Hailey Cowan-Brennan

"All Hail"

By Kathleen Seaman

Photos by Temple Star Photography

On August 16, 2022, Hailey Cowan-Brennan defeated Cláudia Leite by split decision in their matchup as a part of Dana White’s Contender Series 50, a mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion. Following the fight, Cowan-Brennan became the first female fighter from the Central Texas area to earn an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) contract.

Cowan-Brennan has always had an interest in MMA, but her athletic career began with an entirely different sport. She became a gymnast when she was 6 years old. In high school she was a level 9 gymnast, a competitive cheer champion and a three-time qualifier for the Cheerleading World Championship. Cowan-Brennan attended Baylor University and was a member of its inaugural acrobatics and tumbling team, where she was a two-time National Collegiate Acrobatics & Tumbling Association (NCATA) All-American and an individual event national champion. After graduating in 2014, Cowan-Brennan was offered a coaching position at Gannon University, a Division II school in Erie, Pennsylvania. Since her time at Baylor, the acrobatics and tumbling team has gone on to win seven-straight NCATA national championships.

“We won our first one the year after Hailey graduated, and it frustrates me from time to time because we hear everybody talk about these seven championships, but we don’t talk about the shoulders we’re standing on,” said Felecia Mulkey, Baylor’s acrobatics and tumbling head coach. “Acrobatics and tumbling is the evolution of the different disciplines of gymnastics and high-level competitive cheer. This is something new. Back when Hailey was a part of the team, only six schools had the sport. She and her teammates laid the foundation at Baylor, but they also laid the foundation for the sport across the country. We now have 50 schools competing in the sport. We stand on those alumni shoulders every day to continue to do what we do.”

Even though her involvement in gymnastics and acrobatics and tumbling consumed her early athletic career, as a young girl, Cowan-Brennan didn’t dream of becoming the next Shannon Miller or Dominique Dawes. Instead she found an unexpected hero while watching MMA on television with her father.

“In the beginning I wouldn’t let her watch it because it was still pretty violent,” Derek Cowan said. “It was just kind of a tournament-style mixed martial arts, almost like a blood sport. It was only legal in a few states because that was before it had a bunch of rules and [was regulated]. But it gained some popularity, got some rules, got in with the Nevada State Athletic Commission and got legitimate.”

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a hybrid combat sport that incorporates various combat and martial arts disciplines from around the world. It was initially criticized as a violent blood sport, but in recent years it has largely shed its “no-holds barred” reputation and become one of the world’s most popular sports.

Deciding she was finally old enough, Cowan-Brennan’s father finally let her watch her first fight with him when he caught her peeking over the couch as a pre-teen.

“Georges St-Pierre was on, and I was like, ‘That’s who I want to be when I grow up,’” Cowan-Brennan said.

After graduation from Baylor, instead of heading to Pennsylvania, Cowan-Brennan found herself returning to a decade-old childhood dream. She walked into a local MMA gym, and she was immediately hooked. That day she decided to exchange the mat for the cage, and she also met her future coach and husband, Jake Brennan.

“Within five minutes of her leaving, I sent her a text, and I said, ‘Hey, if you really want to do this, I can make you a world champ,’” he said. “And she called her job and quit that day and has been in the gym every day since.”

Even without any previous martial arts or fighting experience, Brennan said her career as an athlete, especially a Division I athlete, convinced him that she’d excel in the sport.

“When I found out she was a two-time All-American, that doesn’t just happen by chance,” he said. “It takes a lot of effort, a lot of work, consistency and dedication. I knew that if I could get her to be as dedicated to this as she was to gymnastics and acrobatics and tumbling, she would do very well.”

The transition from gymnast to MMA fighter might surprise some people, but the reality is that gymnastics skills actually provide a solid foundation for a fighter. A former gymnast and now a coach and owner of Zero Gravity Gymnastics Academy, Cowan-Brennan’s mother, Tracy, has particular insight into how the two sports can align.

“Part of being a high-level gymnast is just the work ethic and the time spent in the gym,” Tracy Cowan said. “Just the strength aspect that goes with gymnastics — hand grip, balance, kicks. Gymnasts understand their body so well. They have good air awareness. They understand where they’re at [in the air]. All of those things really helped to propel her into the UFC and just fighting in general.”

Cowan-Brennan has been training as an MMA fighter since 2014. She trains with a team of other pro and amateur fighters at Blitz Sport MMA & Fitness, which is owned by her husband. One of her teammates, Luis Robles, just had his amateur debut in October, and he’s trained with Cowan-Brennan over the last two years.

“She’s become like a big sister to me,” Robles said. “She is one of our hardest workers at the gym, if not the hardest.

She’s always there, setting an example, especially for me, and just offering support and guidance.”

Robles added that Cowan-Brennan’s contract is not only exciting for her, but also for her teammates who hope to one day be where she is.

“It’s really cool that she’s been able to do this, especially for Waco,” he said. “It shows people that maybe it’s a small city, but if we’ve got a UFC contract, we’ve got to be doing something right. People tend to pay a little bit more attention. It helps to wake people up to what’s going on. We’ve got something special going on.”

Intentionally taking her time to build her technique and skill in a sport completely new to her, Cowan-Brennan didn’t make her amateur debut until 2017. But then after just three fights, where she went 3-0, she turned pro in 2018.

While her father is a long-time spectator of the UFC and MMA, that’s not the case for Cowan-Brennan’s mother, who originally had reservations about her daughter getting in the cage. The cage is a competition ring where the matted fighting area is enclosed by a fence, and it has emerged as the norm in modern MMA competitions. The UFC’s iconic eight-sided cage configuration, known worldwide as the UFC Octagon, is trademarked.

“My initial thought was, ‘Oh, no, absolutely not,’” Tracy Cowan said. “But then I watched her and saw how much she loves the sport and enjoys what she is doing. We’re very passionate about our kids pursuing their dreams and just doing whatever we can to help them accomplish them. So I got on board, but, initially, no, I was not a fan.”

Dana White’s Contender Series is a competition series on ESPN+ where the UFC’s president, Dana White, scouts up-and-coming mixed martial artists
and gives them a shot at a UFC contract.

Cowan-Brennan’s fight took place during episode 4 of season 6. With the awarding of her UFC contract, Cowan-Brennan achieved what she’s been working toward for the last eight years.

“This has been the goal,” her father said. “We knew that she was good enough to be there. Just a question all along of the right timing and the progression of her skills. This is a new sport for her still. As talented as she was physically and athletically, we knew that we just had to wait until the skills were there. It’s been difficult being patient, but it was the right thing to do to allow her to progress and not be rushed.”

While Cowan-Brennan might have a contract, she’s yet to be matched up for a fight. She hopes to hear from both her manager and the UFC soon, but until then it’s a waiting game, and she plans to stay focused and fight-ready.

