Travel four hours and 57 minutes north of Los Angeles and 36 minutes northeast of the ever-flowing Monterey Bay, and there lies the city of Gilroy.
Every small town or city will usually have its handful of notable citizens that go on to do great things in a certain aspect of life. Gilroy is no different. And it’s not a ‘small’ area per se, but in comparison to your typical ‘name-city’ in California, it’s definitely not the biggest.
However, some of its residents have proven and continue to prove that they don’t need to be all that physically imposing in stature to leave lasting impressions anyway.
Standing strong at an even five-feet-tall is the new Invicta FC strawweight champion, Gilroy’s own Brianna Van Buren.
Championship caliber athletes all have their own unique story as to how they reached that goal of being a title holder. As different as they all may be in their own right, many similarities can often time still be drawn. Hard work, determination, and an incredible amount of focus need to be channeled.
With all that in mind, very rarely in the history of mixed martial arts, especially in the modern day, do champions see themselves crowned in the fashion that Van Buren was.
On May 3, the 25-year old’s life took on its biggest change professionally. By defeating three different women on the very same night, history was made not only for Van Buren but for the sport. She was now officially on the radars of the MMA world like never before.
“I’m still young in the game, some people would say,” Van Buren told BJPenn.com in regards to her recent success. “And the way I see it is it’s all happening in perfect timing. Everything’s just going the way that it should be because I’m working hard. And the cool thing about it is everybody’s able to see that. Everybody’s able to see that I’m a hard worker, I work hard and I’m not getting any handouts and this is the way that I like it. I prefer it this way.”
February 26, 2010, Delecia Velasquez-Stump and Brianna Van Buren made their amateur MMA debuts. For Gilroy’s ‘Bull,’ it would end up being her first of four total wins before taking the leap to the ranks of the pros in late 2012.
Baby steps in a sport as taxing as MMA can be absolutely critical for the careers of athletes participating inside the chain-link walls that they find themselves in. Rushing things too quickly can lead to overconfidence or burnout. Thus showing how rationalizations and realistic expectations are almost a must if fighters want to reach the ultimate pinnacle that they oh so desire.
As other champions have let it be known, understanding one’s capabilities and potential early on can lead to these multiple types of outcomes whether it be the uncertainty towards if continuing forth is the appropriate next move, or if the timing is indeed right, just don’t get overly cozy on that mental pedestal.
Van Buren’s confidence is evident when listening to her speak and it’s visible in all of her performances. She is a no-nonsense type of fighter and if there’s no need for something, she won’t be bothered. When something is going to be done, it’s going to be done right. But for a three-year stretch, that wasn’t exactly the sport that she’s made her name in.
After a 3-2 start to her pro career, it was time to take a step back, re-evaluate and refine, as she took a break from the game of punch-face from 2015 to 2018.
“I decided to take some time off and re-shift my focus – sharpen my tools because I just kind of felt like it was the right thing to do for me at the time in my life,” Van Buren shared. “I was going through a lot of personal changes in my life. There were things that I wanted that I wasn’t too sure if my support system wanted the same thing. So I had to re-sharpen my tools and make sure that my whole team – we were all on the same page and there was a bit of a lack of communication at the time and so I took a couple of years off and decided this is what I really want to do.
“I want to be the best. I want to be a world champion. I knew I wanted to be the Invicta strawweight champion once I started fighting and I want to become the UFC strawweight champion. That’s another goal of mine towards the near future that I know that I’m going to accomplish. But the reason why I took three years off was because I had to re-sharpen my tools and make sure that my support system – we were all on the same page.”
Despite the experience she has under her belt, Van Buren remains quite young at just age 25. An age range that stills sees a lot of maturation happening as not only a fighter or athlete but as a human being.
As crucial and invaluable as time itself is, it’s just one of those required elements that goes hand in hand with any maturation process. Everyone has their own pace, but again, it just comes down to making the proper realizations at the necessary moments.
