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Fitness

She Rolls with the Punches

Minnesota Sergeant Linsey Williams, a former actor who’s never shied from the spotlight, is adjusting quickly to a much more brutal stage: the MMA Cage.
Iron fists, iron heart: Minnesota National Guard SGT Linsey Williams used to be an actor. Now she puts on a show of force as an MMA fighter. She’s 3-0 as an amateur and has set her sights on turning professional. Photo by Cliff Ritchey
Iron fists, iron heart: Minnesota National Guard SGT Linsey Williams used to be an actor. Now she puts on a show of force as an MMA fighter. She’s 3-0 as an amateur and has set her sights on turning professional. Photo by Cliff Ritchey

When she’s working out at her mixed martial arts gym in Minneapolis, Sergeant Linsey Williams stands out. Not just because she’s a woman fighter in the male-dominated sport of MMA, but because her training style has its own special flair, a combination of searing intensity and lightness of spirit. 

She works out as much as five times a day (often in her signature Wonder Woman T-shirt), and sometimes when she moves across the gym, she doesn’t settle on running. She glides. 

Williams has a knack for taking the instruction of her coaches, which include Nat McIntyre at The Academy in Minneapolis, and immediately making the proper adjustment. Photo by Cliff Ritchey“It’s like she’s a deer or a gazelle, jumping across the floor,” says Greg Nelson, Williams’ coach and owner of The Academy gym. “It shows her really upbeat, excited attitude that she has about life. It’s fun to watch.” 

Fun to listen to, too. 

“You know when she’s training because she’s yelling and screaming and putting all her energy into it,” Nelson says. “She never really lets up too much. As the head coach, I’m always like, ‘Hey, what’s going on over there? Maybe you should slow down a little bit.’ She’s like, ‘No, I’m all right. I’m good.’ That’s the attitude [an MMA fighter] needs. There’s going to be a lot of potential for injuries. There’s going to be blood and everything else. She just accepts it and flies with it.”

Williams, 25, who works in public affairs for the Minnesota National Guard, is just beginning to see her MMA career take wing. She has fought and won all three of her fights as an amateur, the most recent a unanimous decision in early November 2015, and plans to turn pro at some point.

Williams was introduced to MMA before her deployment to Kuwait in 2011, and she’s still learning. But if her career so far is any indication, potential opponents be forewarned: She might know how to have fun training, but foes won’t have fun fighting her, because she won’t stop. 

Williams works out as much as five times a day. When exhaustion begins to creep in, her Guard life helps motivate her. “I remember who I am as a Soldier and the commitments I’m capable of,” she says. Photo by Cliff Ritchey

Gina Franssen, owner and head instructor at X2 Fitness in Minneapolis, where Williams trains in jiujitsu in addition to her MMA workouts at The Academy, watches Williams work and makes another animal comparison. 

“She’s a workhorse,” Franssen says. “And a beast.”

A Bigger Stage 

Throughout her life, Williams has never shied from the spotlight. A self-described artsy kid, she went to a performing arts high school in Minneapolis and aspired to write, act, sing and jump across the stage on Broadway. She went on to perform in local productions that included Bat Boy: The Musical. She studied fiction writing at Columbia College in Chicago but didn’t like it. Dropping out after one year, she spent the next year or two unsettled about her future. She wanted to go places that her going-nowhere job at a sandwich shop couldn’t take her. 

Williams’ older sister, Sergeant First Class Gitanja Williams, 33, was thriving as a military police officer in the Tennessee Army National Guard, and her older brother had traveled the world in the Marines. “I saw all the things they’d done and the places they’d been in such a short amount of time,” Williams says. “I was like, ‘What’s the common denominator here?’ Well, they were in the military. So one day I decided, ‘You know what, I’m going to do it.’ ”

She joined the Minnesota National Guard, and shortly after enlisting she wrote an email asking to be allowed to join a deployment to Kuwait. Lynette Olivares, then a staff sergeant in the Minnesota Guard and now a technical sergeant in the Air Force, loved the go-getter attitude the email revealed. 

Williams trains six days a week to hone her fighting skills. Photo by Cliff Ritchey

Williams’ passion, along with her experience with video, convinced Olivares to allow her to go on the deployment as a combat reporter. “I wouldn’t have joined if I didn’t want something,” Williams says. “I wanted all kinds of opportunity, and I wanted it right away. It’s like that Queen song: ‘I want it all, and I want it now.’ ” 

Before leaving for Kuwait in 2011, Williams took the standard Army combatives course, which features real-world applications of many of the moves MMA fighters use. She had never had any fighting training, but she found in the course that not only was she good at it, she enjoyed it. Williams’ trainers at Camp Ripley in Minnesota noticed that while she was on the floor wrestling, she had the natural ability to listen to and apply coaching advice, an uncommon and valuable skill in MMA. 