“We hate waiting,” her husband said. “We’re very much planners. We both like to plan out as far as possible and line up everything from her MMA training, her strength and conditioning, her recovery, any training trips. So when we don’t have a fight, we’re really in limbo. We really have no idea when we’re going to fight because we’re at the mercy of the UFC now. It makes it tough because she’s the type of person that likes to train hard every day. The hardest part is just controlling her training so she’s not overtraining because she likes to train like she’s in camp every single day.”

Brennan is originally from Southern California, which he describes as the mecca of MMA. It’s home to a wealth of MMA talent, but that’s largely the result of the resources the area offers. In Brennan’s opinion, the fact that Cowan-Brennan comes from a smaller town makes her accomplishment that much more impressive.

“To be able to do this from a smaller area like Waco, having no background in martial arts and still making it that far, it’s a pretty big deal,” he said. “It’s a great honor to be able to say you’re the first female UFC fighter born and raised in Central Texas.”

In celebration of this homegrown Waco athlete that’s making noise on a national level, we’re excited to recognize Hailey Cowan-Brennan as our 2022 Wacoan of the Year. Wacoan writer Kathleen Seaman met with her at the gym to talk about her road to the UFC, her desire to be a role model for young athletes, and how she’s raring for a fight.

WACOAN: First off, congratulations on your UFC contract! Can you tell us a little bit about how you received that?

Cowan-Brennan: I fought for Dana White’s Contender Series on Tuesday, August 16. It’s a TV show where, basically, you’re fighting in front of Dana White, who’s the president of the UFC. They pick two of the best in your weight class in the world that aren’t signed by the UFC, and you fight in front of ‘the man’ for a contract. Maybe you win and [still] don’t get a contract. It just depends on whatever he thinks about you. I won and got a contract.

WACOAN: What did Dana White say about you after the fight?

Cowan-Brennan: If you read just the articles, they were really focused on the ‘it factor.’ Usually, these fights are total mismatches, and someone goes in and knocks somebody out real fast. Our matchup was a really good matchup, and [Cláudia Leite and I] fought for the whole 15 minutes. Really back and forth, just a really good display of martial arts. I won by [split] decision.

He said this isn’t your typical Dana White’s Contender Series type of fight. But he said I had the ‘it factor,’ whatever that means. I’ll take it.

WACOAN: How long has getting a UFC contract been your goal?

Cowan-Brennan: The UFC is the organization for MMA. It’s got the best fighters, the most well-known. If you fight for the UFC, you’re the top 1 percent. That’s been the goal since day one. I didn’t get into MMA just to say that I’m an MMA fighter. I started at the end of 2014, and I would say that’s been the goal since.

WACOAN: How did you become interested in MMA?

Cowan-Brennan: I always loved it growing up. My dad always watched all the UFC cards. All the other small organizations, the developing fighters, he watched all those cards too. I was always interested from the time I was about 6 years old. I wasn’t allowed to watch it because it’s a little violent, so I’d peek over the couch. And one day when I got a little older, I was probably 11 or 12, my dad was like, ‘Hey, just come sit on the couch and watch it with me.’

In sports, like MMA or boxing, a “card” lists the matches taking place in a combat-sport event. The main card includes the main event and title matches. The preliminary card, or undercard, lists the rest of the matches that occur before the main, or headline, events.

Cowan-Brennan: Back then a lot of fighters coming into it were really rough, and [Georges St-Pierre] was different. There was something about him that was really charismatic, and he was a good-hearted, nice, well-spoken guy. Something about him I was really drawn to. And I remember at the end of the card, he was the last fight of the night, and I was like, ‘Man, I want to be that guy.’

I was a gymnast from the time I was a little girl, and he used gymnastics as a lot of his training techniques for MMA. I was watching, and my dad was explaining that to me because he knew everything about Georges. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s really cool.’

I had a really successful gymnastics career. Ended up going to college and being on the acrobatics & tumbling team at Baylor. I was a two-time [NCATA] All-American
and won [individual event] national titles
for them.

MMA, it was just an idea. It wasn’t even a goal or a dream yet. It was on the backburner.

Coming out of college, I got a coaching job in Erie, Pennsylvania, to coach acrobatics & tumbling at a Division II school up there. I was in the infancy of acrobatics and tumbling. It was a brand-new sport. Acrobatics and tumbling is the evolution of different forms of gymnastics. The sport involves gymnastics tumbling, aerial tosses, acrobatic lifts, pyramids and choreographed skills routines.

Cowan-Brennan: The sport had literally just been created in 2009 [at the collegiate level]. I was on Baylor’s [inaugural] team in 2010 [and competed in the 2011 spring season]. So it was a brand-new sport. Even the girls in it didn’t really know what was going on yet.

A bunch of schools were adding the program, so they just picked [coaches] out of the pool of athletes who’d just graduated: ‘Hey, do you want to head coach? Head coach here, start the program, help people understand what’s going on.’

I was supposed to move August 1. I stepped into the [MMA] gym [in Waco] July 17. I remember the date. I got into the gym, met the head coach, who’s now my husband. Took every single class they offered that day. That following Monday, I called and declined my coaching job and started training full time.

In my mind, it was like, you can coach college sports ‘til you’re 80 years old if you want to. Your window for MMA is not very big, and I was already getting a late start. I was almost 23. I was fighting girls who have been fighting since they’re 3 years old. I knew I was getting a late start, and I was like, ‘You know what, if this is something that I’m actually going to try, it has to be now.’ And the coach saw a lot of promise in me and started putting all his time into me. I started winning grappling tournaments, local grappling tournaments in Dallas and in Austin.

Grappling is a broad term for gripping and seizing techniques used by a variety of martial arts disciplines and, by definition, does not involve striking or the use of weapons. Common grappling techniques include clinching, takedowns, throws, submission holds, sprawls and escapes.

WACOAN: When did you have your amateur debut?

Cowan-Brennan: I had my amateur MMA debut August of 2017. I trained and trained and trained.

WACOAN: That’s a lot of years spent training before your first fight.

Cowan-Brennan: Yeah, that’s all it was. And we knew. A lot of people will train for six months, and then they’ll have their first fight. I’ve got some teammates that did that. But we knew that wasn’t the path for me. We knew that I was going to have a lot of eyes on me because of my background, because of my extended athletic career. We knew that when I started my amateur career that it was going to be very quick, that I wasn’t going to have this five-year amateur career that some people have. I had a five-month amateur career, and we knew that that’s about how fast it would happen. Then I would turn pro, and then they would probably try to fast-track me to the UFC, which they did. And so we waited until we thought I was ready.

I had three amateur fights. A lot of people have a lot more than that, but after my third fight we couldn’t get anyone to agree to fight me when it wasn’t for money. They would only fight me professionally, so I ended up turning pro because I had to.

