I grew up on the mat. Tae Kwon Do, Kung Fu, Kickboxing, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and eventually, professional mixed martial arts shaped who I've become as a woman.
It's a lifestyle that's led me to different gyms, many instructors and countless friends along the way. Although I retired from pro MMA in 2012, I've continued to train for fun because martial arts will always be a part of what makes me...me.
Watch highlights from Marianna's professional fights.
Two years ago, I met a young fighter named Coral Carnicella at the grand opening of Florida Kickboxing Academy, a gym that my longtime friend and pro fighter Asa Ten Pow opened in West Palm Beach. Coral was 17 at the time and I quickly took to her because her passion for the sport of Muay Thai was so intense - it immediately impressed me.
The Loxahatchee, Florida native was fearless, determined, bold and the hardest worker in the room at all times. We developed a bond over the sport we both loved.
I became like a big sister/mentor to her and also served as her main sparring partner as she prepared for fight after fight in the amateur Muay Thai national competition circuit.
Being 14 years older than her, and having competed at the highest level of pro fighting, I had a lot of knowledge that I was glad to pass down as she began her quest to be the best in this brutal, male-dominated sport.
Muay Thai is a sport that tests every ounce of your mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual fortitude.
"I wake up thinking about it. I fall sleep thinking about it. I even walk around thinking about it. I think about the things I need to work on. It's just what I think about. It's my obsession."
Muay Thai is referred to as the "art of eight limbs. " Fighters use punches, kicks, knees and elbow strikes to hurt their opponents and ultimately try to finish them by knock out. It's a national sport in Thailand and although it's not as popular here in the U.S. quite yet, it's due to gain some popularity after it will become part of the Olympics in 2024. As of now, the biggest exposure of Muay Thai is it being discussed during UFC fights, as it's just one art form that's used under the mixed martial arts fighting rules.
"Muay Thai is my outlet. I fight because it's an escape. The feeling of being in the ring is the most amazing feeling ever. Muay Thai has given me confidence. It's given me the ability to control my destiny and my fate...and I love that control."
At the time we met, Coral had a few fights under her belt in the amateur juniors division, but was ready to enter in the adult category - willingly stepping up in competition to fight grown women. She was working harder than I had ever seen anyone work in the gym and doing everything right at home. She was training 3-5 hours a day, running 3-8 miles every morning, making all the dietary sacrifices (eating mostly dry chicken and vegetables,) and not hanging out with friends. She was training like a pro athlete in their prime. Being a fighter is extremely hard...I know from experience. But Coral was getting more from the sport than she was putting in. I asked her why she put herself through this? After all, she was straight-A student in high school and could have chosen any career path.
She said, she fell in love with the process, the preparation, and the outcome that solely based on her own work ethic. Each fight provided a different challenge and it's own obstacles. She admits that the gym has always felt like a second home. "Muay Thai has given me the ability to be true to who I am and it's given me the ability to protect myself if someone questions who I am."
Her hard work was paying off fight-after-fight and in a two-year span since entering in the adult division--she's remained undefeated. The obsession with the sport was constantly growing inside of her. Being around fighters my whole life, I hadn't quite seen someone with that amount of passion. It helped that she was the only girl on the FKA (Florida Kickboxing Academy) fight team. It made her elevate her training to keep up with the guys around her. Pro fighter Asa Ten Pow, who took over as her main trainer after Coral's first coach retired, said he's never coached a girl before Coral walked into the gym.
"Coral is my first girl that I've trained and it's been challenging at first, dealing with a lot of emotions in the beginning that I wasn't used to --with the males. I don't treat her any differently being that she is a girl. This sport, there is no need to be treated differently, it's not a gender sport...You get punched in the mouth, you get punched in the mouth. She earns respect because she comes in and works hard." Since joining the team she's had as much or even more success in the ring as her male teammates who are constantly pushing her on the mat, during conditioning exercises and in sparring sessions.
"She has the 'IT' factor that makes her really special and the 'IT' factor is the ability to draw attention from people outside the sport of Muay Thai. She captivates an audience to watch her for many factors. She's a good knock out artist, she's 18 years old...she comes to fight."
Coral went from an unranked junior fighter to a nationally recognized five time adult world amateur champion. She refused to take time off after each win and was in the gym the next day working towards her next fight (even if she didn't have one scheduled.) "Currently, Coral is one of the No. 1 ranked amateurs in America. She's won significant titles in major tournaments and sanctioning bodies. At the young age of 18, she's already fought over 20 times. With all her winning this past year she was invited to join the USA Muay Thai team in 2018. That's the highest honor you can have as an amateur fighter," coach Asa Ten Pow explained.
In October, I approached Coral about doing a mini documentary about her journey in the sport. An honest, gripping look into what it's really like to be a young, female fighter in a sport that's flying under the radar right now. It was perfect timing...as the interviews began...her coach got a call about a fight in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It would be her first "no gear" rules fight --meaning fighters weren't allowed to wear headgear or shin guards like most amateur fights make mandatory. Her opponent was highly ranked and it was rumored she'd be going pro after this fight with Coral. Even I was nervous for this one.
Coral knocked it out of the park...literally in the first round. The swift combo of jab, cross, left high kick, left her highly ranked opponent laid out on the canvas. It was the sweetest of all her victories and the culmination of a lot of built up stress leading up to this big fight. She was the underdog and traveled to her much older opponent's backyard and put on the best performance of her life. We were all left speechless.
"I always say that I didn't choose Muay Thai, Muay Thai chose me...because there was no reason for me to want to do it."
Coral's martial arts journey started when she was 10, but would have started even sooner if her parents would have taken her requests seriously. "We really don't know what made Coral want to do kickboxing. It was something that she's always asked us to do and we laughed it off. We didn't think she was serious but she just kept persisting," her mom Norma Jean Carnicella shared.
