Swayze Valentine sits by the cage door as two amateur fighters throw punches. The bout progresses before a fighter with what appears to be a broken nose submits to a rear naked choke; when he stands and the oxygen comes back to his brain his nose releases a geyser of blood. Valentine runs into the cage, ice pack in hand, to check on him.
She will repeat this drill several times during the Tuff-N-Uff Memorial Day event in Las Vegas. There are multiple knockouts in this casino equestrian center on Sunday night and a fair amount of blood. Valentine has been here before, including the time she mended a cut above an eyelid so deep that an entire epinephrine swab fit in the wound. She isn’t fazed by the injuries. “This is a fighter’s livelihood and we want them to provide for their families,” she says. “We try to give them one more round.”
During a fight, the cutman is the only person who provides a moment of compassion. There is intimacy in a fight, but it is the intimacy of violence: the arm around the neck, the punch that snaps the head out of place, the commingled blood and sweat. The coach is there to counsel and motivate, detect flaws in strategy and dissect the other fighter’s weaknesses. The cutman mends wounds, mops blood with a towel and holds an ice pack on swelling. There’s a paradoxical nature to their work. While the doctor works to heal and mend, a successful cutman works to ensure a fighter can confront another three to five minutes of violence and uncertainty.
In the sometimes-atavistic world of the cage, Valentine is one of the few friendly faces. After years of hard work, the 27-year-old mother of two is establishing herself as a cageside presence. UFC cutman Jacob “Stitch” Duran has dubbed her “The Queen Of Cuts.” She is finally getting paid for better gigs. But her seat at cage side – and the personal support from Stitch this evening in Vegas – wasn’t guaranteed. She’s still struggling to achieve her dream of becoming the first female cutwoman in the UFC. “This is a huge burden for my family,” Valentine says. “I am living on bare minimum to hopefully achieve this dream. We’re all chasing dreams. Some of us make it and some of us don’t.”
Finding your way into the trade is in some ways more challenging than climbing the ladder in the sport, even if it doesn’t pose any physical challenges. Any MMA gym will accept membership and teach an arm bar; Darwinian logic ensures that the best, most committed athletes will rise. Becoming a cutman requires a mentor, and there aren’t many of them. True, there are costly workshops that claim to teach you the tricks. But an apprenticeship where you truly learn the craft is like finding a shaman to instruct you on a hidden spiritual path. Valentine’s search for a mentor was even more difficult because of her gender. “When I started there was no future for a cutwoman in fighting,” Valentine says. “Learning this art isn’t just about cuts or swelling. It’s a package deal and it takes a journey.”
Valentine didn’t always want to work in MMA. In her early 20s, she worked as an animal specialist at a Petco in Anchorage, Alaska. She removed dead fish from tanks and was rebuffed in her multiple attempts to get a managerial position. “I believed I was one of the best workers in there,” she says. “At one point, I sat down with my manager and asked ‘what’s wrong?’ and he couldn’t give me an answer.” She realized that she had to find another path.
Like many who join the fighting family, she was wooed the first time she watched amateur MMA in person. Her first fight was an event put on by Alaska Fighting Championship in 2006. “I’d always been interested and would watch things on television. But the first time I went to an event, that’s really what captured me,” she says. “The atmosphere was incredible. It’s just one of the most honest and true sports out there. But I didn’t see any opportunities because I didn’t want to fight.”
She called a local promoter and asked if there was any way to help. She was told there was an opportunity —as a ring girl. She spent an evening parading around in a black string bikini top and booty shorts. “It was next to almost nothing,” Valentine says, laughing. She had nothing against the job. But she didn’t want to be a prop. She saw the coaches wrapping the hands of fighters that weekend and it caught her attention. “There seemed to be no greater honor than to take care of a fighter’s hands, which are registered weapons,” she says. “That’s when I started doing my research.”
Valentine worked for free. She went into schools and wrapped fighters’ hands for sparring. She wrapped the hands of relatives and friends. In order for her to pursue her dream she knew she needed to devote all of her attention to the craft. A divorce left her broke, however, and forced her and her sons to move in with her parents. Her vocational choice made things tougher. An apprentice cutman is paid small honorariums, if at all. Like fighters, the payoff comes when they make it big.
She broadened her net and started to work shows in Las Vegas and elsewhere. She called gyms and offered to work for free. At a charity fight in Vegas in 2011 she met cutman Adrian Rosenbusch, who was mentored by Stitch. Rosenbusch noticed something special about his future protégé—an emotional maturity and attention to the smallest details.
“One of the things that impressed me about Swayze is that she was willing to spend her own money just to be here,” says Rosenbusch. “From the beginning, she was very professional and very hungry. I was wary because I’ve had a lot of people approach me to do this, but very few can. It takes a very special person. There are some intangible qualities.
The art of wrapping is the art of applying pressure. Too much and a fighter’s hands constrict. Too little and bones break. A fighter’s hands may bludgeon but are treated with the same care as china. With the proliferation of fighting styles, wrapping has become even more of an art. Each fighter might want their wraps customized for their fighting style. A grappler, for instance, might want slightly less pressure to allow them to use their hands for takedowns and clinching.
Before she wraps a hand, Valentine massages the hands. Then, she reinforces the wrist – an area that needs extra care because it is jarred when punching. She weaves the gauze around, expertly looping between the fingers. She later adds just the right amount of tape. When she is finished the wrap feels as solid as a cast yet it’s strangely pliable, almost an extension of your skin. “I got the repetition down pretty quick,” she says. “But the biggest thing was definitely pressure. It’s a true art to find the pressure. You don’t want their hands to fall asleep.”
“You always have to look at someone’s intentions,” Rosenbusch says. “There are humbling beginnings. Can you get excited about bringing someone a drink of water? You have to want to be here for the right reasons and Swayze does.”
The wrapping of hands is the symbolic moment when a fighter puts aside the world to attend to the difficult task ahead. Few have mastered the art, which is why you see the same faces backstage and during round breaks. If Valentine continues on her path, she could become one of the masters, one that elite fighters call on to wrap their hands and mend their wounds.
At the end of the fight card Valentine packs her kit: gauze, enswell and swabs. It’s been a long day. She’ll return to Washington State tomorrow. When she gets back, her sons will probably be asleep. They don’t know about the broken faces their mother fixes. It’s still a fun game to them, albeit one with fists. “I tell them Mommy is going to go away to take care of the fighters. And they say, ‘Are you going to go take care of the fighters when they play knuckles?’”
She’ll kiss them both and get some sleep. The next day they won’t talk much about the fights. She’ll soon be flying somewhere else, and for time being, they are happy to have her home.
Here’s what an expert cutman carries:
Gloves: Protects against blood and pathogens. Vaseline: Greases a figher’s face and controls bleeding. Swabs, dipped in epinephrine: Stops bleeding. Iced Enswell: Controls swelling. Towel: Cleans/dries a fighter before treatment.