Arkansas native Rachel Wray is a natural beauty from The Natural State, but don’t let her charming Southern demeanor fool you. The 23-year-old former NFL cheerleader recently traded in her pompoms for four-ounce gloves, proving she’s more at home in the cage than on the sidelines.
Fighting in the cage is a long way from cheerleading for the Kansas City Chiefs. Do you miss your pompoms?
Sometimes—every now and then. If I hear a good song, I miss the dancing. However, I can’t explain in words how much I love fighting. I truly love it.
Do you ever find yourself doing spirit fingers after throwing a good combo?
Yeah [laughing]. After my fights, you can see I bounce up and down like a cheerleader. You can’t take the cheerleader out of the fighter.
You’re now 2-1 as an amateur fighter. What was losing your first fight like in March?
It was a really positive experience. Obviously, I wish I would have won, but it was a huge honor to fight for the title. It came down to a very close decision. It’s not like I got knocked out or submitted. It was an amazing, bloody battle for three rounds. No clinching. No ground fighting. The crowd was so loud I couldn’t even hear my corner. I didn’t even feel like I lost. I like that I was in an actual dogfight for the first time. After that fight, I’m ready for anything. It was very positive.
What do you need to work on the most?
Definitely my wrestling and takedowns. I’m really comfortable on my feet. I love to stand and box. I’m comfortable on the ground, but not as confident in my takedowns.
How did you get into fighting?
I had no background whatsoever. I was a cheerleader and a dancer all my life. I danced and cheered in college at the University of Arkansas, and then I became a cheerleader for the Chiefs after I graduated. In Kansas City, we got a free gym membership to Title Boxing Club, and I fell in love with boxing. I was doing the boxing workouts twice a day. I couldn’t get enough. I started working with a trainer. Boxing became my life. Then, I started seeing fighters next door at HD MMA—that’s LC Davis and Jason High’s gym. I walked in one day and tried kickboxing. Then I became a member. I was living two different lives—cheerleading during the day and fighting at night. When cheerleading auditions came up for the Chiefs again, I decided to fight instead. I had my first fight six months later. Cheerleading led me to fighting.
What did your parents say when you told them about it?
They are pretty conservative, so I kept it to myself for a while because I wasn’t sure I could do it. Eventually, I let them watch me hit mitts…then spar…then grapple. They finally put it all together and have been very supportive.
Forget the stupid Rachel Ray cooking jokes. What’s your fighting nickname?
Thank goodness. I get that way too much [laughing]. So far, everyone’s calling me “The Cheerleader.”
How about Rachel “Death” Wray?
Uhhhhh, I guess I could use my last name to make it clever. But my opponents always call me “The Cheerleader” when they are talking trash. But I’m proud of the nickname. I own it.
Do you cut much weight?
I walk around at 136 pounds. I’ve fought at 120 pounds, and my last fight was at 115 pounds. That was a major cut.
I guess weight cutting was a new concept for you?
Yes, but LC Davis and Jason High—they know how to cut weight—walked me through every step.
When’s your next fight?
I’m trying to line up something in June. In the meantime, I’m going to enter a grappling tourney.
How long until you go pro?
I don’t have a set number of fights, but I’m thinking eight or so. I do a lot of work, so getting paid would be nice, but I still have a lot of work to do. I’ll turn pro when I feel like I’m ready.
Who’s your favorite fighter?
Ronda Rousey. I’m a huge fan. I love all the female fighters—Miesha Tate, Cat Zingano, Cyborg. I pay way more attention to women’s MMA than I do the men’s.
Do you miss cheerleading at all?
No, just the girls. The Chiefs had an amazing group of genuine girls. I still talk to them. They’ll be my bridesmaids one day.
Are you getting married soon?
No, no. It’s hard to find boys when you practice every night.
Are guys intimidated that you fight?
No, I think they are more intrigued by it. Fighting is fun.
Was the photo shoot a refreshing reminder that you don’t always have to get punched to have fun?
The shoot in Atlanta was really fun—cute little outfits, old cars. I hadn’t been to Atlanta since my college cheerleading days, so I took my mom with me and we went shopping and ate at some good restaurants. I love the city. You can’t beat Southern hospitality.
What do you do with yourself when you’re not training?
I like the outdoors. I go to my family cabin, four-wheeling, shooting guns. I have two Berettas—a .22 and a .32—both with laser grips. They’re awesome. I like to shoot, and carry it around just in case.
In case of what?
You never know.
Speed Round time. What’s your Favorite movie?
Gone With the Wind.
On a hotdog, ketchup or mustard?
Ketchup, but I can’t eat hotdogs. They aren’t on my diet.
What Pandora station are you listening to right now?
Best physical feature?
My butt, which everyone is looking at now. I hope my parents don’t have heart attacks.
Did Bobby Petrino ever give you a motorcycle ride at Arkansas?
No [laughing]. No he didn’t. I would always pass him at the field house after cheer practice, and he would always say “Hi.” But no, no motorcycle rides for me.
Why are manhole covers round?
Huh, what’s a manhole cover [laughing]? I don’t know.
Would you rather be knocked out or choked unconscious?
Choked out, for sure. It feels good when you wake up. The first time, I thought I’d been out for hours. I was like, “Whoa, this feels good.”
Here’s to waking up feeling good.
Cheers to that.
Follow Rachel on Twitter and Instagram: @cheerleadermma and cheerleadermma
// Photos by Paul Thatcher
// Makeup, Hair, and Wardrobe by MARAZ