Melissa “Super Mely” Martinez boasts a life story that contains all the elements needed for a tutorial on how to become an MMA star. Her journey also reads like a thriller because at a perfect moment in time, one of the original bad boys of MMA, who was creating a promotion in her country, scooped up this young athlete and made her the face of the franchise.
Like comic-book superhero Spider-Man, Martinez is a chemistry nerd. But unlike Peter Parker, she did not develop her ability to kick butt after being bitten by a radioactive spider. She did it the old-fashioned way — by busting her butt in the dojo.
Outliers, a best-selling book about performance enhancement written by Malcolm Gladwell, holds that 10,000 hours of determined practice are needed to attain expertise in any endeavor. This translates to about 10 years of training. Martinez first stepped into her parents’ kyokushin dojo at age 2, so the 22-year-old has put in roughly 20,000 hours of training. This probably explains why Martinez is often twice as good as anyone who steps into the ring with her.
“Thanks to my parents, [karate] formed a discipline for me,” she said. “Since I was a baby, sports and school became my life, and I appreciate that my parents have educated me that way. For me, growing up in an athletic family has been a great honor.”
By the time Martinez was 12, she wore a black belt. By age 21, that belt had become a third degree. She also had been made a member of the Mexican national karate team and was competing at the highest levels internationally.
However, she felt compelled to test her skills in different combat sports. Her goal was to blend the disciplines that are encompassed by mixed martial arts and become a champion in each one along the way.
Credit for her expanding combative knowledge and competitive zeal goes to her family. Her parents, in addition to being karate instructors, are also kickboxing coaches, so she began studying kickboxing while still a preteen. As well, Martinez followed the lead of her brother David, who ventured into MMA at age 17.Martinez dove in headfirst, adding multiple martial arts to her résumé. To enhance her striking, she trained in muay Thai. For submissions, she studied Brazilian jiu-jitsu under two Renzo Gracie black belts. She also took up wrestling.
And her list of amateur titles in various sports began to pile up. I asked her which championships stood out in her memory.
“My silver medal at the World Games 2017 in Poland since I [became] the first Mexican to win such a medal in kickboxing,” she said. “And my silver medal in the 2019 world kickboxing championship in Bosnia. I sacrificed a lot to win those medals.”
Martinez’s first foray into MMA took place at the amateur level in 2015, and it ended in a unanimous decision in her favor. Eight months later, she was back in the ring to make her professional debut in Mexico City. This time, she TKO’d her opponent with a barrage of punches in 57 seconds.
Word of Martinez’s fighting prowess caught the attention of a maverick promoter named Campbell McLaren. If that name rings a bell, it’s because back before there was a UFC, some guys got together to launch an event that could change the world, and McLaren was one of the key players.
New York Magazine once described McLaren as “the marketing genius behind the UFC.” He was the high priest of hyperbole. His gift for exaggeration and glamorization of the sport’s violence caused it to catch fire with fans. According to MMA historian Clyde Gentry III, McLaren was responsible for the infamous press releases that claimed, “There are no rules” (there were) and “The UFC has been banned in 49 states” (it hadn’t).For all his bluster, McLaren has proved that he knows how to take a sport, create a demand for it and turn a profit. Such was the case with his effort to capture the MMA fan base south of the border — and thereby create a platform for Martinez to shine.
McLaren launched Combate Americas, now Combate Global, in 2011 and aimed it squarely at Hispanic fight fans. One of the ways he did this was to align MMA with local media stars. The WWE started doing it in the 1980s when Vince McMahon brought in singer Cyndi Lauper, actor Mr. T and a real-estate mogul named Donald Trump. McLaren elected to recruit Latina megastar Kate Del Castillo to appeal to Mexicans.
Around this time, 19-year-old Martinez popped up on Combate Americas’ radar. The company booked her for a bout with Yajaira Romo on its Mexico City card in 2017.“Mely wound up delivering the highlight of the night — her head-kick knockout,” said Mike Afromowitz, the company’s executive vice president of fight operations and communications. “It is a highlight that remains one of our best to date. After her fight, McLaren and I immediately went backstage and offered her a contract with Combate Americas.”
After linking up with McLaren and company, Martinez commenced to taking the MMA world in Mexico by storm. She won three of her next four fights by TKO and the other by unanimous decision. Her victories put her in contention for the first Combate Americas strawweight title, which McLaren proposed as the undercard of an event featuring two of the most famous names in Latin combat sports.
At the Payne Arena in the border town of Hidalgo, Texas, McLaren put together a fight card called “Whose Side Are You On?” It featured UFC veteran Tito Ortiz taking on WWE champ and PRIDE star Alberto Rodriguez. Martinez, with her 6-0 record, was the co-main event.
Her opponent was Desiree Yanez, a 29-year-old based in Waco, Texas. Yanez sported perhaps the best nickname since Steve “Nasty” Anderson: “Dirty Dez.” Why? In her debut outing for Combate Americas, Yanez not only pummeled her opponent into tapping out after a series of elbows but also broke her ankle when she took her down in the process.
The match between Martinez and Yanez went back and forth. In the final round, it was even with each fighter having won one round. Yanez pushed her opponent against the fence but ate bunches of elbows. With two minutes left, Martinez pivoted Yanez against the fence and secured a guillotine choke that saw her opponent sink to the mat. The fighters broke briefly, then locked up in the exact same position. As the clock wound down, Yanez popped her head out of Martinez’s grasp — only to be rewarded with a left hook at the bell.
With the Mexican flag atop her shoulders, Martinez smiled when the announcer named her the winner by split decision. She became the first Combate Americas strawweight champion and the youngest Hispanic world champion in the history of MMA.
Martinez’s life changed forever the night that championship belt was wrapped around her waist. According to Afromowitz, Combate Global has big plans for the fighter. “As our first women’s world champion, Mely has become the face of [our] women’s division,” he said. “She is included in all the brand campaigns we produce for TV and digital platforms. Our goal is for her to become not only a face of MMA but also a brand with name recognition in professional sports and an inspiration to young people everywhere.”
I asked Martinez about this. “Of course, I am proud to [be one of] the Latin champions,” she said. “Although I admire many of them a lot, I am still nothing compared to them. I see them as my models to follow. I would like … to inspire my country to fight and fulfill our dreams.”