While in Kuwait, Williams worked as a 46R public affairs broadcast specialist. She chased news relentlessly, traveling all around Kuwait and even into Iraq to conduct interviews and film video. She filed more than 200 stories in eight months. “The thing I so enjoyed with her was it didn’t matter where I put her,” says Olivares, who was Williams’ public affairs NCO. “If I put her in the mail room, or out on the coast with the Navy guys, she would get a story out of anything. That told me a lot about her personality and the way she was.”

Twice a week, Williams conducts solo circuit training, including working out with a 10-pound medicine ball. Photo by Cliff Ritchey

In March 2012, Williams, now a radio broadcaster for the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, produced so much content that she was named the DVIDS Journalist of the Month. When she wasn’t working, she spent her time training and learning to fight. She fell in love with MMA because it pushed her physically and mentally.  “It was challenging, and I embraced it just because it’s something that connects the body and mind in a way that nothing else does,” she says. 

The deployment ended; her passion for MMA did not. “It became such a part of my life when I was there that I knew when I returned home I needed to continue it,” Williams says.

That led her to Nelson at The Academy, where she now is pursuing a career in a padded octagon rather than on a gilded stage. 

Super Inspiration 

Williams’ Twitter and Instagram handles (@wonderwomanwill) reflect her fondness for the DC Comics superhero to whom she can relate. Every year on her birthday, she bakes herself a Wonder Woman-inspired cake and spends hours decorating it. She has also put together a puzzle of her caped inspiration and framed it in gold; it hangs beside her bed. “Embodying the persona of Wonder Woman, I want to always associate her with gold because gold is what the winner gets,” she says.

Like Williams, Wonder Woman has a military background and martial arts skills. “She was the only real strong female of the bunch. She stood out. I was so used to being the tomboy, the female of [my social] group, I just naturally identified with her,” Williams says. “A lot of heroines, I didn’t see myself in. They were kind of boring. But if you look at the old Wonder Woman, she had curly dark hair. She was really muscular. I liked that. I was living that. I always enjoyed looking good, feeling good and feeling strong.”

That self-confidence feeds her MMA training. To fight in MMA takes uncommon devotion. It’s hard physically, of course. But it’s also difficult mentally and emotionally. Nobody likes to get punched. 

Nobody likes to endure pain. Nobody likes to tap out. 

“It’s embracing some sort of masochism that we have,” Williams says. “I’m oftentimes one of the smallest people in the gym [she’s about 5-foot-5], and you still have to put your all into whomever you’re tangled up with.”

The desire to quit amid pain and exhaustion always lurks just behind Williams’ desire to keep going. But she never gives in to it. “You can feel that way, but you have to keep going. That’s what I really appreciate about Sergeant Williams,” says Franssen of X2 Fitness. “Even if she feels that way, she doesn’t let you know she feels that way. She’s very positive.”  

“I remember doing improv classes for acting and learning ... You don’t just stop cold with whatever they throw at you,” Williams says. “You have to be able to continue the show. You have to be able to take a punch and give one back.” Photo by Cliff Ritchey

When Williams feels beaten down, she convinces herself to keep going by thinking back over her time in the Guard. She persevered through Basic Training, Advanced Individual Training and a deployment, so she can persevere as a fighter. “When I feel my capacity to fulfill my obligations falling away, I remember who I am as a Soldier and the commitments I’m capable of,” she says.

So far in her MMA career, her tenacity and perseverance are her greatest assets. She says she learned those traits by watching her mom raise three kids by herself and by watching her older sister succeed in the Guard. 

“Watching her work ethic as a young woman, and even now, it just blows my mind,” Linsey says of Gitanja. “She can accomplish things that I can’t see myself doing. She was in high school and worked two jobs. She roller-bladed to both of them. Then she enlisted in the National Guard at 17. She’s a police officer, and the amount of work that she does is incredible. I don’t know that I would have the strength to keep up with all of that. I’ve always looked up to my sister.”

All About Basics 

In MMA, Williams can keep up with a lot herself. She applies what she learned in the military by using the KISS method: Keep It Simple, Stupid. She prefers to focus on the basics of the sport and execute them well rather than trying to do too much and make mistakes. Her best boxing strike is her rear right uppercut punch. She is perfecting a double leg takedown grappling move, and she says her best submission move is whichever one is best suited for the moment. 

“Too many people get focused on having all these cool moves and techniques,” Franssen says. “But they don’t have the basics down. It doesn’t make any sense. Why would you build this fancy house on a crappy foundation? I appreciate that she doesn’t overanalyze everything. I’ll tell her to do something. I’ll tell her why. And she makes a correction immediately. I don’t have to repeat myself 500 times.”

She also draws from her days as an actress. Knowing how to control your breathing is critical when you’re singing and performing on stage, and the same is true in the cage: An MMA fighter who can’t manage breathing will lose quickly. Williams also applies lessons about adjusting on the fly.

“I remember doing improv classes for acting and learning that if you want to be very, very good you need to be able to say, ‘Yes, and ...’ You don’t just stop cold with whatever they throw at you,” she says. “You have to be able to continue the show. You have to be able to take a punch and give one back.”

Williams’ growth as an MMA fighter is obvious in her approach from her first fight to the second. During her first fight in May 2014, she all but ran out of her corner at the beginning of each round and immediately started trying to hit and kick her opponent. Williams won on submission in the second round.

