Cinderella with an MMA Spin

By Dmytro Synyak Feb 18, 2021

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Some might draw a connection between Maryna Moroz and Cinderella—minus a ball at which to dance, a magic carriage in which to ride or the fairy godmother on which to lean. The first Ukrainian female to compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, she achieved her success through sheer determination while overcoming the inconceivable obstacles life placed before her.

Moroz grew up on a farm in Matronovka, a village in central Ukraine. She can remember helping her parents with work around the house, from weeding beds in the garden and cooking meals to milking cows and unloading grain-filled machines. Because her parents lacked the money necessary to hire workers, hard physical work was a constant companion. Moroz enrolled in school a year early because there was no one to look after her at home, and she was forced to deal with some harsh realities while attending class in the small city of Vilnohirsk. The “little girl from the village” was scoffed at, not only by classmates but by teachers who considered her incapable of learning.

Her father, a former boxing coach, saw the despair in her eyes and began to train Moroz to defend herself. She was 7 years old at the time. By the time she was 12, she was actively engaged in karate and had forced school bullies to turn their focus elsewhere. Teachers also learned to fear the “inadequate girl,” as she distinguished herself through a physical might she would use without hesitation. Before long, everyone at school knew that prodding Moroz would be met with a fist in the teeth.

Like most places, Ukraine encourages the pursuit of higher education after grade school. Moroz did not enjoy much success in traditional subjects, but she excelled in karate and boxing. As a result, she chose to attend the Dnepropetrovsk Institute of Physical Education.

“It was probably the most difficult time in my life,” Moroz said. “There was no money at all, and I never wanted to take it from my parents, seeing how hard they lived. I was immediately accepted onto the junior women’s boxing team of Ukraine, but they did not pay money there. I had to train for all kinds of competitions at my own expense. I got up at six in the morning, so that by eight, I would already be in the gym for my morning workout; and there was another workout at five in the evening.

“I walked everywhere to save money on transportation and even got a job cleaning the floors in a cafe near the institute hostel,” she added. “Once, when I was leaving work late, some drug addicts attacked me. One blow was enough for one of them to fall, and the rest ran away. This was my one and only street fight.”

Moroz fought through hunger during her studies at the institute, and at 5-foot-8, it was not difficult for her to make the limit for the bantamweight division. She knew nothing of sports nutrition. At most, she was advised to eat a Snickers before each workout. Moroz was initially the “ugly duckling” on the junior team, but by the time she turned 21, she had several international competitions under her belt and national championships in boxing and kickboxing on her resume. Despite her notoriety, her financial struggles persisted. Moroz soon decided she no longer wanted to work for medals and certificates alone and had no desire to continue living on bread and water. She traded in her amateur stripes. Around the same time, the Oplot Challenge organization staged a mixed martial arts event in Kharkov. Moroz was offered $400 to win, and she agreed to terms without hesitation, deciding that fighting was much more enjoyable than scrubbing floors.

However, there was one major issue with MMA: Moroz did not yet have access to training partners. A few weeks before the event was to take place, she asked a few friends who were wrestlers to teach her one effective ground fighting technique. They introduced her to the armbar, and she worked on executing the maneuver every day in practice. Moroz made her professional debut at Oplot Challenge 89 on Nov. 23, 2013 and submitted Yana Kuzioma with a second-round armbar.

After her victory, a Ukrainian manager who was known for bringing “punching bags” to Chinese events, suggested Moroz make the trip “to earn a couple dollars.” It was not an enjoyable experience, even though she defeated Feier Huang—she executed another armbar—less than three minutes into their pairing at Kunlun Fight 5.

“That trip to China was terrible,” Moroz said. “The manager said I had no chance of winning. He didn’t even feed me and I couldn’t change my money, so I was hungry all day before the fight. After the event, the manager got so drunk that he passed out, and then I had to take him back to Ukraine.”

However, Moroz, who was living on $15 a week and dressing in second-hand clothes at the time, earned $1,000 for her efforts. When the same manager suggested she return to China for another event, she agreed—under one condition: Her husband, Sergey Zakolyaev, would go with her. She had met Zakolyaev during a muay Thai sparring session. He was 15 years older and worked as an IT specialist. Moroz knew he could handle the manager if the situation called for it. She was confronted by seasoned veteran Jin Tang at Kunlun Fight 8 on Aug. 24, 2014.

“That bout was very difficult for me,” Moroz said. “I was suffocating, and I severely injured my knee. At one point, she rushed in to finish me off. Almost unconscious, I put the last of my strength into an armbar attempt. Everything happened so quickly that Tang had no time to submit. I heard her bones crunch when I broke her elbow joint.”