I lost my pro debut. I was the biggest favorite on the card, and I lost. Ended up coming back five months later [to win the next fight] after just focusing on training
and trying to close up little holes because I was behind technically. Physically, I was bigger, stronger, faster than everybody. That was my thing. I was a freak-of-nature athlete. But I was just so far behind in technique because these women literally had decades of training.

A lot of these women come in, and maybe they did karate from the time they were 2 years old, or wrestling or jiu-jitsu, or maybe they had a rough upbringing and grew up fighting on the streets. I didn’t have that. I was a gymnast. I had never been hit in the face. I’d never been in a fight. And I think that’s what separated me.

My first fight ever was in the cage. That was the first time I’d ever been in a fistfight. But after that loss, I was talking to my coach and said, ‘I need to take some time, and I need to close up some of these holes. I need to catch up technically.’ We took five months, put my head down and trained really hard. And then I went on a tear where I was just like knocking everybody out, submitting them for my next five fights. It was awesome. I became one of the top-ranked fighters in the world that wasn’t in the UFC. And then I had a really bad weight cut in 2019.

Weigh-ins in professional MMA are done the day before the actual fight. At the time of weigh-in a fighter cannot be above the upper limit of their weight class. Weight cutting is a process where fighters dehydrate themselves and lose water weight in anticipation of weigh-in, but then that weight is regained by the time they fight, and they are heavier than the official weight limit for their division when they enter the cage. Initially done to gain strength and weight advantage over an opponent, it has become more about not being at a disadvantage, since everyone does it.

Cowan-Brennan: We have to cut weight [before a fight]. Everybody cuts weight. If we could just walk around and step on the scale at our natural weight, we would all be about it. But at some point in time, someone started dehydrating themselves to weigh less on weigh-in day so they could be heavier on fight day, and it became something that everyone had to do or you’re at a disadvantage. Step on a scale the day before the fight, you beat the scale.

I had a really bad weight cut where I got really sick, and I was hospitalized. Cutting down to 125 pounds, which is flyweight, which is what I used to fight at. I made the decision on the spot, ‘I’m going to move up in weight. We’re not going to have this issue again. We’re not going to cut much weight. We’re just going to move up to bantamweight.’

I moved up to bantamweight, and the UFC called me. They wanted me to fight on the Contender series, but I hadn’t fought at bantamweight yet, so I wanted a few fights before I stepped up in competition and fought the best of the best. [I debuted at bantamweight in March 2020]. I went and fought three fights and then did Contenders in 2022. Flyweight and bantamweight are weight classes in combat sports. In MMA, flyweight competitors weigh 125 pounds or less. Bantamweight ranges from 126 to 135 pounds.

WACOAN: What made you want to be Georges St-Pierre and not, for example, one of the Magnificent Seven or another elite gymnast?

Cowan-Brennan: Well, I did tell my dad I wanted to be the girl-version of [St-Pierre], but back then there weren’t really any opportunities [for women] because Ronda Rousey wasn’t Ronda Rousey yet.

The first women’s MMA fight in the U.S. was held in 1997. In 2012, Ronda Rousey became the first woman signed to the UFC. The first women’s fight in UFC history was in 2013, UFC 157: Rousey vs. Carmouche.

There were other MMA women, MMA fighters paving the way, but they were fighting in small organizations. No one ever saw the fights. If you weren’t deeply involved in the sport and an avid fan, you didn’t know these girls existed. I didn’t know that was a thing, and just in my head thought, ‘It would be really cool to do that. I would love to do that one day.’

But again, it was something about [St-Pierre]. He just invited me in almost. He’s a martial artist, not a fighter. He’s one of those guys that you watch, and he’s not in there to hurt. The idea isn’t to hurt people. His idea was to be one of the best martial artists on the planet. And he is. Rather than turn you off the sport, it was very inviting seeing somebody like that.

In the infancy of the sport [my perception was] a lot of fighters had a really rough lifestyle. They have different ideals on everything than I have. Then once you get into it, you find out there are a lot of cool people involved. Like anything else, when you don’t understand what you’re watching, it just looks like violence, and you don’t know what is happening. I was wrong. He wasn’t the only one like that. He was just the first one that I saw. It helped me understand, ‘Hey, this is not what this sport is about.’ It is to some people, but to most of us that fight, we’re all good friends.

WACOAN: At what age did you start gymnastics?

Cowan-Brennan: I started gymnastics when I was 5. I was in the Junior Olympic program by the time I was 8 or 9. I did gymnastics until I was 16. I did gymnastics at Flips and had great coaches there. But my mom started Zero Gravity because a lot of people think they need to move away from Waco to get the coaching and the training that they need. And that’s why [my husband] started Blitz too [for MMA training].

Waco has phenomenal athletes, and nobody knows about them because they go other places to train. Then people say, ‘Oh, they’re from Dallas.’ No, that’s a Wacoan, and they’re just training out of Dallas because they don’t think there’s any place to train in Waco. My mom started a state-of-the-art gymnastics facility where she has a 100 percent collegiate [acceptance] rate. Gymnasts that want to go to college that go through her system, they go to college for gymnastics or acrobatics and tumbling. She does a really good job.

And that’s why we started Blitz too. We wanted people to know that you can be a homegrown Waco athlete and still make it to the peak of whatever sport you’re doing.

WACOAN: What happened after you were 16?

Cowan-Brennan: This is what sucks about gymnastics. There aren’t a lot of opportunities after you’re done with club teams. There’s the Olympics, which everyone says, ‘Oh, gymnast, you’re going to be in the Olympics.’ OK, there’s four or five Olympians, depending on the year, every four years. Odds are you’re not going to be one of those four or five, and that’s why my mom focuses on college [gymnastics teams]. A lot of gymnastics teams, not just here, but all over the place, give these girls these false ideas that they’re going to be an Olympian when that’s just not a reality. And once you go the Olympic route, a lot of times you’ve strayed away from the college route. We focus on gymnastics in college and acrobatics and tumbling, and that’s still the top 1 percent. It’s not likely that you’re even going to get there, but it’s way more likely than the Olympics, and honestly, in the long run it’s a better path.

WACOAN: At Baylor, what events did you compete in?

Cowan-Brennan: With acrobatics and tumbling you kind of do everything. You’ve got to be pretty good at all of it. I was on Baylor’s inaugural team, the very first team ever. I signed the first or second scholarship, so it was crucial that I was very good at all of it because we were ultimately a [rookie] team. I won a couple of tumbling titles. I was a base. I was the one throwing the girls up in the air over my head.

It’s like gymnastics, but nothing like gymnastics. There are six events at an acro meet — there are four events in gymnastics — and in acro there are three to five heats in each event.

Acrobatics and tumbling meets are a contest between two to three teams. Each team competes in six events: compulsory, acro, pyramid, toss, tumbling and team. There are 20 heats across all six events. A roster has up to 28 competitors, and 24 athletes compete.

