In Iowa City, restless MMA pioneer Julie Kedzie forges a new life as scholar
IOWA CITY, Ia. — In the back corner of a stuffy gym, Julie Kedzie is spending a July Monday evening teaching three college-aged men the finer points of mixed martial arts.
“Let yourself feel ridiculous in the air,” Kedzie instructs as the men display an ungainly imitation of a kicking movement she has just demonstrated. “That’s the only way to get better at it is to let yourself feel goofy.
“I’m making you guys do some advanced stuff.”
The “UFC” gloves expertly taped to Kedzie’s hands, the deft footwork that propels her across the black mat, are subtle evidence that this isn’t some run-of-the-mill teacher of a complimentary cardiovascular class that comes with your gym club membership.
Kedzie is a bona fide pioneer of the MMA world, the first woman to compete in a bout televised live, a former sparring partner of the great Holly Holm. A restless soul whose impulsive act has landed her here, as an aspiring writer in the master of fine arts program in creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa and part-time MMA coach at ICOR Boxing, where she said her students have shown no evidence that they are aware of her past.
And that’s a shame. It’s a hell of a story.
Leaving academia behind
Kedzie started training in tae kwon do at age 5, entered into a class along with older sister Jennifer by their father, Dan. She wasn’t particularly interested in sports, but something about martial arts struck a chord. Muay Thai kickboxing became a favorite.
“I’ve just been a weird kid always. Maybe too creative and impractical. And it suited me,” Kedzie said of martial arts. “I’m a clumsy person, but having my body go through these motions, it really gave me a sense of being in my own body.”
At age 10, the family moved to Bloomington, Ind. Monroe County Martial Arts became a sanctuary for the lonely sisters. They dabbled in jiu jitsu, kickboxing, knife fighting and more. They earned their black belts.
And then Kedzie took the practical route to adulthood, staying in town to get an English degree at Indiana University, a precursor, she thought, to law school.
During her junior year, she was at a party where the hosts were showing UFC bouts, a mostly male affair in those days.
“It was the most boring thing I’d ever seen in my life,” Kedzie said.
A friend slipped in a DVD featuring female fighters. Kedzie’s life changed in that instant.
“It was so exciting and cool. I was like, ‘They’re built like me!’ They have big shoulders,’” she recalled.
Kedzie had a burning desire to line up a fight of her own but no idea how that was done. She followed a friend out to California for training, one semester shy of earning her degree. Her preference was to forget academia and pursue MMA, but her mother, Kathleen Burke — who has a Ph.D. in neurobiology — urged her to reconsider. As soon as Kedzie had her diploma in hand, she booked her first bout.
It was March 27, 2004, on a card in Evansville, Ind. Terry Blair, a left-handed boxer, was the opponent; a complete unknown to the novice Kedzie. There was no prize money to speak of. Kedzie was undeterred, beating the surprisingly tentative Blair with an armbar.
Kedzie’s next two fights were decisive losses, proof she couldn’t get by on enthusiasm alone. She needed expert training, and paid for it with a comical series of workplace missteps.
Kedzie took jobs as a chiropractic assistant, behind the counter at a General Nutrition Center, as a waitress. None of them suited her.
“I was so bad at waiting tables. I have some pretty bad ADHD. That’s really hard to focus,” Kedzie said, her words coming in a torrent and always mixed with self-deprecating laughter. “It’s perfect for a fighter, though. Because you’re in five-minute increments all the time.”
Kedzie realized that fighting at 155 pounds wasn’t ideal, so she dropped 20 pounds to a more natural weight class. All that was required was cutting out her candy habit, she said.
Making MMA history
Kedzie won three fights in one night to grab the 2005 HooknShoot women’s Grand Prix title. Her big break came in February 2007, when Elite XC offered a shot to fight rising star Gina Carano in Mississippi.
Kedzie, still flying by the seat of her pants, thought Showtime was the name of the promoter. Of course, it was the cable network that was broadcasting the fight, making it the first female bout televised live.
Carano won in a decision, but both fighters got a standing ovation. Among those watching on TV was Ronda Rousey, who said that bout inspired her to get into the cage.
Kedzie’s mother couldn’t bear to watch her fight in person. Her father tried once, on her 25th birthday. She lost “in about a second,” Kedzie said.
But Jennifer attended her younger sister’s fights whenever possible. She is proud of Kedzie’s place in MMA history.
“She was one of the early generation of female fighters who made the sport mainstream for women. It was a very exciting time,” Jennifer Raff said. “Men’s MMA was taking off. Women were not given the same opportunities. There was in fact questioning of whether or not they could even cut it as fighters, objections that it was ‘boring’ or ‘a circus.’ They did not let women at first fight the full five-minute rounds. They were able to do only three-minute rounds, which is ridiculous. It was kind of the combined pressure of these women and their determination not to give up that gave this sport prominence.