“I also think that at the time, between the time when I took that time off, I was still a baby, you know?” Van Buren explained. “Laura Sanko had asked me the same question too, and I had mentioned to her, I was still a baby. I was immature. I was like, I didn’t really know… I knew that this was what I wanted to do. I liked the idea of becoming a professional mixed martial artist, but I was still immature. And I think now I’m mature, I hit growth and now I’m like, I want it. I want it for myself more than anything. And I think now, everyone’s seeing the real me. This is me. This is what I do. This is my lifestyle. I’ve been doing this for over 10 years, I enjoy it. I love it.
“It wasn’t hard at all [to come back] because I knew that this was what I wanted. I think it would have been hard if I didn’t really want it, but I was 110 percent committed and I just never looked back, I had a nine to five job and I quit my job on my birthday and told them this is something that I’m gonna do. I’m not going to look back because I know that this is what I want to do for as long as I could until I decide, ‘You know what, I don’t want to do it anymore.’ I enjoy it. I love it. I’m doing it for the love, not for anything else.”
Undeniably, the AntDawg’s MMA and American Kickboxing Academy product made a wise choice as since making her return, she’s been nothing but perfect having won five fights in a row. Top that off with a shiny gold belt and things couldn’t have worked out all that much better.
Everything had built to Van Buren’s shining achievement. The hard work and determination may have gone somewhat unnoticed to the casual spectator, but when the spotlight was on, it came out unlike anyone could have anticipated it to… aside from Van Buren and her team, of course.
Invicta FC announced in early 2019 that they would be taking a step into the MMA DeLorean and beginning their brand new Phoenix Rising series. This meant the rebirth of one-night tournaments and that was kicked off with the strawweight division where a new champion was to be crowned. Eight fighters, three fights to win it all.
Time is a funny thing. An experience that can be gained over the course of a full calendar year could also be acquired in less than four hours… which was exactly the case at the first ever Phoenix Rising event.
A unique mountain to climb in terms of challenges, ‘The Bull’ entered the cage fearless and confident in her abilities as if she was already the champion. It was just a condensed form of business.
Van Buren stormed her way through the competition by picking up an armbar in her first fight, a clear unanimous decision in the second, then a rear-naked choke in the finals to claim the title.
With such a unique and unpredictable format, everyone including the fighters weren’t even sure what exactly to expect. And three flawless performances from Van Buren depicted exactly that.
“Shout out to my coaches, because I feel like they prepared me in the best way possible,” she said. “I was prepared because of the fact that I was working these things during my camp in training. My coach told me in the back, he’s like, ‘It’s just like practice. That’s all it is. It’s just like practice.’ And so I think I applied all the hard work in my training to make it look effortless, but it was definitely hard during practice, during my camp. So, it wasn’t easy!
“It was tough. It was an eight-woman tournament so I think the adrenaline dump, that was tough. Obviously, I get that adrenaline rush in practice, but it was different. It was a different type of adrenaline. It’s like, ‘Okay, it’s time to fight.’ And then having to go from one match to, ‘Okay, it ain’t over.’ I have a couple more in front of me.
“Jimmy [Smith], he had asked me after my first interview, he was like, ‘Well you finished the armbar and you got that win and how’d that feel?’ For me, it still wasn’t over,” Van Buren continued. “I was like, I can’t sit here and try to celebrate because it wasn’t over. I have two [more] matches in front of me and I remember telling him I got one done, but I got two more, so I had to keep that composure and stay calm the whole way through if I really wanted it and dig deep.”
There’s only one person that drives the vehicle that is one’s body. The best of preparation has to be done to take it where it wants to go. Support can always be and more often than not, should be put into place ahead of the journey. But all that matters is the focus put onto that vehicle. Because without giving it the full attention it demands to get to the finish line, there’s a good chance it won’t reach that point at all.
How does the saying go? Winners focus on winning and losers focus on winners? Well, in a tournament format that can see you face seven different possible obstacles… what else is there to do?
“I was more focused on myself and I kept telling myself throughout this whole camp; I’m just going to stay in my lane. That was my motto. Just stay in your lane, do your thing and all I can do is just be a better version of myself and if I can train, just give everything 110 percent,” Van Buren shared. “Whether that’s sleep, whether that’s on a mental aspect, whether that’s coming into training – just giving everything 110 percent and everything else will take care of itself. And I kept that even throughout the back [between fights]. Like I never watched any of the other girls’ matches because for me, if I start watching somebody else’s matches while I’m preparing for a fight ahead of me, I feel like I’m kind of counting myself out in a sense.