Cowan-Brennan: The first event is compulsory, and it’s the basics. You’re just seeing who has the best basic skills. Then after that is when it gets really fun. After compulsory [which demonstrates a predetermined set of skills], everybody’s doing different things. You have the acro, pyramid, toss and tumbling events, and then we do a team event, which would look similar to a cheerleading routine, but it’s much cleaner. The tumbling is phenomenal. No one’s moving around on their structures. Their structures hit. In cheerleading, you can move all over the floor. In acro, any step that’s not choreographed, you’re getting deducted.

WACOAN: Instead of another season of ‘Cheer’ about Navarro College, it sounds like Netflix needs to do a show about Baylor’s acrobatics and tumbling team next.

Cowan-Brennan: Yes! Yes, we do. Baylor has won seven titles in a row. I’m sure it’s coming.

WACOAN: With MMA, you went from training to amateur to pro very quickly, and now you have a UFC contract, but what happens next?

Cowan-Brennan: I’m waiting. It’s killing me. I’m at the mercy of the UFC right now. Before you get to the UFC, before you get to the big show, you’re not really contracted to a certain organization. You could just get fights with anyone, and you just negotiate with the promoters. They get you a matchup. [You say,] ‘Yes, no, I don’t want to fight that person. Yes, no, I don’t want to take that contract.’ You can just negotiate with different promotions.

When you’re with the UFC, you are married to the UFC, and you don’t get to look anywhere else. You don’t get to fight for anyone else. So basically, I just bug my manager every day. And I’m like, ‘Hey, do I have a fight yet?’ And he bugs the matchmaker in the UFC, and they’re trying to get you matched up. I’m hoping for January, but that’s not solid. There’s no date.

WACOAN: What does it mean to you to have a UFC contract?

Cowan-Brennan: To me, anyone who gets into MMA, the dream is to be in the UFC. And the dream for me is to be the champion in the UFC. It’s not just to get there and say, ‘Hey, I did it. Yay, me.’

It’s really cool that I’ve done that, but I don’t feel like I’ve done anything yet. This is just the beginning. Now I’ve got really hard fights. I’ve got a lot of curveballs that are about to be thrown in our way. And then once I get into the top 5, top 10, then that belt’s getting a little bit closer and closer. Then I think it will really hit me that I’m inches away from what I set out to do.

WACOAN: Are you paid per fight?

Cowan-Brennan: Dude. Yes, it’s horrible right now.

WACOAN: OK, so you have a contract. You can’t go anywhere else. And you’re not going to get paid until you fight.

Cowan-Brennan: And sponsorships are the same way. People don’t want to sponsor you if you don’t have a fight scheduled. [They wonder], ‘What am I sponsoring?’ Now, the more you fight, and people get excited about you, then they understand, ‘OK, I’m sponsoring her training. I’m investing in her health. Her travel.’

I travel to Colorado a lot. I train at altitude a lot with some really good girls. I’ve got one girl on our team [in Waco] that’s really helpful, and she’s awesome, but I need more. I have to go and scout girls to train with, and then I have to be careful that I’m not training with girls that I’m going to potentially end up fighting because there is a lot of method to the madness, especially for me.

I’m a very calculated fighter. Everything that I do is very well planned, and I see everything coming my way, and I like to practice. I need different bodies, and I don’t need to be in front of the same person every single day because I’ll know what they throw, and they’ll know what I throw. I’ll know their game plan, and they’ll know mine. I am a very straightforward fighter, and I have the same game plan pretty much every fight, and everybody knows what it is, but it is different when you [experience] it in a fight.

WACOAN: What is that game plan?

Cowan-Brennan: I don’t move backwards. I move straight forward the whole time. I have a good defense. I don’t get hit a whole lot. And then, I want to grab you — because physically I’m very strong. I can deadlift 400 pounds. I can bench-press 280 pounds. Because of gymnastics, I’ve never trained with and I’ve never been in the cage with a female as strong as I am. And I’ve trained with girls who are two weight classes heavier than me. My strength [as a fighter] will always be how strong I am.

I want to grab people because when I grab them, I can control them very well. Everyone talks about my elbows — they call them my ‘hail-bows.’ Every time I land elbows, I cut everyone open with them. We call it the clinch when I have a hold of them. If I’m holding you, I can determine whether we’re going down or up. If I want to take you down, and we’re in the clinch, we’re going down. If I don’t want you to take me down, we’re not going down. It’s the path of least resistance for me, and I want to get in and get out and not have any scratches on me.

A lot of people go in there, they’re like, ‘I want a barn burner. I want both of us to be bleeding.’ I’m like, ‘No, not me. I want one of us to be bleeding, and I don’t want it to be me.’ If it is me, so be it. It happens. Sometimes you’re the hammer, sometimes you’re the nail, sometimes you’re both in the same fight. But yeah, I’m always about the path of least resistance.

But if I’m fighting someone who I know is really good on the ground, and I know that me getting a hold of them could give them an opportunity to go to the ground, I’m not going to go into my normal game plan. I’ll strike from the outside. I have one game plan that everyone knows I’m going to try to do. But they also know if you’re a good striker, I’m going to take you down. Or if you’re a good grappler, I’m going to try to keep it standing.

WACOAN: Do you watch game film or ‘fight’ film?

Cowan-Brennan: Oh, yeah. Hours and hours. And a lot of fighters don’t. [My coach and I] watch [my film] and say, ‘How would I fight me? OK, this is what I would do if I was fighting me.’ And then we watch the other person. We see what their strengths are. If I was Cláudia, the girl I fought last, we put ourselves in their shoes: ‘How would I fight Hailey?’ And then think, ‘OK, she’s probably going to do this. You’ve had a weakness here.’

My two losses, I was choked both fights, so I know if I was fighting me, that’s what I would want to do. I would try to choke me. I would want to try to get me to make a mistake on my takedown to where I put myself in a vulnerable position. Both of my losses were off my own takedowns. I just put myself in a vulnerable position on the way down, and I got my neck grabbed. And most people know that arm barring me is going to be very hard. I’m very physically strong. You’re not going to extend my arm. Probably not going to happen. It’s really hard to knock me out. I see punches and kicks coming very well, and I’m very evasive. I can move out of the way. Chokes are the way that you beat me, and everybody knows that. But we know that’s what people are going to hunt, so now I probably have the best choke defense in the world because that’s what we work on.

It’s a lot of fun because when you’re watching yourself fight, you’re really able to see your disparities, your strengths and your weaknesses. It’s pretty cool.

WACOAN: But you said a lot of fighters don’t watch film. Why is that?

Cowan-Brennan: It gets in their head. Fighting is very mental. I’ve gotten a few knockouts, and if someone sees me knocking somebody out, that’s going to be in their head. And if that’s what’s in your head going into a fight, you’re getting knocked out. If I go into a fight thinking about getting choked because I got choked my last fight, I’m 100 percent getting choked.