Moroz went on to compete in Moscow and Brazil in her next two appearances. She won the first fight by knockout and the second by submission, again by bone-breaking armbar. The victim? Brazilian Karine Silva. It was a profitable outing for Moroz, who pocketed $50,000 for “Fight of the Night” and received half of her opponent’s purse due to her failure to make weight, resulting in a $70,000 payday.

Soon after, Moroz received a call from Russian MMA manager Yuriy Kiselyov, who asked if she was interested in competing in the UFC. “Is this a joke?” she asked. Kiselyov was not joking. The UFC offered Moroz the chance to face Joanne Calderwood—the Scotswoman was 9-0 at the time—at UFC Fight Night 64 on April 11, 2015 in Krakow, Poland. She sprang the upset, submitted Calderwood with an armbar in just 90 seconds and had her contract renewed. Still, Moroz had difficulty finding sponsors in Ukraine and the United States. Many experts believed she was brought to the UFC on whim and did not expect her to last in the promotion. Those doubts grew louder when Moroz lost a unanimous decision to Valerie Letourneau in her next outing.

“I wasn’t worried,” she said with a smile, “because I knew the fight was good.”

Moroz rebounded with a unanimous verdict over Cristina Stanciu some seven months later, securing a foothold on the UFC roster.

“I prepared for that fight with my friends in St. Petersburg, Russia,” she said. “I lived with my husband in the closet of a men’s locker room at one gym for a month. We didn’t have money for a hotel, and I couldn’t find better coaches or sparring partners than I had at that gym. Sometimes, I had to wait until the locker room was empty to go to the bathroom. I wondered, ‘How am I going to get out if there are guys undressing in there?’”

After Stanciu, Moroz moved on to defeat former King of the Cage champion Danielle Taylor by split decision. The pay she received allowed her to remain in the United States, where she devoted much of her time to expanding her arsenal and studying sports nutrition. Her training process was finally in line. However, back-to-back decision losses to Carla Esparza and Angela Hill forced Moroz to rethink her position yet again.

“I already felt like I needed to move to a heavier division,” she said. “After all, I competed as a bantamweight in boxing. It was not until I got to the UFC that I moved to strawweight, but I had to cut 45 pounds to get there. Besides, at the time, I had serious issues with a coach the UFC recommended. He tried to make me fight angry and constantly humiliated me. Nobody is going to treat me that way.

“In addition, the UFC for some reason wanted to remove my husband from my list of seconds, and in the bout against Esparza, they succeeded,” Moroz added. “When she successfully used a double-leg takedown, I grabbed onto her with a guillotine. I felt like if I had a little more in me, I would have finished her. That’s where my husband’s voice could have helped me.”

Neither the losses nor the issues with her corner affected Moroz’s relationship with the UFC. The Ukrainian beat Sabina Mazo and Mayra Bueno Silva in subsequent outings, both by unanimous decision, the latter earning her a $50,000 bonus check for “Fight of the Night.” A photo taken of Moroz immediately after the match made the rounds on social media. Despite blood pouring down her face, she embodied the pure joy associated with victory, the Ukrainian flag draped across her shoulders.

“I remember that fight more than others,” Moroz said. “It was the most emotional and most traumatic for me. I was cut severely by a knee to the head, and one of my legs was so badly damaged that I could not feel it at all. I don’t know how I moved and struck. After the fight, I didn’t go get the cut sewed up. I told my husband, ‘Bring me the flag.’ I wanted to show the whole world that Ukrainian women knew how to win.

“In accepting this victory, I was upset by some of my compatriots,” she added. “Only a few of them were happy for me. Others said I had sold myself to the Americans, that I was more of a Russian than a Ukrainian. I was very sad. You know, the Russians offered me money to change citizenship, but I refused. I love my country.”

Success in the UFC allowed Moroz to grow her audience and gain some financial stability. Ukrainian companies have also taken notice, as she has become a brand ambassador for international bookmaker Parimatch. She was supposed to face Montana De La Rosa in September, but due to pandemic-related quarantine restrictions, she was not able to obtain an American visa in time. As a result, the bout fell through. Moroz has since decided to remain in the United States and has settled in Miami, which provides a most suitable climate for her.

“Now, I train in light mode, hone my technique and work with sparring partners,” she said. “After several annoying injuries, I realized you can’t just spar with anyone, that you must be careful with choosing sparring partners. I learned that while preparing for my fight with Mazo. A few weeks before the event, a guy who apparently had a burning desire to knock out a girl from the UFC, badly injured my elbow during sparring. I was furious, and since then, I only allow trusted people to work with me.”

Inactive since she defeated Silva, Moroz finds herself outside the UFC’s Top 15 rankings at 125 pounds. Nevertheless, the 29-year-old believes she has all the tools necessary to climb the ladder and challenge reigning flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko at some point in the not-too-distant future.

“Valentina is great but not at all spectacular as a fighter,” Moroz said. “She lacks fire in the cage.” Advertisement
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