passionate about, so as you can imagine I was overjoyed. I’m still in touch with some of the Americans who attended the event and to hear their positive feedback was amazing, it really was.”
On reflection, it’s incredible to think a British women’s MMA revolution was taking place inside Manchester’s SBG gym, which sits across the road from Manchester Piccadilly train station. Higo and Sexton would learn from each other and grow together under that very roof but it was Sexton who made her mark on MMA first of all.
Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women's MMA in Britain is out on Kindle on November 25th. Pre-order it here.