I think manifestation is stupid a lot of the times. We’ve got all these fighters that are, ‘I’m manifesting a win,’ and blah, blah, blah, and I think, ‘I hope you’re working for it.’ Saying it and putting it into the universe? No, there’s got to be work behind it. I’m a big believer in that. But for some reason, in this sport, whatever you think is going to happen, if it’s negative, it’s going to happen to you. But on the other hand, you can walk out there thinking you’re going to knock somebody out and not knock them out. But the bad things that you think, they happen.

WACOAN: You mentioned finding women to train with, but do you also train with men?

Cowan-Brennan: Yeah. Here [in Waco] 99 percent of time I’m training with guys. It’s great, but I’m going to burst some people’s bubbles — guys are faster, stronger, and more powerful than girls are. No matter the weight. There’s a reason there’s women’s MMA and men’s MMA. If I were to get in there and fight a guy on my level, my weight class, that just got into the UFC, he would knock me out before I even knew he was in the cage. It sucks, but it is what it is.

I used to be one that was like, ‘No! Girl power. We’re stronger.’ And then I started training with guys who I’m way better than [technically]. They’re stronger than me [physically]. They’re faster than me. Our balance is way better than theirs though, so they might be faster, stronger, but we do have better balance. We don’t fall over; they just fall over. And they’re fast, but we’re agile. More cat like. I think it’s because our center of gravity is in our hips, and their center of gravity is in their shoulders.

The good thing about training with the guys, they can control their weapons a little bit better against me because I don’t have the power of the guys they’re usually fighting. When I’m hitting them, yeah, I can hurt them, but they don’t have to worry about it as much. At the end of camp, when we’re getting close [to fight day], and we’re like, ‘Hey, we don’t want to get cut up. We don’t want to get black eyes,’ I go with the guys.

But the problem with guys is you know they’re controlling their weapons, so you can get into bad habits where, ‘Oh, they’re not going to hurt me,’ and you do some stupid stuff that is going to get you hurt if you do that in a fight. And another thing, because they are faster and because of the speed disparity, going into a fight, my timing’s off. In my first pro fight, an issue I had that we had to address and find girls for me to train with — the speed that I would [dodge] punches. With girls, by the time I got my head back into position, that’s when the punch was landing. I was getting out of the way and back in the way too fast.

So yeah, I’ve got to go find these really high-level girls, girls bigger than me that can handle hard training rounds with me. What the guys have to do with me, I’m having to do that with [some of the women], which isn’t fair to me because it isn’t realistic. I’m not going to go into the cage and pull punches because I don’t want to hurt my opponent. You don’t want to hurt your training partners, so I’m pulling punches and pulling kicks that I would never do in a fight, and you find yourself doing it in fights because that is what you practice. So I try to find girls maybe one or two weight classes above me. But then I also try to fight the smaller girls in training because they’re faster. With the bigger girls, you’re getting the power, you’re getting the strength. With the smaller girls, you’re getting speed and technique.

It’s really important to train with people bigger, smaller, better, worse than you because you can’t always be the hammer, and you can’t always be the nail. Because what happens in a fight when you’re the hammer, and you’ve only been the nail in practice? You don’t know what to do. You have to get beat up sometimes. You have to do the beating up sometimes. You have to put yourself in every situation that might happen in a fight. And for me, it ends up being here with the guys usually, but I’ve got good teammates that take care of me and then expect the same in return.

WACOAN: What does your training schedule look like?

Cowan-Brennan: My training schedule is always the same. I usually do two to three [training sessions] a day. I go and do hypoxic training. I do that from 8:00 to 9:30 [in the morning]. That’s where I ride a bike with a mask on. I’m hooked up to an oxygen bag, and they deprive me of oxygen while I’m on the bike. It’s a horrible feeling, but it mimics training at altitude. We’ll get my oxygen levels to 75-ish percent, and I’ll try to train there for as long as I can. And then when I need it, they’ll give me a surplus of oxygen. I can take a few breaths, get that oxygen going, and then continue at the negative oxygen level. It’s wild.

I do that in the mornings before [team] practice, so I come into practice dog-tired. Training with everybody while they’re fresh, and I’m tired — I enjoy it. It makes me feel like I’m better prepared. If I can hang with people when I’m tired and they’re not, then when I’m not tired it’s going to be a good day for me.

The team practice is from 9:30 to noon. That’s MMA practice with all the fighters only. No regular students, just fighters. Then I do strength and conditioning whenever I can fit it in. I’m a personal trainer as well. I have clients because I don’t get paid unless I fight, so I have to have supplemental income. Plus, I really enjoy it. I have great clients.

In the evening I’ve got a little gym at my house. My husband is my head coach, so in the evenings, usually that’s when we tighten things up: ‘Hey, in practice, I noticed this. You were doing this wrong. This was sloppy. Let’s fix it,’ or, ‘You were doing this really well, so let’s zone in on that. Let’s figure out how we can make this a new weapon to add to your arsenal.’ We just address issues I had in practice for about an hour and a half, two hours. Just focusing on what we need to focus on for whatever we think’s coming up next, because sometimes you have an idea who you’re going to fight.

Maybe I’m ranked 16, and they’re ranked 15; or I’m 16, they’re 17. It’s like, ‘She doesn’t have anything scheduled. I don’t have anything scheduled. [A matchup] would make sense.’ You sometimes kind of have an idea. Right now, I have no idea. I’m debuting for the UFC, so we’re just trying to tighten everything up. That way everything’s locked and loaded when we do get an opponent, and we can just fine-tune things.

WACOAN: Since MMA is an individual sport, what does it mean to be part of a team?

Cowan-Brennan: Those are our fighters out of Waco that train together for Blitz. There’s anywhere from six to 16 of us, depending on the day.

WACOAN: Are they amateur or pro?

Cowan-Brennan: All. Amateur, pro, and then we have a few that haven’t fought yet but are getting ready to go. That’s really helpful for me.

We do have these young guys coming up who I’m better than, so for a few years, I have almost this even playing field with them. Maybe they’re faster and stronger than me, but I’ve got a better skill set than them. I always say that I’ve got about three to four years with these guys where they’re really good fighting partners. We can go in there and both go 100 percent, and I’m going to be OK. And then after that, they start getting a little better. It’s really sad though because I’m like, ‘I was whipping you like three years ago, and now I know you’re taking it easy on me.’

I feel like in MMA and gymnastics, it’s equally fun to watch the girls as it is to watch the guys. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched a fight in school — the guys were fighting but always waiting to be broken up. The girls were trying to kill each other. Like, ‘Don’t stop it!’ You know? And that’s how it is in the cage. The girls are just so much tougher, but we’re tougher because we’re training with guys. We’re used to getting our butts kicked, so when girls are hitting us, we’re like, ‘Look, I know it might look like it hurts, but this is nothing.’

