Sabina Mazo’s nails are painted a candy-apple red.
Typically, a 22-year-old’s new manicure or pedicure wouldn’t garner that much attention in Huntington Beach. But then most young women don’t chip the polish away by striking people across the face with guttural punches and kicks. That’s just part of the job when you’re one of the bright new faces of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s (UFC) flyweight division.
Mazo has spent most of her adult life either in the cage or preparing for a fight. Whether it’s the hours she spends training at Kings MMA or the tight regimen she keeps away from the gym while preparing for a fight—including her diet/weight cut, healing from that day’s bumps and bruises, and keeping her sanity by partaking in more relaxing activities such as getting her nails done—mixed martial arts is the only lifestyle she knows. In her hometown of Medellin, Colombia, Mazo decided as a young teen that if she were going to fight for a living, she would commit to it entirely and enjoy every minute of it.
Over the past five years, the “Colombian Queen” has moved to Huntington Beach and rattled off six straight victories—including two highlight-worthy head-kick knockouts—on her way to winning and defending the Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA) championship belt. Although her UFC debut on the promotion’s second ESPN-televised event in March didn’t go as planned, the evolving martial artist can’t get enough of her daily grind.
“Ever since I started training, it’s been my priority,” Mazo says. “I didn’t grow up doing martial arts. My parents never put me in boxing or judo or any of the ones that little kids do, but I knew when I took my first boxing class that I wanted to do it every day. I knew there were so many other things like jiu jitsu and muay thai, but I’d never had any interest in them or watched fights or anything like that. As soon as I left the first day, I knew I wanted to go back. I still really love to train. There are some fighters who just like to compete and don’t really like to train, but for me, I just compete as part of it. I enjoy the sacrifice. For me, it’s not even a sacrifice; it’s just part of my life. If I don’t train, I don’t feel comfortable with myself.”
For those who knew Mazo growing up, none of this is surprising. After living in Miami for a few years as a kid, she moved back to Medellin and her family’s property in the woods, surrounded by animals. Although not opposed to playing with dolls, the 20-ish dogs and other woodland critters became Mazo’s favorite things to play with when she wasn’t playing soccer or riding motorcycles—which happened to be the first sport she ever competed in.
Her self-described “wild” childhood turned into a teenage love for martial arts when Mazo found a second home at Muay Thai Medellin to indulge her passion for competition and controlled aggression. After spending the latter half of her teens building herself up among Colombia’s top kickboxers, Mazo participated in her first professional MMA fight. Despite her opponent being 4-0 at the time, the debuting teenager won the fight with relative ease and followed it up by traveling to Costa Rica to knock off an 8-0 fighter in her second fight.
* * * * *
Mazo knew she was at a crossroads. Although she enjoyed her success in Colombia, the country isn’t known as an MMA powerhouse. If she was going to be a world champion, both Mazo and her trainer knew that she’d have to do it somewhere else. “When I moved here, I didn’t even think about it,” Mazo says. “It was so natural, and it just flowed. I didn’t have any doubts about it, and I didn’t think for a second that it would be hard to move somewhere with a different language and a different culture. . . . Coming to California, it’s such a nice place and the fighting culture is so much bigger here than it is in Colombia—and you can be in shorts and sandals all day, so it’s all good.”
Mazo credits the time she spent in Miami as a toddler with making the January 2016 move to SoCal a bit easier. Though the bilingual technician began attending college, she eventually took a break to focus on her mixed-martial-arts career. And she soon found a new family in her fellow martial artists and neighbors—particularly the Brazilian transplants who make up such a large portion of her Kings MMA team.
“When I first came here, Kings MMA just opened the door for me,” Mazo says. “It didn’t feel like ‘I don’t know this place’ or anything. I just felt like I fit perfectly here right from the beginning. It’s comfortable, like a family, because everyone is working to help you, and you’re helping others. It’s not like you go to the gym and you have a fight coming up, so it’s just you and that’s it. It’s a team, and you really feel that over here—not only for pro fighters, but also for everyone else. All of the people make it a little more familiar and comfortable.”
