Hawaiian Kailin Curran is a UFC strawweight with a professional mixed martial arts record of 4-4. In 2014, she became the first Hawaiian female to ever compete in the UFC, and a year later she submitted Emily Kagan to secure her first UFC win.
Now 26, Curran has yet to appear in 2017 but is eager to hit some form in her eight-fight MMA career. She details her plan, and also describes her love of surfing, with Fighters Only’s Tony Reid in an exclusive Q&A.
Q: You grew up with a wrestling background all the way up through high school and beyond. Can you talk about your experience as a female in such a male-dominated sport?
Kailin Curran: My dad got me into it when I was in seventh grade. I was the only girl wrestling then, so it was a little uncomfortable. He pushed me to do it and then we added a few more girls and the coaches brought in some girls and eventually we had a team. Competing in wrestling when I was younger, it was different but I loved it. It is a male-dominated sport, but in Hawaii it grew pretty fast and, before you know it, there were more and more girls doing it. It’s like any other sport.
Q: Is there a quick story you could share with us from your early years spent on the wrestling mats?
KC: My freshman year, I was on junior varsity but my coaches asked me to jump up to varsity. Every year I got to experience States. That was a big deal for me. My senior year I knew I had to take first place. My freshman year I placed sixth and then I was sixth again in my sophomore year and fourth in my junior year. My senior year I just wanted to be the champ. I was beating this girl in every tournament we had. My senior year in States I had to go up against her in the finals. I ended up losing. I got pinned in the first period. I think about it a lot. That was my year. Losing to someone you beat all the time really sucked.
Q: Does that loss still motivate you today?
KC: Yeah, it motivates me not to come up short now. I was hurt, not that I want to use that as an excuse. I hurt my back pretty bad. I don’t know what happened. I think what I felt at that moment was that I was going to go out there hurt and try not to lose, so that’s what happens in that mindset. I still use it as motivation to this day.
Q: You grew up a proud Hawaiian. Can you put into words and explain the amazing fighting spirit that seems to come from so many great Hawaiian fighters?
KC: We come from such a small island. We don’t really get the same opportunities other kids get when they are young. We have to travel outside of Hawaii because there is not much there in that sense. If you want to be seen or scouted, you have to travel a lot. We don’t come from a lot of money, so we would have to raise money for the trips. That motivates a lot of us (fighters) to give 110% and fight with everything we have. We embrace the moment and are really proud how far we have come as a people. It’s ‘Aloha Spirit’. All of the fighters from Hawaii fight with their hearts and put it all on the line.
Q: Speaking of that pride, being the first female Hawaiian fighter in the UFC has to feel like a tremendous accomplishment.
KC: It is. I still can’t believe it. I’m very grateful and thankful and it’s good to see that all the sacrifices my family and I have made have got me to where I always wanted to be.
Q: You are as passionate about hitting the waves as you are hitting an opponent. What are some of the similarities you see between surfing and fighting?
KC: They are both an outlet for me. I can go and surf or go and train and forget about all other things. Surfing is more fun than training but they are similar in that they are both outlets for me to forget about life and just have fun.
Q: If you had to choose between the two…
KC: Honestly, I love training, but nothing is like when I’m grinding. When I’m surfing, I just relax. It’s just fun. It’s fun catching waves. You feel accomplished. That is the similarity. When you win a fight, you want more. When you catch a wave, you want more.
Q: You have said that when it comes to MMA as career there is no “plan B, C or D”. Can you elaborate on that statement?
KC: It’s true. Some of the girls that fight have a degree or are going to school or something of that nature. I don’t. This is what I want to do until my body gives up on me. I really don’t have any other option. I have other things in mind but I am only pursuing fighting right now. There is really nothing else for me at the moment. I can last a while in MMA and that is my focus. My “plan B” would be massage therapy. I would like to be involved in the sports industry somehow.
Q: What are your thoughts on some of the pioneering ladies that have moved on from MMA to become larger-than-life in the entertainment industry? Do you see that as a viable option post-fighting?
KC: I think if the industry wants you and you are up to learning a new trade… if you have the look, you have the skill… why not? I would! I think it’s awesome that Ronda Rousey is doing a bunch of other things now. I remember watching Gina Carano’s first movie that came out. I watched it and thought wow. To see them break out gave me motivation and the thought I could do that someday.
Q: The day you signed your official UFC contract was an interesting one. Can you tell us about it?
KC: I was at the US Open in Huntington Beach. My boyfriend was surfing in the competition. I knew that I might be getting it but I wasn’t completely sure. I was more worried about supporting my boyfriend. That morning he lost. He was close to advancing, so we were bummed. My manager, Ryan Parsons, and a few other teammates came to support and I went to meet him outside the event and Ryan handed me a bunch of papers.
He told me to read it but I didn’t have to at that moment. I realized it was the UFC contract. What other type of papers would he be handing me? I was so happy I started crying. It was the best moment of my life. I was happy; I was super happy. Even though my boyfriend didn’t do as well as we hoped, we were all pretty stoked. We went to a restaurant and did the signing there. I hugged Ryan with tears in my eyes and I could tell he was pretty happy, too. He has been there through so much and to finally see it pay off like that was a very special moment.