One of the hottest prospects on the Australian regional scene despite being only one fight into her MMA career, the former two-time world muay Thai champion spoke to Sherdog.com about her journey from that first day on the mats to her fast-approaching sophomore appearance in the MMA cage. In a wide ranging interview, “Hammer” spoke about fighting professionally while also completing high school, becoming a world champion in muay Thai before seeking out a new frontier in MMA, her debut fight in May and what she hopes to achieve in the sport.
“I turned 13 in August, then I had my first fight in September,” she continued. “I remember going to the weigh-ins. [My opponent] was a bit bigger than me. She was 16 years old [but] I just wasn’t intimidated. I loved the weigh-ins, I loved the whole build-up. Then the fight came and we pretty much came at each other -- we had so much anger and aggression. It was the best first fight I could have had. We didn’t ease in, we weren’t scared. We just went hammer and tongs at each other. It ended up being a draw, and afterwards my Mum asked how it felt. I told her I loved it, and that I wanted to do it again. That’s where it all started.”
From that first amateur fight, Hackett soon evolved into one of Australia’s most well-known commodities on the muay Thai scene, twice picking up gold at the IFMA Youth Worlds (2014 and 2015) while carving out a record of 16-3-4. Her youth and young adulthood has been mediated entirely by punches, kicks, knees and elbows, and when she remembers embarking on the journey while still a high school student, she can’t help but find it amusing.
“Going through school, as a female fighter, that was kind of weird,” Hackett said, laughing. “All the guys that were in my grade were like ‘That’s so different, who does that? Why do you do that?’ Going into high school, obviously school got harder. After my first few fights, from maybe fight five onwards, my parents were like ‘Holy s--t, you really want to do this.’ It got to the point in school where I had to talk to the principal about starting school later. I would be preparing for a fight, and asking to start school later so I get my practice in. They were actually pretty good about that in the end, letting me start late a couple days per week.
“[The school] understood,” she continued. “The two times I competed at the world games, I was at school. Especially in that preparation, they were really good about it. But then it got to the stage at the end of grade 10 [and] start of grade 11, where I won both gold medals at the worlds, and I was now fighting adults way older than me, more experienced than me, that’s when I started to think.”
As Hackett tells it, following the path her friends were on -- enrolling in university or an apprenticeship as a bridge to a 9-to-5 job -- was never on her radar, and as she entered her second last year of high school, the strictures of daily attendance and the limiting effect it had on her training, started weighing on her. She came up with an alternative blueprint that involved dropping out of school and approached her parents -- her biggest supporters to date -- for their approval. They gave her the green light and she’s never looked back.
“My mentality through school was never ‘I’m going to go to uni,’” Hackett recounted. “It was always ‘I want to be a professional fighter, I want to do this for a living’. But I also wanted to be a fitness trainer and see where that could take me. My mum was a fitness trainer at the time, every time I finished school I’d go and watch and train the girls she had. That inspired me to follow the same path.”
“Midway through grade 11, I sat down with my Mum and Dad” she said. “I was fine with school -- my grades weren’t straight As but they weren’t Cs and Ds. I told them ‘I understand if you want me to finish school, but this is what I want to do: I want to fight professionally, and I want more time to train.’ I said that school wasn’t my biggest priority, and that I’d like to do my certificate in fitness. My Dad initially said that I would need to finish year 12, and I agreed to that. Then two weeks later, towards the end of grade 11, they said ‘OK, if that’s what you really want to do, do it’. So I pulled out at the end of the year.”
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After my last fight, one of my friends said to me, ‘You were a completely different person out there, a side to you that I’ve never seen before and didn’t think you had.’ To be a fighter, you have to have the switch. The only thing that got me to where I am now is pure hard work. I was never naturally talented in Muay Thai, it is something I had to develop over the past 8 years. The only thing I had from my first ever fight was aggression. I had the ‘switch’. As soon as the bell went, I was a different person. I would willingly inflict pain to the person standing in front of me as they would try and do the same to me. After the fight, you are just you, the person that everyone knows you for. What a crazy game.
