‘You don’t know the half of it,’ Combate Americas star Zoila Frausto (14-5) must have been thinking. The question that prompted her answer, in its whittled down form, was, “What obstacles have you faced as a female mixed martial artist in a male-dominated sport?”
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Frausto, a pioneer of women’s MMA, fought some of the best the lighter female divisions had to offer. The 35-year-old strawweight faced the likes of ex-UFC bantamweight champion Miesha Tate (18-7), ex-Invicta FC champions Jessica Penne (12-5) and Jennifer Maia (17-5-1), ex-WSOF titlist Jessica Aguilar (20-8), former UFC title challenger Jessica Eye (14-7, 1 NC), and one of the greatest female competitors to ever enter the cage, Megumi Fujii (26-3).
“There were a lot of things that were there as far as obstacles. Being a woman in a male-dominated sport, you’re looked at a little differently. You’re always looked at kind of like, ‘What are you really doing trying to be involved in this sport?'” Frausto told The Body Lock. “It was really hard to gain respect from our male counterparts; just from people in general. That was always really hard to do – was to gain from the other, male fighters and the people in the sport.
“It took a long time to get that respect from people. Like I said, I had to work just as hard, if not harder, just to get just a little bit of attention when it came to the fact that I could do this,” said Frausto.
While Frausto points to earning respect from her male peers, promoters, and the general public as one of the biggest obstacles for female fighters, she says that the gender pay gap in MMA was a massive disadvantage.
“That, on top of the fact that I’m not really getting paid as much as a man. I was a part of a big tournament maybe eight years ago, I believe, and I remember [that] all of the men of that tournament were getting $100,000 checks, $100,000 checks. But after winning the same exact tournament as the men fought in, I ended up getting a $20,000 check at the end of that fight,” alleged Frausto.
“I would always get asked, ‘What’d you do with that money? What’d you do with that money?’ I’m like, ‘It wasn’t that much money.’ Like, I got $20,000 and that $20,000 was gone before I got it because it was such a hard camp, and I was paying money here and there and everywhere just to be able to make it through that camp.”
The tournament Frausto referenced was one of Bellator MMA‘s early tournaments, which made up the bulk of the promotion’s earliest events. In 2010, Frausto signed with Bellator as a 6-1 professional, and quickly entered the strawweight bracket.
Zoila Frausto defeated the aforementioned UFC veterans Penne and Aguilar, both by decision, to reach the finals against the then-undefeated Japanese superstar, Fujii.
At Bellator 34, Frausto handed Fujii her first loss in a split-decision to capture the inaugural Bellator women’s title, winning the strawweight tournament.
Yet, Frausto says, no cartoonishly-sized check awaited her.
“If anybody can remember, they would always have these huge checks for the men at the end of those tournaments, and at the end of my tournament – a got a belt; it was nice – but there was no $100,000 check. I knew that going in, [but] it was a huge opportunity; it was big for me.”
In recent months, a viral debate raged over gender pay equality between the men’s and women’s United States National soccer teams. One of the points proffered from both sides of the argument was viewership; ratings. Frausto has already taken that into account concerning her purported title pay disparity.
“As far as ratings go – people want to argue ratings – those ratings for that last fight were huge, compared to a lot of the tournaments, too, but I still wasn’t making nearly the same as my male counterparts. It was disheartening, it sucked a lot, but it was what it was and it is what it is. We’re starting to make a little more now. It’s still not the same [as the men], but it’s making moves, so I’m happy about that,” said Frausto.
In that same vein regarding earning a living in mixed martial arts as a female fighter in the early day’s of their inclusion in the sport, Zoila Frausto continued to paint a difficult picture.
“It’s been rough. In order to do it for as long as I’ve done it, there’s been a lot of struggles, especially as a woman in this sport… just getting the right looks, getting the right work, and the right people behind me has been difficult, as well, especially being a woman.”
For Frausto, having the right people behind her wasn’t always a given. From 2012 to 2015, the Fresno, California, native suffered a four-fight losing streak that many thought could have spelled the end for her illustrious career.
However, Frausto says, she was able to get back to her usual winning ways with a few adjustments to her personal life. Her catalyst for turning everything around?
“Getting a divorce and moving out of Ohio,” laughed Frausto.
“That was a really rough time, you know? I went straight from winning a world title to thinking I was… it was the high of my life, and I ended up getting married to the wrong person that I had no idea who it was, and from that started my downfall,” Frausto recalled.
“I lost – I think it was, like, three years in a row – I could not string a win together. I was trying to figure out, like, ‘What’s going on? Why is this happening?’ I took a step back and started to look at my life and realized that there were a lot of personal issues that weren’t being dealt with.
