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Port Moody wrestler called MMA 'barbaric.' Now she's one of its rising young stars

Ciara McCrae comes from a family of accomplished wrestlers
Port Moody's Ciara McCrae celebrates victory in her MMA debut last August after making the transition from a successful high school and university wrestling career.

Ciara McCrae is the middle member of Port Moody’s first family of wrestling.

Her dad, Bill, was an accomplished collegiate wrestler and continues to coach the sport at Maple Ridge Secondary School.

Her younger brother, Devin, won a gold medal at the high school provincial championships when he was at Heritage Woods Secondary School and went on to compete for Simon Fraser University.

That’s also where Ciara wrestled after her own high school success at Port Moody Secondary, earning All-American honours and a bronze medal at the 2019 Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association championships in the 105-lbs weight class.

So what the heck was the diminutive 25-year-old doing last Aug. 27, locked in bloody mixed martial arts combat in a caged steel ring at an events centre in Calgary?

McCrae was victorious in her debut bout for the Pallas Athena Women’s Fighting Championships, a unanimous decision over Ami Lyczewski. Her second match, scheduled for Dec. 17 against Cassie Warwick, was called off at the last minute.

McCrae said the steel cage is not a place she ever envisioned she’d end up as her collegiate wrestling career wound down during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In fact, when a coach at a gym where McCrae was training suggested she try MMA, her first reaction was, “Why would I want to go get punched in the face? That’s barbaric.”

But the more McCrae thought about it, the more she warmed to the idea. Her competitive fire still burned, she was in shape and her background in wrestling might give her an edge over opponents who’ve migrated to the sport from traditional martial arts like jui-jitsu and tae kwon do.

McCrae connected with a trainer, Shawn Albrecht at Ascension Martial Arts in Port Coquitlam, to get her bearings and she liked what she was learning.

“Wrestlers have an advantage,” McCrae said. “We know how to hold people. We know how not to give up. We can be adaptable.”

But to have success in the cage, McCrae said she had to “rewire” her brain. In the “kill or be killed” world of MMA it’s not enough to pin your opponent in a vulnerable position for a three-count; you have to make them submit, extinguish their will to get up off the mat and fight for their own survival.

Working with Albrecht taught McCrae how to fuse her wrestling knowledge with the techniques of martial arts, honed her fearsome determination, prepared her for the assaults that would come her way in the cage.

“I knew I wasn’t the most skilful wrestler, but I have a lot of grit, I don’t like to lose,” she said. “You have to be tough to do this sport.”

McCrae also found community in the cage. Travelling to other gyms around Metro Vancouver to find female sparring partners, she connected with the sport’s small, tight-knit corps of practitioners.

“They’re very welcoming,” she said. “If you’re a fighter and you want to fight and you respect the room, you’re accepted.”

McCrae said every time she stepped into the cage, her confidence buoyed. Any self-doubts she had about her choices started to diminish.

“If they believe in me, then I need to stop with negative thoughts,” she said. “I’m a hard worker. I show up and I do what I’m told. I’m serious.”

Showing up at the gym wearing an old tie-dye t-shirt earned McCrae a new nickname, “The Violent Hippie,” that trumped her old wrestling handle, “WaWa,” which was what her dad called her when he yelled encouragement at her matches because that’s how her little brother had pronounced her name when he was a baby. She liked the new identity.

“Kindness and violence, that’s kinda my thing.”

Still, training in a gym twice a day while wearing protective equipment isn’t the same as climbing into the cage for a real match. It was also unlike anything McCrae had experienced during her wrestling career.

‘It was definitely like being a mini-celebrity,” McCrae said of her experience in Calgary. “They flew us in, we stayed at a really nice hotel, there were interviews, photo shoots. It was surreal.”

Despite the disappointment of having the rug pulled out from under the second match of her amateur career, McCrae said she remains focussed on her goal of turning pro. But, she added, she’s not setting a timeline for that to happen.

“When the time comes, it comes,” she said. “There’s always opportunities. I’ll be okay as long as I stick to the game plan and believe in myself.”

And how does that aspiration sit with her family of wrestlers?

McCrae said her mom just wants her to get a “normal job,” and for her dad, “it’s hard for him to wrap his head around” even though he watches MMA on TV.

But at the end of the day, she said, “I have nothing to prove to anyone but myself.”