By Ktima Heathcote
The first time Arafura Games amateur boxer Lizza Gebilagin stepped into a cage for an MMA fight she lasted 90 seconds.
She was kneed in the head, choked out and had bloodshot eyes for a month afterwards.
For a woman who admitted that sometimes the ringing of her mobile phone made her anxious, this was the equivalent of swimming with sharks.
“I’d only been training for six months and ended up competing with someone who had been fighting for four years already, so as you can imagine it did not turn out well at all,” said Gebilagin, now 37.
“I wasn’t that scared during the fight, more so in the lead up. I guess it was the adrenalin. When she was punching me, I could hear the smacks on my face, but I couldn’t feel them.”
Gebilagin, from Sydney, tried to hold on for as long as she could but after 90 seconds she couldn’t breathe anymore and had to tap out.
“My face was a mess; I could only see out of one eye and when my mum saw me later, she cried.
“Even the woman I was fighting came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I would never have done what you’ve done’.”
Despite this shaky start five years ago Gebilagin returned to MMA training where she discovered a love for boxing.
“With mixed martial arts you’re learning a combination of jiu-jitsu, boxing, and muaythai, all these different disciplines combined into one, and boxing was the one I really loved.”
She started training with professional boxer and coach, Ben Savva, who was on the team during her first MMA fight and has not looked back since.
“Somehow Ben has managed to create this really good atmosphere where he’s got this great group of female boxers, who all fight nationally and two of them internationally.
“He trains guys, too, but it’s great to be surrounded by girls who push each other and are really supportive.”
When Gebilagin, who is the Deputy Editor of Women’s Health and “word nerd” by day, told her colleagues that she was going to compete at Arafura Games 2019 the magazine got behind her.
“I was working out how to get to Darwin, booking flights and accommodation, when the magazine offered to sponsor me and cover my trip,” said Gebilagin, who swaps her keyboard for boxing gloves every chance she gets before and after work.
“I cried when the Head of Health Titles and Marketing Manager told me.
“At work we have a women in sport initiative where we highlight female athletes and so their support really meant the world to me,” she said.
Gebilagin has come a long way since that first choke out in an MMA cage.
With 15 boxing fights under her belt she has since discovered the calmer you are in the ring the better you perform.
“You can access the strategic parts of your brains in boxing when you’re calm under pressure – it’s like a human chess game.
In hindsight, Gebilagin admits her “decision to sign up for an MMA fight after only six months training wasn’t very smart” but at the same time she said she wouldn’t be in Darwin competing if she hadn’t taken the risk.
“For the first time I really backed myself and I’m proud of that. It’s put me on a path that I love, and I feel so lucky to be a part of the Arafura Games.
“Nothing is ever going to be as scary as that first MMA fight.”