WACOAN: What are some examples of how gymnastics techniques benefit your MMA training?

Cowan-Brennan: The balance thing is a huge issue. If I can knock you over, I’m going to win the fight. The balance of gymnastics is crucial to MMA. Core strength is crucial. Good core, good balance. They just go hand in hand.

Good air awareness. You can throw me, and I’ll land on my feet. If I get judo thrown, which is just when you’re in a position where someone can use your leverage and your momentum to throw you, I’ll land on my feet most of the time. And if I don’t land on my feet, I can land in a position to where I can get into a good position quickly. You could drop me off of a building upside down, and I would know where I was in the air just because of gymnastics, flipping and twisting and all that.

We put so much mileage on our bodies in the gym already that I have to be smart with my other training, so I’ll do low impact gymnastics stuff. A lot of handstand work. A lot of pull-up work. A lot of very advanced calisthenics, but I’m not going to go out there and do a floor routine or get on the beam or try to do my old skills or anything. I’ll get hurt.

WACOAN: As far as clients go, are you just a personal trainer for general fitness?

Cowan-Brennan: Yeah, general fitness, and then I also coach gymnastics still, which is a lot of fun.

WACOAN: What age or level are you coaching?

Cowan-Brennan: We call them the big girls. I coach the girls who are really good and doing the more advanced skills. I coach them in strength and conditioning and gymnastics. We do strength and conditioning at Blitz, and then we go over to Zero Gravity for gymnastics.

WACOAN: Was it intentional to have the two gyms next to each other?

Cowan-Brennan: We kind of stumbled upon this huge building. It’s just way too big for MMA, and it’s way too big for gymnastics. And we were like, ‘You know what? We could create a pretty cool little dynamic duo thing.’

We have an after-school program where the kids every single day do gymnastics and mixed martial arts. Then they do their homework, then go home, and they’re exhausted. They’ve learned some cool skills, they eat, they do their homework. We’ve created a cool little entity. It wasn’t the goal, but we stumbled upon the opportunity.

WACOAN: I have to ask, how did your coach, Jake, become your husband?

Cowan-Brennan: Everyone asks that but that actually happens a lot in the sport. You want your spouse to be your friend, and when you are friends, generally you’re interested in the same things. The fight life is weird. If you’re dating or married to someone who’s not a fighter or not a coach, there’s a lot of not understanding the life. It’s a very hard life. Your days are exhausting. Even if all you had that day was a two-hour MMA practice, you’re going to go home and just be exhausted. It’s an exhausting lifestyle.

You have to miss important events. You have to miss weddings. I’ve never missed a funeral, but people do. If it’s fight week and I’m fighting for a belt and I had a funeral, they’re not going to reschedule the entire event for me. There are so many sacrifices that people don’t see. And honestly, I feel like that’s why only 1 percent get into the UFC. People aren’t willing to do that. They want to celebrate their birthday parties. They don’t want to sacrifice enough. And it’s rough.

My family totally understood because my mom develops Olympic-caliber athletes. She understood, and my dad is a track coach. They both understood me being so obsessed. I will not miss practice. I will not miss minutes of practice. I will not miss a warmup. I will not miss a cooldown. I don’t miss anything because I know that there’s going to be a week that I’m going to wake up, and I might have a stomach bug, and I’m going to have to miss practice, and if I’ve been screwing around and not showing up when I’m supposed to, I’m going to have to go in sick and get everybody else sick, and I’m not going to have a team to train with the next time.

It’s a very different lifestyle, and [my husband] understood that. We liked the same things. We liked MMA. I was always in the gym, training. We were just around each other all the time, and it organically happened. You see it a lot of times with teammates. It happens. You don’t even realize you’re spending all your time with this person, and there’s never even been a discussion. You’re like, ‘Wait, are we together?’ I’ve got two teammates that are getting married. They both fell in love with the process and fell in love with each other. They’re both pro fighters for us. It’s really common, and I think it’s just an appreciation and understanding of the lifestyle and enjoying the same things. Like anything else.

WACOAN: When did you get married?

Cowan-Brennan: We got married two weeks after my fight [in September]. It was a very bold move of me. My mom was like, ‘Are you crazy?’ I said, ‘Mom, if we don’t get married right now, we’re never getting married because something else is going to come up, so let’s just do it.’

I have two sisters, and I let my middle sister plan it. I was like, ‘This is on you. I don’t care. I will wear what I wear in the cage. I don’t care about anything. You do it. You tell me where to be.’ She planned the whole thing, and we had a cool little mini getaway wedding with about 70 people in Kingsland.

WACOAN: Obviously you were raised in Waco, but were you born here?

Cowan-Brennan: Born and raised. Midway graduate. Baylor graduate. I’ll never leave.

WACOAN: Why is that?


The thing about Waco is we take care of each other on another level.

Before this last fight I was having to juggle some things around because I was having to train in Denver all the time. It was getting so expensive, and we were looking at real estate up there. We’re like, ‘We’re going to have to move. It’s the only thing that makes financial sense.’ Then we had the fight, and I won, and I was like, ‘I can’t leave my family. Maybe I can get a sponsor to pay for an apartment out there, and they can Airbnb it out while I’m not staying there.’ We were trying to think of all these things. And I’ve got the best sponsor. [They said], ‘Hey, what do you need? We’ll make sure it happens.’

When we got home from the wedding, my mom’s like, ‘Hey, I found this property in China Spring. Let’s go look at it.’ It’s on five acres, which is what I want. I want to farm when I’m done with MMA. We go look at this house, and it’s perfect. There’s a 1,500-square-foot shed with a working heater, and I was like, ‘Do you know what I could do? I could make this a little mini stable. We could put a fighter dorm upstairs where girls can come. I can bring the girls to me [to train.]’ I go to Denver for the bodies, [people to spar with]. There’s nothing else out there that I go for.

So that’s what we’re doing. We moved into this house last month, and we have a contractor out there right now. He’s putting a bid together for us for how to build out that shed. I have got a sponsor who’s putting a cage in there, state-of-the-art mats. The build-out’s going to be awesome.

I’ve already had girls come and stay with me. They stay in our dorm, and they just come here to the gym with me, which is nice, but when I’m getting these higher-profile athletes, the people at the gym don’t let you train. They want to talk to you. Which is cool. If 10 little girls come up, I’m going to pay attention to them. I’m not going to be like, ‘No, I have to go train. I’ll talk to you later.’ And [the visiting athletes] are the same way. We always want to be involved with the people who are supporting us, so it’s hard to come and train at a gym full of people. That’s why the fighters only train in the morning because there’s no distractions. No one else is here.

