THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
OC Register Site
IRVINE – You might want to run if you get caught in a cage with Debi Purcell. Being the recipient of her flying knee pretty much guarantees a ruined day.
Purcell is known for being a pioneer in the world of mixed martial arts for women – training alongside Ultimate Fighting Championship male fighters, mastering various fighting styles and duking it out with other women in a ring.
In short, she could knock a lot of people out if she wanted to.
But chances are you’ll meet a softer, goofier version of Purcell who wears her chestnut-colored hair with a signature blond streak, zips around in three-inch stilettos and doubles over every time she laughs.
Recently she has taken the Fighter Girls brand she first started more than a decade ago to a new level. She’s moved her Fightergirls.com operations and clothing apparel business out of her Laguna Hills home into an office and training studio in Irvine.
Fighter Girls began as an online forum for those who wanted to meet others interested in the sport. Along with becoming a networking tool, the website offers clothing and equipment designed by Purcell for women who are tired of wearing ill-fitting men’s clothes in the ring.
Colorful board shorts for women go up to $65; Thai shorts up to $33; and MMA gloves cost around $40.
Purcell now holds boot camps, training and classes for women interested in the sport, and those who want to get in shape. From moms to battered women, Purcell is willing to work with those who want to feel a sense of empowerment, she said.
The 41-year-old grew up in Huntington Beach studying cheerleading and dance. She also dreamed of taking her competitive gymnastics skills to the Olympics. But she quit the sport and later became a rebellious teenager – messing around with drugs, alcohol and punk rock.
At 17, she was introduced to tae kwon do but later segued to kickboxing, boxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, “just as a way to be mean,” she said. Her teen angst evolved into a passion for discipline and competition.
Well-known trainer Marco Ruas, a UFC veteran, took Purcell under his wing and taught her the fighting styles of Vale Tudo, which in Portuguese translates to “anything goes” and combines boxing, wrestling, submission grappling, Muay Thai kickboxing and Jiu-Jitsu.
She subsidized her training by getting a HVAC license and launching an air-conditioning business. And along with training nearly every day of the week, Purcell tried to convince male promoters they should include her and other women in their MMA events.
She eventually convinced a promoter of an all-male MMA event, “King of the Cage,” to let her fight and became the first woman to do so. She took on other titles, including winning the “Hook-N-Shoot Revolution” in 2002 and the “Ultimate Wrestling” event in 2001, and being the first and only female coach in the now-defunct International Fight League.
Aside from selling board shorts and fighting gloves out of her Irvine warehouse, Purcell hopes she can push forward a sport that she says often excludes women or reinforces stereotypes about women who fight. She said she hopes the sport can be preserved and not be turned into a circus or show.
“I would like to see the best women fighting the best women,” she said. “I want women to be treated as equals.”
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