“Why am I so worried about them when I should just stay in my lane and just do what I do? And I think even some people were asking me during fight week in interviews, like, ‘Okay, what if you win this fight or what if you win this belt?’ And da-da-da-da, but it’s like, we’ll cross that bridge when it comes, you know, or who do you want to fight after? Because my original opponent [for my first fight] was Janaisa [Morandin] but she couldn’t even make weight. So then I could have worried about the fact that I believe it was Manjit [Kolekar], the girl that I fought that came in as a replacement, she was a southpaw.
“I was prepared to fight Janaisa so when you have somebody who switches up on you last minute, I was prepared for the worst thing possible. And she’s a southpaw, Janaisa, she’s not a southpaw,” she continued. “So it’s like how do you prepare for something like that? You just have to be ready at everything. And thankfully my coaches made sure I was ready for somebody who I was going to fight that was a southpaw. That’s part of being, I think a champion, but overall a mixed martial artist. So I’m glad I was able to prove it on May 3.”
Prepare for the worst and the best will come easy. The most satisfying accomplishments were never obtained via handout and surely you’ll hear all athletes attest to that. Because even if fate throws some wrenches into the plans like a last second opponent change or a 10-hour flight delay during your weight cutting week, as was the case with the Gilroy native, the hard work’s pay off will inevitably be that much sweeter.
That’s just how history is crafted though, isn’t it? Ideas get mapped out and turned into realities, but how often do they unfold exactly as drawn up? It just comes down to being ready for absolutely anything.
“A lot of people [asked], ‘How do you focus? How do you train for an eight-woman tournament?’ And it’s like… you don’t,” Van Buren explained. “You focus on yourself and you try to be the best that you can be. And that’s what I told myself.
“Immediately when [Invicta FC President] Shannon Knapp called me, I remember she said, ‘I’m thinking about doing an eight women tournament. What are your thoughts? Is this something you’re interested in?’ Without hesitation I said I’ll be ready, I want to be able to go against the best of the best. That’s why I’m doing this. I’m doing it because I love it. I enjoy it. This is all for the love, everything else will come. But I do it because of the love. So I want to be tested. May 3, that’s what I got. I remember asking Shannon Knapp, I asked to fight all of these girls. The beautiful thing about this whole thing was I got to fight all these girls in one night. I basically got what I asked for it and I think that is so awesome.”
Utilizing time to her advantage, whether it’s been in quick or elongated stints, Brianna Van Buren knows what she’s doing and how she’s going to do it. The sky is the limit and it’s quite a thought to think that she’s still just getting going. Fresh title challengers, a second belt at atomweight… with options aplenty for whatever the future holds, no peak will be too tall to reach for the five-foot strawweight queen.
Brianna Van Buren’s name has officially been written down in the MMA history books as the first fighter to win an Invicta Phoenix Rising series one-night tournament. And if the strawweight champion has anything to say about it, that won’t be the last time you hear about ‘The Bull’ leaving her stamp on things.
“My grandfather… When I was younger, I used to run around all the time and I had so much attitude… Shocker, right?” she said with a laugh. “And my grandfather gave me the name. It’s called ‘El Torito,’ which means ‘the baby bull’ in Spanish. And so ever since then, my coaches, my uncle, he raised me my whole entire life growing up and I lived with him my entire life and he gave me that nickname. He’s like, ‘we’ll call you the bull.’ And I think it has a lot to do with me always coming forward and my grandpa always used to say, ‘She doesn’t take anything from anybody. She takes no sh*t from anybody,’ And I think that’s where it came from.
“So my grandfather, rest in peace to him, he gave me that name and it just kind of stuck with me and now I think now that my style is called ‘the bullfighter,’ which I think is pretty awesome… It just kind of stuck with me and that’s where it came from.”
This article first appeared on BJPenn.com on 5/9/2019