Jessamyn Duke, senior (photo submitted)

By Adam Turner

At first glance, one probably wouldn’t suspect anything unusual about Eastern student Jessamyn Duke. This 24-year-old senior is a fitness and wellness major and, like most students, stays very busy with her 18 hours of classes. But little would you know that this girl could take you down in the blink of an eye.

Duke spends her evenings as an MMA fighter.

MMA, or mixed martial arts, is a popular form of fighting seen in Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) matches, which allows the use of multiple different fighting techniques and skills.

Though men are more commonly associated with the sport, a fair number of women, such as Duke, are stepping up and proving themselves as well. To say that she has accomplished a lot in a short time is a vast understatement.

“About half of those up there are mine,” she said casually, pointing to a wall covered with gold medals and belts in her gym, the AFS Academy in Richmond.

She is the women’s WMA (World Muay Thai Association) Welterweight champion. She has a blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and is a nationally ranked competitor in grappling. She’s also a certified instructor for the Thaiboxing Association of the USA, and is one of only two certified instructors in the state, the other being her trainer and teacher Scott Elliott.

To achieve all of this requires an immense amount of commitment, and Duke certainly seems to have that covered. She typically spends two to three hours each day working out in some form, whether it’s heavy lifting or running several miles around Richmond. And, it is undeniably time-consuming.

“You have to sacrifice a lot if you want to excel in this sport,” she said. “A social life and free time take a backseat to training and schoolwork.”

Her latest and greatest accomplishment came when she was asked to compete in an upcoming televised live pay-per-view event titled “Battle for Breast Cancer.”

This will be the first ever all-female MMA fight card in Kentucky, and the matchup will include famous female fighters such as Kim Couture, Randy Couture’s wife, and Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos, and will later be re-broadcast on FSN.

The opportunity is, without a doubt, a huge deal, she said.

“I am still simply shocked by this whole situation,” Duke said. “I seriously just lucked into it and could not be more grateful or excited.”

How she “lucked into it” is a long story, beginning in 1986 in Whitesburg, Ky., her hometown. Born on June 24, Duke grew up in a very active household, with a mother who was a marathon runner featured in Runner’s World magazine. Duke too became an avid runner and joined her school’s cross country and volleyball teams. Her family moved to Richmond, and she started her college career at Eastern with hopes of obtaining an English degree.

Feeling alone in her new town and a bit bored, she decided to try something that she’d never done before, Duke said. She soon saw an ad for a kickboxing course online and immediately signed up. She quickly fell in love with the new challenge, and soon enough began learning a form of martial arts known as Muay Thai under the instruction of Eastern teacher Scott Elliot.

After several years, Duke earned the reputation as one of Elliot’s best students, mastering a wide range of different fighting styles and techniques. In this time, she fought and trained with a large number of people, including a man from Louisville acquainted with the people in charge of the upcoming pay-per-view event. He mentioned to them how great of an athlete Duke was, and soon after, the deal was made for her to compete in the “Battle for Breast Cancer.”

Elliot has been by her side throughout all of this excitement.

“We are all extremely excited for Jessamyn,” Elliot said. “This is a great opportunity for women’s fighting and I am very confident she’ll perform well in the event.”

Fellow training partner and assistant instructor Sean Kelly agreed.

“I think it’s tremendous. She has worked really hard for this and deserves every bit of the recognition.”

When asked how she personally feels about her involvement in this competition and what she hopes to attain from it, Duke said, “I feel very fortunate for this opportunity to compete in a professional MMA competition. Fights like these help to build an athlete’s “résumé” and make companies want to sponsor and pay you to fight, and I would love to make this sport my career.”

Still, it is evident that she has more than personal gain on her mind.

“I really hope that this competition will inspire other people, especially women, to get involved with the sport,” she said. “I hear girls my age all the time say, ‘I could never be like you. I could never fight or train like that.’ Well, I was once in their shoes and I know from experience you can do this. It can change your life for the better.”

Duke said she also hopes to bring more attention to women’s fighting as a legitimate sport.

“It is obvious that right now women’s fighting doesn’t get nearly the amount of respect as men’s does,” she said, “which is really a shame because there are some incredibly talented women competitors out there. Hopefully events like these can help change that.”

The “Battle for Breast Cancer” event will take place in Florence, Ky., and will be available on pay-per-view Oct. 2 at 6:30 p.m.

For more information, go to www.aamma.net. To learn more about martial arts, check out Scott Elliot’s gym at www.afsacademy.com.