A Star Portland MMA Fighter Tells All

Glena “Heartless” Avila, 38, a Portland pro mixed martial arts fighter, mother of two, and the focus of the new documentary Glena that opens the Portland Film Festival August 26. Watch the trailer now!

By Maya Seaman June 13, 2014 Published in the July 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

How did you get started? Fighting chose me. I grew up poor in a rich area, so I got bullied and picked on quite a bit. By high school I was standing up for myself, and I went full circle and became a bully. I’m not proud of it. I also had all brothers. That combination made me a little thicker-skinned than most. 

Why MMA, and not boxing or wrestling? What I like about MMA is the fact that you have to adapt to what your opponent is doing—it’s not always about the person who’s the strongest or the best fighter. A lot of people think it’s this brutal, violent thing where people are just trying to punch each other’s teeth out. What they don’t understand is that there’s strategy involved. That’s what attracts me to it. I like to outthink my opponent. If you’re the smartest fighter you can still find a way to come out on top.

What was it like your first time in the “cage”? Really surreal. I didn’t know how dangerous it was yet. It was just a fun thing for me to try. Not all fights are really brutal, but the fight right before mine happened to be the heavyweights, and someone got injured. There was a pool of blood that they were cleaning up as we were coming in. At that point I started thinking, What the hell did I just get myself into?

What is the worst injury you’ve ever had? I’ve had everything from a skull fracture to a dislocated shoulder (that was probably the worst because it took the longest to heal), broken ribs, and I don’t know how many times I’ve broken my nose at this point. The cool thing about the human body, though, is that it heals itself. 

What are things that men don’t have to deal with when preparing for a fight that female fighters do? You can’t get away from answering how old you are or how much you weigh. Who’s gonna braid your hair: that’s one the boys don’t have to worry about. And wardrobe malfunctions. I wear at least two, sometimes three, sports bras. And I’ll wear more than one pair of shorts, too. I usually have to get someone to help to get it all off.

What motivates you to keep fighting? Every time I was at the end of my rope and couldn’t take another step, there’d be that one person that says, “I love what you’re doing. Keep doing it for all of us.” I felt like I was rowing the boat for more than just myself. I was fighting for the girls that don’t fight. That’s when I decided that this was bigger than me. It had to be done. 

Portland Film Festival Opening Night: Glena
Mission Theater
August 26

The film about you is being really well-received. How did that project come about? I met [filmmaker] Alan Lupkey doing a local talk show in the Gorge. He thought my story was unique and asked if he could follow me for my next fight. He realized there was more to it than just training and fighting; there’s the financial strain, the pubic scrutiny, a custody battle because of my desire to be a fighter. He was like, “This story is too deep to follow for just one fight,” and he asked me if he could just keep filming. It was almost like the movie gods had him put there to follow me during these monumental moments—he was able to capture it all and turn it into a movie that is so captivating and inspiring.

You defeated Katie Howard during April’s Rumble in the Roseland after a year out of the cage. How did that feel? It’s hard to explain. I can’t think of a better way to have a comeback than in the Full Contact Fighting Federation with a sold-out Roseland Theater. It’s such an overwhelming experience to have crowd support like that. And it’s an honor that they chose me to headline the card, but it even means more being female. It’s been a long hard road for [women] in the sport—and not everyone agreed with us being here—so being able to do it and surpassing everyone’s expectations is a really good feeling.

What is the worst part about preparing for a fight? When you have to do a weight cut—you’re already tired and hungry, and you have to start depleting the water out of your system—it’s a long, uncomfortable process. And sometimes just making weight is the fight before the fight. But besides that, you usually train so hard—when you have a good team that’s gonna push you as hard as you can go so that when you actually fight it just feels like another day at the office. You’re not going to be faced with something you haven’t seen in your training camp already.

How do your kids feel about you being an MMA fighter? My son is a bit older, and it was hard to be a teenager with a mom that fights competitively. There were definitely some hiccups along the way, but at this point I think he’s proud of what I do and he gets it. My daughter’s always had this attitude where I’m a hero to her. She gets to brag, “My mom’s a champion fighter.” It’s such a rare opportunity for us to be our child’s hero.

In terms of making a living as an MMA fighter, is it stressful to live fight to fight? It is stressful. I thinks it’s particularly stressful for people who are trying to make it into a career. For the people who are literally sacrificing everything to go as far as they possibly can, I think it’s always stressful because you have so much riding on each fight.

 What are your other goals in the sport? I would say the biggest goal for me would be to inspire as many people as possible to chase something down, to have the courage to face their fears and do something crazy if it’s what they want to do. When the movie was made and people started seeing snippets of my life, I would start getting e-mails and letters about how my life has inspired them to follow dreams of their own, and I feel like that is the ultimate success for me.

You’re undefeated as an amateur, and have three wins as a professional. Was becoming a pro fighter the goal? Do you want to coach eventually? That was the goal, to become a professional fighter. I’d love the opportunity to mentor and teach and coach other women. Whether it’s just for self defense, for fun, to get in shape, or because someday they really want to fight—I don’t care. You wanna come work with me? Call me!

Want more? Follow Glena on Twitter @MMAHeartless.

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