Hackett’s initiative and drive to put herself in the best position in both the fitness industry and martial arts paid off in spades, with a newly acquired certificate of fitness enabling her to make inroads into the personal training game while giving her an invaluable surplus of time which she could use to continue honing her muay Thai skills. It meant a lot of early mornings, and to say her days were physically demanding would be an understatement, but to Hackett, it was everything she’d dreamed of.
“I didn’t pull out of school to chill and party and go to festivals,” she said. “I pulled out so I could follow my passion and work hard towards my goals. I didn’t need school for that. So I finished grade 11. While all my friends were doing grade 12, I got my certificate, I got a job at a 24/7 gym, I started teaching every class than I could and taking PT-privates. I was able to train more and continue fighting. My fights got better; I got better at muay Thai. By the time grade 12 was over, I was earning way more than [my former classmates], I was working more, I was being more successful in muay Thai, and then the following year I started my own business, HammerFit. I’m definitely not lucky, this is something I worked for. I’m happy with my decisions.”
By the time Hackett was 20, she had held the WMC and WBC lightweight championships in muay Thai. In typical fashion, however, she soon found herself itching for a new frontier to test her skills, and after trying her hand at Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the prospect of transitioning to mixed martial arts caught her eye.
“My thought process was about the challenge. I won lots of belts in muay Thai. I’d represented Australia twice [at the world games]. For someone my age, I’d done a lot in the sport. And I’d worked for that -- I never took a year or two off. I was training when I wasn’t fighting.
“I started BJJ about 15 months ago, and that was [initially] for fun,” she elaborated. “When I started BJJ, I did not think I would have an MMA fight within five years. I thought I might be s--t at it, I was just doing it to mix up my training. My first session was like my first muay Thai session. I fell in love with it -- I loved the additional toughness it required. To an extent, with muay Thai, the training was so repetitious… When I started BJJ, it was a whole other world that opened up to me. It made my training so much more exciting. Before my last muay Thai fight, my BJJ coaches asked, ‘Are you going to have an MMA fight? We think you should.’”
The conversation set in motion a sequence of events that is still unfolding today, with Hackett making her intention to transition to MMA known in mid-2018 shortly before beating Emily Wahby for the WBC international lightweight title. A little under a year later, she marched into the cage at Eternal MMA 45 against Mel Zeman.
Her debut appearance didn’t quite go as planned, with the fight ending in a contentious majority draw that would have been a unanimous decision in Hackett’s favour had she not been deducted a point in the first round for grabbing the fence after escaping a series of Zeman’s submissions. Even so, most viewers seemed to score it in her favor based on the amount of damage she inflicted on Zeman in the second and third rounds. Looking back, Hackett doesn’t see the outcome as a setback to her lofty aspirations.
“The debut was hectic,” she said with a laugh. “It was amazing. I said to my team after the fight -- my nerves for that first fight were nothing compared to the nerves I’ve had for my Muay Thai fights. It was so weird, I was preparing myself to be nervous. You look at your hands, you have smaller gloves. But I felt really comfortable with my environment, I felt comfortable when I was in the cage.
“The first round I grabbed the fence, that’s just my inexperience showing,” she continued. “So I got the point deducted. It sucked. But because I was so dominant in round two and three, I just feel like those rounds were scored wrong. They should have been 10-8s. It ended up being a draw, but you just gotta take it on the chin, go into this next one and not let it happen again.”
With her sophomore appearance this weekend at Eternal MMA 46 fast approaching, Hackett’s only objective is to do better the second time around.
“I’ve focused on my whole game. Because I’m in MMA now, I don’t want to just identify as a striker. That can’t be all I do. My opponents know that, they’re going to think ‘She’s got no wrestling defense, let’s just take her down.’ My priority in this camp was not to neglect my striking, I’ve been working on improving that to another level, but also working on my wrestling attacks, not just my defense. Having the confidence to actually attack with grappling, go for takedowns, submissions and positions, level-changing. My overall camp was on another level. I’m going to keep going up every time I fight.”
Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.