With these girls, I’m like, ‘Hey, I got this place. No one sees you. You don’t have to see anyone. At the end of camp, when you’re dehydrating, and you’re really open to getting sick, you don’t have to be around anybody. You don’t have to worry about getting sick. You can train in the gym alone. Train in the gym with me. I’ve got my coach. We’ve got everything you need.’ And then ultimately, what would be cool when I retire is we’re going to have the state-of-the-art gym, and we would like to rent it out to people for their camps. It’s just something cool that can sustain itself for a while. I’m not retiring anytime soon, but it is something you’ve got to think about. In MMA, a training camp (also called fight camp or just camp) is the period of time leading up to a fight where a fighter specifically trains for the upcoming event. The duration of camp depends on how much notice a fighter gets in advance of a fight. A fighter typically uses camp to get in peak condition, work with specialized coaches, analyze their opponent’s style and skills, and spar with people that resemble their opponent.

WACOAN: How long does a typical career last in the UFC?

Cowan-Brennan: It used to be, ‘You’re peaking at 25 years old, and 30 is old.’ And now 30 is young. People are peaking 33 to 35. And the reason is women are having kids after their career. There are different recovery methods. We aren’t overtraining. I train so many hours a day, but a lot of that is literally walking through techniques, so I’m not putting this unnecessary mileage on my body. There was 42-year-old champion [in 2021]. There’s a lot of contenders in their 40s. Women too.

I don’t want to fight until I’m 40 because I want a family. Even when you’re winning fights, you get beat up, and I don’t want to emotionally scar my child. And a black eye, that’s the least. That’s what you hope to come home with. I saw a dude a couple of weeks ago throw a leg kick and snap his shin in half. [If I were a kid,] that would scar me to see that happen to people I don’t know, much less my mom. I want to have kids after I’m done. I’ll train with them. We’ll do all the fun stuff, but I don’t want to be fighting on national television. And people say nasty things about you, and you don’t want your kids to hear those things. I want to have kids after, so I’m wanting to retire by the time I’m like 35 or 36.

But again, I always tell Jake, ‘Don’t let me be that fighter that played for too long. They had a great career, and then they lost the last 10 fights.’ I always say I’m here for a good time not a long time. I want to become a champ. I don’t want to overextend my stay. I wanted to defend it a few times, and then I want to peace out. But I’ll always train.

I have a degree in journalism, so I really want to be an analyst. I’ve already had some opportunities come up. When I’m done with this, if ESPN called and wanted me to call fights, I would love to analyze. I think I’ll be involved in the sport forever.

I’m all about putting all my eggs in one basket, but what happens if I get in a fight and break my back? You have to have other plans.

WACOAN: How long is your typical camp?

Cowan-Brennan: I always say I’m in a 52-week camp because I’m always training hard. A lot of fighters will have a fight, and they will come out unscathed. Then they’ll give themselves a month off. I won’t do that because I feel like when I come back, I’m out of rhythm. I like to keep my momentum. I feel like I get better every fight. Maybe if you take a month off, you regress a little bit. I don’t want to start over every time. If I’m coming out totally unscathed, I’m back in the gym when I get back into town, pretty much. But training smart. If I took a bunch of leg kicks, I’m not going to be on my legs a lot. If I took a bunch of hits to the head, ‘Hey, let’s not hit Hailey in the head for a couple of months.’ We’re very smart with what we do.

But personally, because I’m in camp 52 weeks of the year, I train hard all year. I don’t need very long. I’ll take a fight on two weeks [of camp] and be happy about it. But ideally I like eight weeks because I can really dissect and dive in. If I’m fighting someone good, I want eight weeks. Six weeks is OK. If they’re paying me a lot, then I’ll accept a little bit harder fight [on shorter notice]. But your first contract is total crap. Your first UFC contract sucks. You’re on a ladder. For new UFC fighters on the lowest payout tier, guaranteed payouts typically range from $10,000 to $30,000 per fight. If a fighter wins a fight, they will receive a win bonus that equals the guaranteed amount (doubling their payout).

Cowan-Brennan: You think, ‘Oh, you make that in 15 minutes? Cool!’ No. You make that in however long it’s been since your last fight, and 10 percent goes to your manager, 10 percent goes to your gym. Sometimes you’re paying people to come in and train with you. You’re paying taxes. You’re like, ‘Where’d all my money go?’ At first you’re not getting paid much, so right now if they offered me a top 5 girl — no, not for this money. It does give you a little bit of negotiating room. If they really need you to step in on a late-notice fight against a good girl, they’ll pay you.

Camp time depends on the opponent. If you’re fighting someone really good, you want a little bit longer. If it’s someone that’s really good, but I’ve had my eye on them, and we’ve been tweaking my style to fight them, then yeah, I’ll do a shorter camp. But some people like 16-week camps, but that’s usually people who are out of shape. Maybe they just came off an injury. Ideally for me, six to 12 weeks, depending on the fighter. I like eight, but five is even fine. With four, we’re getting close, and I better have a lot of confidence in my game versus their game.

WACOAN: If you’re training 52 weeks a year, I assume you don’t take time off.

Cowan-Brennan: No.

WACOAN: What about after your wedding?

Cowan-Brennan: I got married on Saturday, and I trained on Monday. I play no games.

WACOAN: You’ll take a break when you retire.

Cowan-Brennan: Yeah, exactly. That’s what’s cool about this sport. You get to retire young. Well, you get to retire young if you make it.

In the UFC only 12 percent of their annual revenue goes to fighters. The people making the organization happen only get 12 percent of the revenue. MLB players complain, and NFL players complain. I’m like, ‘Y’all don’t even know.’ And we might get four fights a year, and that’s if it’s going well. Four fights a year is a good year. That’s the goal. And by the end, when you’re a champion, you make a million dollars a fight. ‘One fight a year? OK. Yeah, cool.’ But at the beginning? One fight a year? You’re going to have to have another job. I won’t get a full-time job because it takes away from my training, and I’ll lose my next fight. That’s why personal training is a good thing to do because you get to pick your schedule.

When I came home after my first day training and told my mom what I wanted to do, I thought she was going to have a heart attack. She’s like, ‘You going to quit [your coaching job]? You’re going to do what?’ But I’ve always been all in or all out. I don’t do anything halfway, especially this. This is not a hobby. If you do this halfway, you will get killed. You will get hurt.

WACOAN: You mentioned pioneering two different sports as well as working with young athletes. Do you feel that responsibility toward young people?

Cowan-Brennan: Yes. A lot of fighters pull the, ‘I’m not a role model. I didn’t choose to be a role model. I don’t want your kids watching.’ I do want to be a role model. I luckily got to watch a Georges St-Pierre fight that made me see a different side of the sport. And he’s not the only one. He’s not the first or only good, smart guy to be a fighter.
And I want to be that.

