Becky Levi works as a trainer at the Spiece Fitness Center in Fort Wayne, Ind.
They had an idea of what they were getting into, but it did not stop the current of anxiety coursing through the two lanky Indiana basketball players. They wanted to beef up and add muscle for their upcoming high school season, so they stood there like nervous army privates at roll call awaiting the master sergeant’s arrival.
However, their taskmaster was a little different than most. She arrived with a white cap tugged down tight over her eyebrows, enough to see the intense glint in her eyes. She demanded instant respect. If they did not abide by what she said, Becky Levi could have kicked both their asses at the same time.
Nate and his friend that summer afternoon became the first of many “Becky’s kids.” The 50-year-old women’s MMA pioneer spends her days at the Spiece Fitness Center in Fort Wayne, Ind., enjoying the life to which she graduated after a distinguished fighting career. A three-sport high school star in Arizona who twice competed in the United States Olympic Trials as a discus thrower, Levi was also world-class weightlifter and later traveled the globe pounding almost everyone that was placed in front of her. Now, she works to conditions athletes, from 8-year-olds to NFL players.
You can find an almost omnipresent Levi on the sidelines on Friday nights, courtside on Saturday nights and behind the plexiglass on typical weeknights, as she follows her kids playing football, basketball, volleyball and ice hockey.
From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, there was not a better female fighter in the world than “The Specimen.” She was a jacked 6-foot, 215 pounds, the ideal size for an NFL strong safety. She could hit like one, too. Levi posted a 7-1 record during the Cro-Magnon era of MMA, when rules were few and venues were small. She stopped her first five opponents and won her first seven fights before injuries and the grind of her competitive years forced her to retire after losing to Marloes Coenen in December 2000. Levi still harbors some faint regrets, those little pangs when she reflects on rare failures that cannot help but gnaw at her memory through time.
The battle scars are many. Aches and pains throb each morning from several procedures Levi has undergone: four knee surgeries, including a knee replacement, and multiple spinal fusions.
Levi’s enduring spirit has not changed. That has been left intact and untarnished. An unyielding drive willed her, unable to stand up straight because of a bulging disc in her lower back, to still compete at the 1992 Olympic Trials. An unbending, wrought-iron determination sustained Levi when she was haunted by the same back injury in her only loss -- and never said a word about it. She now bestows that steely resolve on her young athletes, even though she cannot do what she once did. As advancing age often serves as a bitter harbinger for great athletes, Levi competes vicariously through those she trains.
“I do feel like a parent,” said Levi, the director of fitness and sports performance at Spiece for the last 10 years. “I’ve probably worked with over 50, 60 kids, and they’re all my kids. I can’t make it to every game or event, but I try to do my best and show that all the work you put in with me ... let’s see what we were able to do together. Once school begins, it’s a busy time and it’s important to show them that I care. I’m going to be there for them whether they win or lose.”
Many successful athletes have trouble dealing with their “afterlife,” the time after the cheers and crowds are gone and reality begins. Levi has made a smooth transition onto her next stage. She has merged everything she has been taught, from her parents, Robert and Jody, to what MMA legends like Dan Severn and Don Frye have instilled. She has gleaned bits and pieces of training regimens she has incorporated through the years into her own brand, and it has made her highly successful in this phase of her life.
“The biggest thing is that you have to demand respect -- and that has to be established early. You do it in a way where you encourage people, but you also have to be stern to understand that it’s time to work,” she said.
“Everything depends on the athlete. You have to really know your athlete, especially in a particular setting, because we do a lot of group training and athletes need to know their coaches.”
Levi operates far outside the world she once knew.
“It’s a new challenge, and I love new challenges,” she said. “I was a pioneer, and I really wanted to show some of the women out there that they could fight in MMA. Looking back, you see the evolution of the sport and the level of training has taken off. We were nowhere near what the sport of women’s MMA is today. You have a coach today for everything. We didn’t have that when I was coming up.”
The first time Levi met Reggie Hodges, he was punting for the New York Jets. She cringed as Hodges tried snatches. He was all over the place and risked injury. “Damn, that looks terrible. I have to help this guy,” Levi thought. She introduced herself, asked Hodges what he played and if he would be interested in her assisting him with his technique. Later, Hodges admitted to Levi that he was apprehensive about their first encounter. He was not used to someone out of nowhere looking him in the eye and asking if he wanted help. However, that is the way Levi has been throughout her life: straight forward, honest, open and trusting. All are rare qualities in some settings today.
“I do have to always walk a fine line,” Levi said. “When I’m coaching and working with athletes, I have to be careful not to intimidate them, because I do get excited and fired up. Being a competitor, those things never change. I want things to go well and I’m constantly coaching. I think that can be intimidating to some people. The fine line you walk in a fitness center is you have all kinds of different people there. I have to be very careful how I present myself to somebody, because most people that walk into a fitness center are intimidated already.
“For me, it was toning it down,” she added. “I was a world-class competitor. I can’t be that type of person with a lot of people. You have to know who you’re dealing with and make those changes.”
Levi did not have to change for Hodges. He loved the intensity. They trained for six weeks together and still correspond with each other. Hodges even sends films of his lifts to Levi so she can critique them. As for Nate and his basketball buddy, you can still find Levi in the stands at their games.
By the time she was a senior at Sahuaro High School, Levi was a three-sport star in volleyball, basketball and track, especially the discus and shot put. Levi received a healthy dose of college attention, though she opted to attend local Pima Community College in Tucson to stay close to her family after her father suffered a heart attack her senior year. She later transferred to the University of Arizona, where she established herself as one of the best discus throwers in the nation. She was so good, in fact, that she earned invitations to the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1988 and 1992. She finished fourth in ’88, a foot from making the team behind Carol Cady, who took 11th at the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. At the ’92 trials, Levi landed in fifth, this time inches away from advancing to Barcelona, Spain.
Those were emotionally draining times for Levi. Her father passed away in August 1991, and Levi began experiencing nagging muscle pulls and strains that hindered her training; and just when Levi thought the situation could not get worse, it did. During training for the 1992 trials, she suffered what she would eventually discover was a blown disc in her lower back, having injured it while lifting. Yet with back issues that prevented her from standing up straight, Levi gutted out a throw that almost made her an Olympian.
“That was a really bad time for me,” Levi said. “My father passed away, and I was a daddy’s girl. He was everything to me. He was my biggest supporter in anything I did. That was tough not having him there. Two weeks after my dad died, my mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. It was a really tough year emotionally. I was whacked out, coming so close and not getting there [in 1988]. I didn’t think there were as many people that worked as hard as I did. The emotional toll took a lot out of me.”
Finish Reading » With two weeks’ notice and with Levi never having fought before, Severn submitted her name in the tough women’s world championships. She took up boxing training, along with everything else she was trying to balance. She remembers how her calves burned from three rounds of jump rope and then three rounds of shadow boxing before she was allowed to hit the heavy bag.