“Trying to stay on top of your athletic career with things that are going on outside of it is never a good thing, so kind of taking a step back and realizing what was really going on at home… I figured it wasn’t a really good fit for me.
“I ended up taking time off and getting a separation, and shortly after figured out a lot of things that I did not like, so I ended up filing for a divorce. As soon as I got that divorce I got my name back and [moved] back into California that’s when the wins started happening really quick. That was it, it was just getting myself mentally right and putting the right people around me to make me myself again and make me feel good,” said Frausto.
After her first win since the divorce, a 2016 victory in Tachi Palace Fights, Zoila Frausto took some time away from the sport. Following her hiatus, she returned to sign with Combate Americas, a Hispanic MMA organization led by UFC co-creator Campbell McLaren.
“Oh, man, it’s been amazing. I have not been treated this way by any promotion, ever, and [my Mexican heritage] was one of the huge reasons why I wanted to sign with [Combate]. I am Mexican-American. I was born here, but my roots are very much in Mexico,” said Frausto.
“To be able to sign with a company like that, that’s going to treat me well and is making me an even bigger star than I already was, after everything that I’ve done? I couldn’t be happier.”
In February, Zoila Frausto debuted with Combate, scoring her first TKO win since 2010 over Jaimelene Nievera (7-5). Following the victory, Frausto has drawn multiple-time Latin American sambo and judo medalist Reina Cordoba (9-1), whose lone loss in MMA came to ex-LFA champion and UFC prospect Sabina Mazo (6-1).
“She’s a tough girl, you know? You can’t go 9-1 and not be tough. She’s been around for a very long time; she’s a veteran as well. I think to be a champion in any form of martial arts is tough as well, so I’m not taking her lightly, but I believe that I’m the better athlete. I’ve been around for a very long time.
“I hit really hard,” said Frausto. “I don’t think she’s ever been hit as hard as I’m going to hit her. I feel that she’s gonna come in strong, and I hope it’s the best Reina Cordoba that she brings, you know, because I’m bringing the best me, as well.”
Zoila Frausto believes that Cordoba will lean on her grappling accolades, but says she has a very effective gameplan in place to negate any takedowns Cordoba might achieve.
“She’s gonna come in strong, she’s gonna get hit a couple [of] times, she’s not gonna like it. She’s gonna try and take me down, and I don’t think she’s going to be very successful. If she is successful, I’m gonna jump right back up because I am strong and I am athletic, and I know what I’m doing.”
Frausto believes that ultimately, her power will be too much for Cordoba.
“She’ll get frustrated, I’ll hit her some more; she’ll probably end up running into something that is going to stun her or hurt her, and I’ll be able to finish the fight. That’s pretty much how I see it playing out. I’m really [in a] good [place]. I’m confident right now. I don’t see anybody stopping me… I just… I don’t.”
Should she earn the win over Cordoba, Zoila Frausto says she wants a shot at more gold.
“I want to get my head around that crown that [Combate is] talking about for the women. Hopefully, they’ll be putting up a crown for the women at the end of this year, maybe next year. I wanna get my hands on some more gold.
“They’re talking crowns for the women, so I’d be more than happy to get a crown put on my head,” said the woman known as the “Warrior Princess.”
“Man, it would mean a lot to me, especially because they’re based of Latin America and they pushed a lot for that. It be an amazing thing to accomplish, and I would hold that dear to my heart because it would mean an absolute lot, especially where I am in my career; the things that I’ve done, what I’ve been able to accomplish. To be able to grasp something like that would mean a lot to me.”
But while things are going great for Frausto now, that wasn’t always the case. Her story is one of overcoming adversity, fighting for equality, and going back to her roots.
Ultimately, Zoila Frausto – one of her division’s first stars – drives a sobering point home: this sport only rarely rewards its own with more than glory.
“It’s been rough. The only reason why I’m still here is because I absolutely love to fight. I love MMA. ‘Cause if there was any other… I’ve had plenty of ways out if I wanted to make more money, or if I wanted to do other things that were going to help me out in life, then, you know.
“Doing this sport isn’t the best choice, especially since there’s no retirement. There’s nothing I can really get from it at the end except for the feeling of accomplishment. But, it’s been rough. It’s been rough being a woman in this sport for as long as I have, and I still struggle to this day. But I love it, and I’m getting the respect I deserve, and that makes it worth it for me.”
Michael Fiedel is The Body Lock's deputy editor, a staff writer for FloCombat, and a Russell-Rice scholarship recipient at Vanderbilt University.