EVERETT — Sweat glistened on Miranda Granger’s face as she muscled the 45-pound sled push up her driveway in Lake Stevens.
The mixed martial artist, 30, was in the final weeks of her two-month fight camp, as she geared up for a bout in Las Vegas, the last of four on Granger’s pro contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Above the hot asphalt that July afternoon, an extra 22-pound weight sat strapped to Granger’s back: her almost 1-year-old daughter Austin.
Granger, a Glacier Peak High School graduate, debuted as a professional fighter in August 2017. She won her first six pro bouts, then signed with the UFC in 2019.
Granger had just fought the third bout on her contract, losing in a unanimous decision, when she took a trip to Hawaii to decompress. Quickly, she put on about 20 pounds — a huge spike for a fighter who was still in regular training. It spurred a trip to the doctor.
On Feb. 8, 2021, she announced she was pregnant.
In the past childbirth often meant the end of a woman’s athletic career. But in recent years, athletes like Granger have pushed back against the stereotype that women must decrease their physical activity when pregnant or postpartum — or even give up their athletic careers.
Serena Williams was in her first trimester when she won the Australian Open, the tennis star said this month in Vogue. Williams then defeated her opponent in her first Grand Slam match eight months later, after giving birth. Even for a household name like Williams, choosing to become a mother meant risking her career.
Nike faced major criticism in 2019 when track and field star Allyson Felix, as well as other women athletes, spoke out about contracts failing to provide any protections for pregnant athletes or new mothers. Felix ultimately ended her seven-year relationship with the company.
“I’ve been one of Nike’s most widely marketed athletes,” Felix wrote in The New York Times. “If I can’t secure maternity protections, who can?”
The Everett-based strawweight fighter had no protections as a new mother in her contract, either.
“When I told the UFC,” Granger said, “I was worried.”
She had lost two fights in a row, and she knew they were cutting athletes at the time.
“Oh God,” she thought. “I’m probably going to get cut.”
Instead, the UFC just asked her to let them know when she was ready.
‘The first thing in my mind’
Her second trimester baby bump silhouetted against the pads encircling the walls of Charlie’s Combat Club in the summer of 2021.
Granger ran through her striking combos.
Her coach Charlie Pearson, a retired fighter, shouted out numbers one, two or three at a time. Each number represents a basic move. Odds mean use the left hand, evens mean right. The movements are second nature to Granger. Usually, it’s effortless. Granger did not want to admit it, but her body struggled to keep up.
Pregnancy takes a toll on a body. According to the British Journal of Sports Medicine, “Vaginal birth can be likened to the impact of an acute sports injury.”
A few weeks into her pregnancy, through a tip from a friend, Granger connected with Brianna Battles, founder of Pregnancy and Postpartum Athleticism. As a pregnancy and postpartum strength and conditioning coach, Battles sees many professional coaches who believe new mother athletes can bounce back to their physical peak, given their fitness foundation. But some coaches ignore the structural changes to the body.
In her second trimester, Granger suffered from round ligament pain. If she stood too fast, it felt as if she was pulling up all the muscle on the bottom of her stomach.
After giving birth on Aug. 19, 2021, her body was different. She suffered from fatigue. A sore pelvic floor. Incontinence. She struggled to train at the level she was used to.
“For the first month, I didn’t do anything,” Granger said. “I just spent time with Austin.”
For the first time in years she didn’t want to go to the gym. Her body felt “slow and so sticky,” she said. Things just didn’t feel right. Battles guided Granger through low-intensity repetition training, “front-loading” her core muscles, ramping up intensity from week to week as she healed.
Granger figured at six months postpartum, working on the routine, she would be in the Octagon again. But by then, she was just able to start sparring.
“I was three steps behind all the time,” Granger said, “when I’m used to being three steps ahead of everyone.”
Fighting is a sport of egos. Motherhood can humble you. Granger had to strike a new balance, mentally, between being a mother and a fighter.
“Pre-baby and pre-pregnancy, I would go to the gym and turn off everything that’s going on in the world and just be at the gym and just be present in the moment,” Granger said. “And now, Austin is the first thing in my mind.”
Going home, she no longer thought about her next fight 24/7. It was something she’d never been able to do, before she had Austin. Fighting had been her identity for most of her adult life. Now she felt a healthy separation from it.
She felt ready mentally, and she felt confident in her body.
‘Like my very first fight’
Temperatures on this August afternoon reached 100 degrees.
