Denice “The Menace Fairtex” Zamboanga may boast an undefeated record as a mixed martial artist, but she had to learn what losing felt like to earn it.
The 23-year-old from the Philippines – who will face Mei “V.V.” Yamaguchi this Friday, 28 February at ONE: KING OF THE JUNGLE – had a traumatic experience in competition before she started to compete in the sport that took her to ONE Championship.
However, though the emotions she felt were exclusively negative, the results were positive as her ordeal instilled a new sense of determination in her that has helped her to become dominant in her new sport.
Zamboanga started to train Kyokushin karate – a hard-hitting, full-contact branch of the art – when she was 17 as a form of self-defense, but decided to compete after her training captured her imagination.
“I became curious as to what happens when I compete against others who train the same way,” she says.
“The Menace” did well at first and won a few competitions, but the last one she took part in left a bitter taste in her mouth.
The odds seemed to be stacked against her when she was put into a bracket with green belts who were a rank above her because there were not enough participants, but that was not a concern for Zamboanga.
She battled through three matches to reach the final round, and by the time she was ready to face her opponent, she approached her challenge with unwavering confidence.
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“In my mind, I was ready to dominate her,” she recalls.
“She had a higher ranking belt, so I was even more determined to own her in the final round.”
Unfortunately, the level of her performance did not match her self-belief, and she lost for the first time. What’s more, she was finished when a defensive lapse allowed her rival to land a finishing blow.
“I was really knocked out, my lights were turned off, and the match was done,” she said.
“It was a left head kick. It was fast and I didn’t see it, plus my guard was down.”
There were plenty of positives to take away from her experience, but they were far from Zamboanga’s mind as she took the loss very hard.
“I cried because I didn’t want to lose. I was one win away from becoming the champion, so I felt really disappointed to fall just short of my goal,” she adds.
“The most painful thing about that experience was the fact that it was a knockout. It wasn’t a decision at the hands of the judges, it was decisive and clear that I lost.”
Even when she had got over the initial shock of the decisive blow and come to her senses, she felt no less disappointment.
When she reflected on the time she had put into her training, as well as the hopes of the people that had supported her, she found more reasons to be upset.
“I feel like all the struggles and sacrifices I had to endure during training were wasted because I failed to win the tournament,” the 23-year-old says.
“My brother and my family were also there watching, and I feel like I disappointed them with the loss. I don’t want to feel that again.”
Though she was disappointed, her spirit was not broken and she continued to train and lost none of her fearlessness as she started working to gain redemption.
However, that mission ended prematurely when her brother suggested she should try something other than karate.
“My brother asked me to try and fill in for a tournament that was looking for female competitors in mixed martial arts,” she says.
“I never even considered [that]. I had a vague idea of what it is, and I was still a bit afraid of actually trying it.”
Despite her nerves, Zamboanga did not back down from the challenge, and once she was ready to compete, she never shied away from facing opponents who were better or more experienced than her on paper.
Her knockout loss had changed her mindset completely, so from then on, she left no stone unturned in her preparations. Her diligence and determination helped to take her to her perfect record, which she extended in her first bout in ONE.
Now, she hopes it will continue to grow against the best in the world so she can make her team and family proud.
“[My loss] lit a fire in me to train even more than I did before,” she offers.
“I never wanted to feel the pain and disappointment of losing again, so I made sure that I always prepared well for my next matches in order to get the win.”