Although she didn’t fight in 2016, Mazo returned to a much larger stage when she signed with LFA and won her first two fights with spectacular knockouts. With a championship bout clearly in her future, the young martial artist struggled to find opponents willing to fight her—an all-too-common problem for one of the training partners who’d become a close friend, Cris Cyborg.
“The most amazing thing about [training with Cris Cyborg] is seeing how human she is,” Mazo says. “She’s just another person. She has dreams and hopes, and she works hard for them. She’s set such a great example and inspiration for me, and I’ve learned a lot from her and the other fighters. Once you get on the mat with them, we’re all just humans trying to learn and get better.”
On April 20, 2018, Mazo battered Shannon Sinn for a full 25 minutes to claim her first major championship and garner international attention.
But winning the title wasn’t enough for Mazo; to truly consider herself the champion, she would need to defend her belt before moving on to a bigger promotion. That defense came seven months (and another withdrawn opponent) later, when she dominated Caroline Yariwake da Cruz. “After that fight, the whole team knew I had to [go to the UFC] because it was harder and harder to find opponents with every fight,” Mazo says. The ferocious striker suddenly looked like a serious contender, and her timing couldn’t have been better, as the UFC had just opened its women’s flyweight division less than a year prior. “My manager told me the UFC contacted him to tell him the UFC wanted me to go there and do one fight, and I told him, ‘That’s great, but I don’t want to do one fight.’ . . . I want to build my name and work my way to a title. Even once I got the contract, I felt like it wouldn’t be official until I had a fight.”
Instead of celebrating once the ink was dry on her contract with the UFC, Mazo doubled down on her work ethic. She wanted to prove she belonged among the best and live up to the motto on the sticker her strength and conditioning coach, Joseph Sakoda (better known as Da Rulk), gave her for her gray Chevy Sonic: “ALWAYS CAN.”
Unfortunately, her first UFC opponent had other plans. On March 30 in Philadelphia, at what was Maryna Moroz’s seventh UFC bout, she managed to shut down Mazo’s game plan en route to securing an underwhelming decision victory.
* * * * *
Unwilling to blame the “octagon jitters” often associated with a fighter’s UFC debut—or anything or anyone else but herself—Mazo vowed to erase the memory of that bout by showing her fans that she’s a technical, exciting fighter who isn’t afraid to throw heavy strikes and trade with her opponents.
“More than just winning a fight, I want to put myself in people’s minds,” Mazo says. “I want them to say, ‘Oh, I like how she fights’ or, ‘I like her style.’ I’m going to be a totally different version of myself this time because my training has been really different. My last fight really opened my eyes into working different stuff and doing different things, so I think I’m going to put on a great show.”
Mazo believes her growth as a martial artist will be visible to all of her fans, friends and neighbors when she battles Shana “Danger” Dobson at the Honda Center in Anaheim on Saturday. It will be the first fight on the massive UFC 241 card, on which she is the only locally based competitor. An appearance by the Colombian Queen who made highlight reels with her knockout power has the potential to set the tone for the rest of the night.
“When I get the victory in this next fight, that’s when I’ll feel like I’m really in the UFC,” she says.
Of course, if former The Ultimate Fighter contestant Dobson decides she wants to take the fight to the ground and test Mazo’s grappling and submissions, she may be surprised. Mazo is a Brazilian jiu jitsu brown belt, and her coach believes she’s ready to show off an entirely different skill set for the global audience.
* * * * *
As Mazo sits on the mat at Kings MMA and prepares to chip off a little more of her manicure during her next multihour session of technique drills and sparring, three different fighters stop by to give her hugs, while several others settle for handshakes and fistbumps. They know Mazo has the potential to become a contender in the UFC as well as the greatest Colombian fighter of all time, but their appreciation of her is more familial than professional.
No matter how things play out at UFC 241, the new family bonds Mazo has forged in Huntington Beach won’t be going anywhere. And anyone who thinks the pressure of fighting in front of a hometown crowd could potentially shake the young warrior has clearly never seen the ferociousness she brings to the gym every day.
“To me, a fight is a fight,” Mazo says as she stretches out her legs. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in the UFC or the gym or LFA or the street . . . I’m thankful I don’t have to travel for this one, but a fight is a fight, and I’m going to give it my all. That’s all that matters.”