After winning her second match in August 2015 (shown here), Williams landed her first MMA contract fight in November. In that bout, which she won, Williams says a lot of things seemed to click. Photo by Sterling Entertainment Group

A month later, Williams tore the ACL in her knee and didn’t have another MMA fight until this past Aug. 1. In a Driller Promotions bout, she faced Jessica Fresh in the strawweight (115 pounds) division for the title belt. Fresh was considerably better than Williams’ first opponent. Williams came out of her corner much more calm, with her defenses up, and looked for more methodical ways to engage. “That’s always been my struggle since I started understanding that control and being able to harness, figuring out your timing, figuring out your pacing,” she says.

That fight also confirmed what the combatives coach had recognized years earlier: Williams’ ability to apply instruction in the midst of chaos. In the first round, her coach thought the pace was too frenetic. He wanted Williams to slow down. As soon as he shouted that, he saw her body language change.

In the second round, Williams locked Fresh in a triangle—a submission move in which Williams used her legs to lock Fresh’s head and arms. But Williams didn’t apply it correctly at first. “Pull her head down,” Nelson instructed from the corner. Williams moved her grip from Fresh’s arm to her head. Within seconds, Fresh tapped out.

The win led to Williams signing a contract for one fight with Resurrection Fighting Alliance, a sanctioning body that has sent 30 fighters to leading MMA promoter Ultimate Fighting Championship. On Nov. 6, she won the match, which she says was a key step in her learning process. One takeaway was that she needs to warm up more—it wasn’t until the third round that she felt physically into the fight. But other than that, a lot of things seemed to click. “I feel like a lightbulb went [on],” she says. Williams hopes to go pro in 2016, but she’s in no hurry. 

Williams is still learning a sense of timing and how to control the pacing of a fight, but she’s continually making progress. Photo by Cliff Ritchey

The Queen lyrics she used to illuminate her desire to seek deployment—“I want it now” doesn’t apply to her fighting career. She wants to be sure that when she goes pro, she’s ready. “It’s about building that experience. That’s kind of where I’m at. There are some professional fighters I’m sure I could fight against and win,” she says. “But I would like to spend as much time as I can building that experience and progressing at a pace I feel comfortable with.”

Whenever Williams does go pro, Nelson and Franssen are confident she’ll succeed. Olivares used to tell Williams, “Call me in 10 years,” because Olivares was curious to find out where Williams’ big approach to life would take her. Wherever she winds up, she hopes she’ll be surrounded by gold championship belts. Even a certain superhero doesn’t have those. 


FUEL FOR FIGHTING

The “why” and the “when” are more consistent than the “what” in Williams’ diet, but all three are equally important. She doesn’t eat the same thing every day, but she eats at the same times and for the same reasons. She wants to fuel and replenish her body to keep up with her arduous workout schedule. And she eats only natural food—nothing that comes out of a box.

Breakfast 

Oatmeal (1 cup almond or cashew milk to one-half or one cup oats), with fruit and protein powder or peanut butter and a natural sugar, such as honey or agave nectar; one cup of coffee

Post-workout

Fruit and vegetable-based post-workout shake and plenty of water; sometimes due to time, she settles for protein powder and water

Lunch

Chicken and rice or scrambled eggs and vegetables (spinach, peppers, tomatoes, kale)

Pre-afternoon workout

Fuel that won’t weigh her down (peanut butter and fruit, or a bowl of fruit with crushed almonds and chia or flax seeds and honey/agave)

Dinner

The keys: lean and replenishing. Often, this is the same as lunch. 


PREPARATION IS EVERYTHING

Moving from MMA training to fighting is like holiday cooking to eating. The preparation takes seemingly forever, and then it’s all over in a few minutes. A typical week of training for Williams includes: 

Monday and Wednesday

9:45 a.m. Warmup

10 a.m.–11 a.m. Brazilian jiujitsu

11 a.m.–12:30 p.m. MMA practice

6:45 p.m.–7:20 p.m. Run/jump rope and warmup

7:20 p.m.–9 p.m. Muay Thai team training

Tuesday and Thursday

7 a.m.–7:45 a.m. Solo circuit; specifics vary day to day (for example, six rounds of 30 seconds on, 10 seconds off of: 10-pound medicine ball squat/slam; tire flip; battle ropes; sledgehammer swings—on tire)

11 a.m.–12:30 p.m. Sparring (only on Tuesdays)

7 p.m.–7:45 p.m. Kettlebell or circuit workout

7:45 p.m.–8:45 p.m. Brazilian jiujitsu

Friday

9 a.m.–10 a.m. Sparring class

10 a.m.–11 a.m. Brazilian jiujitsu

11 a.m.–noon MMA grappling

5:45 p.m.–6:20 p.m. Run/jump rope and warmup

6:20 p.m.–8 p.m. Muay Thai team training

Saturday

8:30 a.m. Brazilian jiujitsu

9:45 a.m. Kettlebell or circuit workout