A year earlier, as a brand new mother, Granger weighed 175 pounds. She needed to get down to 115 for her fight night, Aug. 6. She had a day to shed five pounds.
At the UFC Performance Institute, she paused in the mirror to coat her body in a thick balm that triggers her to sweat more than normal. Granger had spent the past week in Las Vegas with her corner: coach Pearson, training partner Bilal Hasan and husband Kaden Barish.
She pulled on a silver-lined sauna suit, then hopped on an exercise bike. Behind her, Pearson called out speed intervals to get her sweating. Still in the suit, she switched to hitting mitts — quick and light strikes.
Once she was ready, she moved to the 180-degree sauna to sweat out the final pounds of water. After 10 minutes in silence, she came out wobbly, bracing herself against the wall.
Two minutes later, she made the slow walk back into the heat.
Seven minutes ticked away. Granger lay on her side with her arms crossed. An outline of sweat darkened the wood floor. She came out crawling, on hands and knees, for a two-minute break. Her coach and her husband braced her on each side, to walk her back into the sauna for a final five minutes.
Unable to stand on her own, Pearson and Barish helped her onto the scale. It flashed: “116.8.” Everyone relaxed, knowing she would lose another pound in her sleep and make weight. No weight cut is easy. But this was one of the easiest in her life, Granger declared. She took a quick dip in a cold pool. A nutritionist weighed out a electrolyte slushie and protein bar for her — the last thing she could eat or drink for 16 hours.
Two days later, Granger slid into a chair in a barren white-walled room at the UFC Apex. Pearson, her coach since she was 4, taped Granger’s hands.
Barish and Hasan brought one of Austin’s cylindrical wooden block toys, aptly nicknamed “little finger,” to break in the stitching of Granger’s new black fight gloves. The first fight on the card quietly played out on the TV above, ending in a quick, awkward, confusing submission attempt. Three other fights were scratched from the bill due to medical issues.
As security escorted Granger to her corner for the first time in 21 months, the TV cut to a shot of her and Austin, to explain her extended absence from fighting.
Cory “Poppins” McKenna, 23, a fighter from Cwmbran, Wales, walked onto the floor. She jogged around the Octagon. McKenna is 4 inches shorter, with a 10-inch reach disadvantage, but she was favored to win.
A UFC referee brought the fighters together. They touched gloves.
Granger threw a few jabs and a hard kick that caught her opponent spinning. In the first two minutes, McKenna forced Granger to the ground, keeping her there for the rest of the round, and landing blows to her head.
Thirty-five seconds into the second round, McKenna slammed Granger on her back again. Gradually McKenna shifted her weight into her shoulder, and into Granger’s neck, attempting a move called a Von Flue choke. Granger kicked her legs in an attempt to get free, but she couldn’t. She tapped out. It was the first women’s UFC fight ever to end in submission by a Von Flue.
Granger applauded her opponent and shook her hand. She and her team were escorted to a medical room, then ushered out of the arena.
Outside, Granger walked silently to her car. She broke down.
“It almost felt like my very first fight again,” she said through tears.
Back at her parents’ home, Granger exchanged emotional hugs and words of thanks with family and friends. The group knew the loss likely meant the end of Granger’s UFC career.
Wearing just a diaper, Austin waddled down the hallway with a small white stuffed bear hanging from her hand. She giggled. Granger’s tension melted and she shifted into mom mode, smiling through her tears.
“Even though my night wasn’t successful, hopefully the journey and work I put in reached someone and inspired someone to know that it’s not over for them,” Granger said. “Athleticism doesn’t end when motherhood begins, your dream doesn’t have to end. If anything, having Austin has made that even more clear to me.”
Editor’s note: The Daily Herald photographer Olivia Vanni spent 1½ years documenting Miranda Granger’s road back to the Octagon in Las Vegas. Her project received a $1,000 Passion Project grant from the Society of Professional Journalists.
This reporting was informed by Herald sports reporter Nick Patterson’s coverage of Granger’s fighting career. Some of his past coverage …
• “Snohomish martial-arts standout ‘Danger’ Granger is going pro,” Aug. 22, 2017.
•“2018-2019 Woman of the Year in Sports: Miranda Granger,” Aug. 3, 2019.
•”No, Snohomish’s Miranda Granger will not be fighting a man,” Nov. 14, 2019.
•”Granger ready to bounce back after 1st UFC loss, health scare,” July 23, 2020.
•“After nearly 2 years, Granger returns to Octagon Saturday,” Aug. 4, 2022.