“That first TV fight for women was not boring at all. It was exactly the kind of fight that showed promoters that women should be taken seriously.”
Kedzie met Greg Jackson at the Mississippi event, and followed the legendary coach to his New Mexico gym, leaving a boyfriend and the rest of her life in Indiana behind.
“It felt like a ‘Rocky’ movie,” she said of the high-altitude training. “It was exactly what I’d been looking for.”
Kedzie moved in with Jackson and his family, earning her keep by becoming his personal assistant. It was there that she worked out with and befriended Holly Holm, the fighter destined to take Rousey’s crown. Kedzie went as far as Russia to find fights, but it was a 2012 loss to Miesha Tate that finally propelled her to the UFC, a lifelong goal.
Kedzie’s final two fights were with the UFC, but by then injuries had taken their toll on her body. She once tore her labrum all the way through.
“I didn’t have it anymore,” Kedzie said. “It’s a brutal sport, but I always forget that part. Because when you’re enmeshed in it, it’s lovely. There’s so much art in it.”
Kedzie’s final fight was Dec. 7, 2013, in Brisbane, Australia. She lost a split decision to Bethe Correia. But she already knew she was going to hang it up. She even wrote a first-person story about that decision for “Sports Illustrated.”
Her piercing moment of clarity had come in a local museum, transfixed by Pablo Picasso’s “La Belle Hollandaise.”
“I have a lot of conversations in my head and I was having it with this painting,” Kedzie said. “There’s something so soulful about it. There’s almost a blankness to her face, but the eyes aren’t blank. Her body was voluptuous, and I was cutting weight and hungry and I was talking to it and it was talking to me back. I felt like, ‘You understand me.’ And she was telling me I needed to quit. You’re done. The MMA people thought I was this crazy person, but writers get that. They get the metaphor and the voice.”
Back to academia, in Iowa
Kedzie didn’t transition to writing immediately. She moved back in with her sister, now a professor of anthropology at Kansas University.
“She’s lived in my basement a few times,” Raff said. “She’d do anything it took to keep herself afloat while training and pursuing her fighting career.”
Kedzie tried arranging bouts on local MMA cards, but found she wasn’t cut out for the office life.
“All the numbers and contracts, I get overwhelmed very quickly,” she said.
A friend, after reading yet another long and exquisitely worded email from her, told Kedzie she should try writing professionally. She joined a writers' group in Kansas City and started thinking about graduate school. Raff encouraged her to take her GRE, but the math portion was Kedzie’s undoing. She thought that was it, until she realized her top two choices for MFA programs — Columbia University in New York and Iowa — didn’t require GRE scores, only writing samples. She submitted the piece she had written for SI. Both universities accepted her.
Kedzie arrived in Iowa last August, hardly just another new student moving into town. At age 36, she said she’s the oldest in her writing program. The students in her rhetoric class last year discovered her on Twitter (@julesk_fighter), where she has 49,000 followers and an unabashedly liberal bent. They poked fun at her. She took it in stride.
This summer, Kedzie accepted an offer from the owners of ICOR — Emily Klinefelter and Clif Johnson — to teach an MMA class at the 17-year-old gym. It’s just one hour, four nights a week, but it's a chance for Kedzie to pass along her passion for her sport (she also has a gig doing color commentary for bouts put on by Invicta FC).
“It’s actually given me a nice focus for my days,” Kedzie said. “When you have those long summer days, I’m not used to that. I’m used to being in the gym all day or working. It’s nice to know I’m accountable here and actually instructing.”
Kedzie said she doesn’t regret retiring from fighting. But the future is unnerving. She has two years left in her MFA program and then another decision to make.
“In two years, I’m almost 40, and I don’t mind that, but I should have a 401(k) at some point, you know? It’s grown-up time now,” Kedzie said.
“I think I could do very well at a teaching job somewhere. But then I want that book deal. I want to write about MMA and I want to bring something new to the table. Whether it’s a memoir or something else, yeah, it would be really fun to be able to contribute to the combat sports canon.”
Kedzie was more than a contributor to combat sports. Her 16-13 career record doesn’t reflect her role as a groundbreaker for the likes of Rousey and Holm.
“A lot of the women of her generation are no longer fighting and they didn’t really get the opportunity to be the peak athletes,” Raff said. “By the time she got to the UFC she had already passed her prime as an athlete. I was there and cried.
“She had a real breadth of experience that really benefited her as a matchmaker and an analyst. And it can as a teacher or writer, too.”