This is such a good sport. You are a lifelong student when you’re a martial artist because there’s never a cap to what you can learn. That’s what I love about it. You’ll go to jiu-jitsu tournaments, and you’ll see 85-year-olds competing. It’s so cool. I mean, it’s a little boring to watch, but it’s so cool because you see there’s no cap. In gymnastics, there’s a cap. You’re 25 years old, you’re an old gymnast, and you’re probably not doing it much longer. Your body is just going to give up on you. With MMA it’s the same way, but with martial arts in general, it’s not. No matter how good you get, there’s always something else to learn. And that’s what I’m all about.

I did MMA because I wanted to see what I could do. I was told I was going to be really good, but you don’t know. Everybody’s got a game plan until they get hit in the face. You don’t know how you’re going to respond to different things. When I got started, originally UFC was the goal, but I got to a point where I was like, if I’m not UFC-caliber and I have to go to a smaller organization, then I want to see how good I can do there. But I always knew in the back of my mind that I was going to be one of the best in the world, and it happened really fast for me, thank goodness. I know a guy who had 35 fights before he even got an opportunity to fight for the UFC. There are some stories like that. You’re like, ‘How did he not get an opportunity?’ Well, everything happens in time, and now he’s one of the best in the world.

I got my opportunity, which was really fast, and we knew it was going to be fast. Right now there are so many more opportunities in women’s MMA because
it is in its infancy.

WACOAN: As a role model, what are you hoping to inspire in others?

Cowan-Brennan: My family, we are ridiculous dreamers. Dream big or just don’t at all. If your dream doesn’t scare you, it’s not big enough. There are so many people that are complacent with doing their 9-to-5 and then going home. Next thing you know, you’re dead. I want kids to know that that’s not the only way to live. If that’s your dream, that’s cool, but if you have something else on your heart, or God’s put something in your spirit and you want to go for it, go for it. Even if it’s something that’s not conventional.

I’m from a very spiritual family, and I always say the cage is my mission field. I can go to church and sing on stage every Sunday and save the same people every Sunday if I want to, or I can go out in the world and meet people where they are and help people who actually need it.

My mom’s the same way with the gym. She calls the gymnastics center her mission field, and I feel like the cage is mine. There are a lot of people who get done with their fights, and they want to thank their Lord and Savior: ‘Thank you, Jesus for whatever,’ but then you go and look on their Instagram. They’re not really living that life. I want to be that role model for little girls.

WACOAN: Besides St-Pierre, who else has been an inspiration for you?

Cowan-Brennan: My parents. I can come up with the craziest stuff, and they’ll give me a funny look and be like, ‘If anyone can do it, you can do it.’

My younger sisters too. One is a Division I cross country runner at [Texas A&M Corpus Christi]. My other one was on the team with me at Baylor, and now she is the head acrobatics & tumbling coach at [Augustana University] in Sioux Falls,
South Dakota, and she became the head coach at 22 years old.

I come from a family of big-time doers. If we’re just talking about doing something and sitting on the fence for a long time, we call each other out on it. ‘Hey, are you actually going to do that? Or are we just going to talk about it all the time?’ They’ve definitely been super inspiring.

My husband, Jake, when I met him, he had had a fight recently, but he was at a point in his career where he knew he was done. He was coaching full time, and in this sport you can’t coach and be an athlete. Not full time. You can coach classes here and there, but you can’t be a full-time coach. And so when I met him, that’s when he knew, ‘I’m done, and all my attention is going toward her.’ Coming into a gym that’s already full of students and then having someone have that faith in you. I don’t know what I said or what I did that made him believe me. Maybe it was because I was successful in acro. I don’t know. But I did or said something that made him invest every moment of the day, every penny in his bank account, in what I was doing. He really believed in me.

My grandpa, he passed away in 2016. He started over 400 churches in his life. Just a phenomenal human. He had Jesus all over him. That’s the only way you can explain that man. I was starting my career when he was really sick in the hospital. I was kind of embarrassed. I went and visited almost every weekend, and the day after I started training, my mom was like, ‘Hailey, tell him what you’re doing now.’ I told him, and he was like, ‘Not surprised.’ The only thing he said was, ‘Are you good at it?’ I was like, ‘I think I can be.’ He forever told my mom, ‘My grandkids are going to have unconventional mission fields.’

This is going to sound bad, but we’re winners. If we’re not good at something, we’re not going to do it. If we’re good at something, and we’re winning, even if we don’t like it, we’re going to do it because we like winning. That’s just how my family has always been, very competitive. We never played ball sports because we weren’t good at them. We all did gymnastics and ran track because that’s what we were good at. We’re always hyper aware of our strengths and weaknesses, and we’re going to put all of our efforts into the things we’re good at.

My family and husband are definitely my biggest inspirations. They believe in me. When I lost those two fights — again, I was supposed to win them massively, and I lost. For a moment in my head, it’s like, ‘Am I supposed to be doing this?’ My mom sat me down, and she’s like, ‘Hailey, if you win every fight how are you going to resonate with anyone else in the world? Not everybody’s always a winner. If you’re winning every fight, how are you going to sit down and meet someone where they are and actually make a difference in their life?’ I was like, ‘OK, you’re right.’

They have a really good way of putting everything into perspective. They bring me right back on down too when I’m feeling a little happy with myself. I’ve got a good system. I’ve got enough yes-people and enough no-people in my corner. You’ve got to have both. If you’ve got someone blowing smoke up your butt all the time, you’re not going to make it very far.

WACOAN: Who came up with your nickname, ‘All Hail?’

Cowan-Brennan: The day that I walked in, Jake. I told him my name was Hailey. He sent me a text message, and he was like, ‘Hey, I’m going to invest everything that I have in you.’ In this sport you have to have a weird amount of self-confidence. If you don’t believe in yourself to the maximum, if you don’t think that you can beat anybody on any given day, regardless of who it is, you’re not going to do well in this sport. And I had that confidence. I went in, and I was like, ‘I’m going to be the best in the world. I know that I’m old, and I don’t care that I’m old. I don’t care that I don’t know anything. I’ll start right now and train every hour of the waking day.’ And he believed me, so he sent me a text and says, ‘Oh, and I came up with your nickname.’ And it just stuck. That’s what everyone calls me. Even when I’m fighting. The commentators usually call you by your last name, but they call me ‘All Hail.’ That’s what everyone knows me as. Everyone’s asked, ‘Are you going to change your last name [now that you’re married]?’ I could and no one would even know. They don’t know my last name. I’m ‘All Hail.’

WACOAN: Well, congratulations again. I hope your first fight is coming soon.

Cowan-Brennan: It better be. I actually bugged my manager on my way here. We have a big old whiteboard in our office, and I’ve got every bantamweight’s name and the weight class above that too. I’m like, ‘Put them on there too. I’ll fight heavier girls. I don’t care.’ We’ve got everyone who’s 135 or 145 [pounds] on a big whiteboard. And then we’ve got stars by the ones that we think they would line me up with at this point. I’m getting ready for all of them.