Cheerleading was her sport before she found martial arts but it was never her passion. She only found her true competitive side when she stepped foot in the Muay Thai gym. Her parents weren't surprised when she fell in love with it because she'd been talking about it for so long. I asked her mom if she worries about her only girl ,Coral has two brothers, choosing such a dangerous sport to compete in. (My mom, for instance, was mortified and never got used to the fact that her daughter was partaking in the most violent sport on the planet.) But luckily for Coral, her family was on board.
"Having her be a fighter...surprisingly I don't worry about what you might think. I worry about the same things you worry about as a cheer mom. I worry that she's practiced so much and she didn't get to show on stage, which is the ring, everything that she's practiced."
Her dad Jim, a former wrestler, told me he's thrilled that his baby girl can protect herself and loves watching her compete in the ring. "It's a joy for me. I love to see her out there doing what she loves to do," he said a few hours before Coral got into the ring at that Myrtle Beach fight. The whole family made the trip to see her compete in the biggest fight of her life. The family of five, is extremely close and are always in the stands supporting Coral...all but Jim. He's in his daughter's corner during the fight (along with Coach Asa.)
"That's my job is to instill the mental toughness in her because it was taught to me at a young age. Before the fight, I say little things to her like 'trust in yourself, you've out-trained her, you're more dedicated. Believe in yourself.' She's getting the gift. She's very focused."
That focus keeps Coral off social media for the most part. She has accounts but rarely posts because frankly, she doesn't see the point in it all. The girl just wants her fights to do the talking. It's a controversial topic, female fighters using social media, sex appeal and various forms of self promotion, to gain popularity. But it's a topic that Coral was adamant about during one of our sit down interviews.
Coral on social media, self promotion (extended scene):
Coral chooses to laser her focus on the physical and mental game of the fight business instead of self-promotion. Getting in the ring is nerve-wracking, scary, and biggest adrenaline rush anyone could ever feel. The physical training is tough enough but the mental preparation just as important. Every fighter's got their own way of dealing with that anticipation.
"I don't really think of my opponents as another human. What they are to me...like a dark object. I start to picture them as like a black hole that wants to suck me in and take my success. It helps when I'm fighting because I don't feel as bad about hurting them."
After the first round knockout in Myrtle Beach, we all went out to dinner as Coral reflected on what just happened in the ring. The last 24-hours of her life were an emotional roller coaster filled with the highest highs and the biggest uncertainties. She made weight and had to manage her nerves for 36 long hours before stepping foot in the ring. "It's such an amazing feeling. You're standing in that opposite corner and you're looking at her laying there and your thinking all my hard work just paid off. I don't have an ounce of guilt. I worked harder than her and I'm cherishing the moment," she smiled.
Coral's cherished that moment 17 times in her young career (only feeling the disappointment of defeat three times.) She describes the feeling of getting in the ring as an out of body experience... A true feeling of living in the moment.
"I'm not scared during a fight. When I fight I feel like I'm not really there. I'm like in a dream. You're kind of on the outside looking in. My body is what's doing it, not my brain really. It's a very surreal feeling."
The feeling of getting your arm raised after a fight can be described as the ultimate high. A culmination of a grueling preparation process that fighters put themselves through constantly. Contrary to popular belief, only a small amount of fighters turn this passion into a professional career. Amateur fighters are hobbyists that don't make any money; they actually spend money to compete in tournaments around the country. The ones who do turn pro, don't do so with the hopes of becoming rich or famous. Muay Thai just isn't at the level of other professional sports when it comes to money or acclaim. Muay Thai fighters in America do it for the love of the game, the glory of victory. That's the pay off.
TBT, fighting as main event in New York at the broad street ballroom on FnF. 1st time in New York and I was up against a tough opponent who had a lot of size on me. I fought up a weight class and definitely felt the difference in size. I was extremely focused for this fight as I knew I could be severely hurt if I made a mistake. At the end of the 1st round he was able to clinch me a throw some powerful knees that ended up cracking my ribs. I didn't know at the time but even when he was hitting my arms I could feel the pain in my mid section. In the 2nd round he came out for the kill and I was able to remain calm and I landed a devastating spinning elbow that KOed my opponent. It was the work of repetition and preparation. Later that evening it was snowing in New York. It was such an amazing time in my life.
Coral's coach Asa, a pro muay thai fighter himself, admits that it's a very hard life. "It becomes a very lonely sport because we don't get the recognition that most athletes get. A lot of people don't understand why we decide to put our bodies on the line for something that there's no financial gain for. In reality you do it out of love and you keep sculpting your abilities in the ring. That's the beauty in it. That's the real gain from Muay Thai."
Some Muay Thai fighters even turn to similar sports (like MMA) because the chances of making a little bit of money are much greater. I asked Coral if she would consider getting into the octagon for an MMA fight in the future and she said she wouldn't rule the possibility out, but is 100% focused on Muay Thai. Making money from the sport is the farthest thing on her mind.
In 2016, Cheerleading and art of Muay Thai received provisional recognition as Olympic sports. The two sports received $25,000 in annual funding from the International Olympic Committee and will eventually apply to become part of the Olympic games. If Coral continues to progress at this pace, she'll be standing on that 1st place podium at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
"I would love to represent the USA in the olympics one day. Like I said, there's no money in Muay Thai. So laying in my death bed, I want to be able to say that I was able to do something I love and show my passion on an international level. I don't think I'll be caring about the money at that point."
Coral dual-enrolled in college while still in high school. When she got her high school diploma she was only six credits short of receiving her AA, which she completed last month with a perfect 4.0 GPA. She is now in EMT school and is working towards becoming a firefighter.