Sharice Davids took her first fight in 2006, long before MMA was on national television and part of the mainstream consciousness. She fought off and on as an amateur for the next seven years, as she juggled law school at Cornell, working as a lawyer and traveling around the country engaging in economic development projects with Native American tribes.
Very shortly after Davids’ pro debut, the UFC announced it would be adding a women’s strawweight division. That was Davids’ weight class and the Kansas native decided to give it a go.
On one hand, Davids wanted to be a part of the continued progression of women in MMA. She also knew if she didn’t make The Ultimate Fighter 20, it would be something of a “last hurrah” for her in the sport.
So Davids traveled down to JacksonWink MMA in Albuquerque, N.M., in early 2014 to put in what she hoped was adequate preparation for the TUF 20 tryouts. Davids spent time at Jackson’s previously when she was working with Native American tribes in the area.
“When the opportunity presented itself, when it started to look like, OK, UFC might have women, it looked like a possibility that I could fight,” Davids said. “If I worked really hard, obviously, and things fall in place, I had the opportunity to get into the premier fight league. It was actually a hard decision to even take the time away to be able to focus on the amount of training you have to do to get to that.”
Davids, who had a 5-1 record as an amateur and a 1-1 record as a pro, acclimated herself well at tryouts. She submitted Nina Ansaroff, a current UFC fighter, once during a grappling session and was also tapped out by Ansaroff. The finish earned her a $100 bonus from UFC president Dana White. Davids was also happy with how she hit pads.
The preparation was there, she was in great shape and there were tangible results. But, in the end, Davids was not chosen for the show.
“When I didn’t get selected for Ultimate Fighter, I was like, well, I think it’s time to kind of shift my focus back,” Davids said.
Less than four years later, the MMA veteran is now a former White House fellow currently running for Congress. Davids announced her intentions to run for the Kansas 3rd Congressional District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives last month. If elected, Davids would be the first Native American woman to serve in Congress and the first openly gay federal representative from the Kansas delegation.
Davids, 37, is one of a number of Democrats attempting to run against incumbent Kevin Yoder, a Republican, in Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District, which encompasses Kansas City and some of its suburbs. The Democratic primary is Aug. 7 and if Davids wins that, she’ll be the candidate from that party running against Yoder. The general election is Nov. 6.
“In some ways, I feel like my whole career has been leading to this,” Davids said. “Although, I don’t necessarily think it was planned for me to become a politician so early in my career. I don’t know, I guess when you think of politicians you think of much older people.”
Davids loved martial arts before she loved politics. She said she used to adore Bruce Lee and wear black belts around the house, throwing kicks along the way. When her mother, a career military woman, was stationed with the U.S. Army in Germany, Davids said she took a taekwondo class, but when they moved back to the U.S. training was too expensive.
As a 19-year-old college student, Davids picked up martial arts again, taking classes in karate, capoeira and then combative taekwondo a few years later. When one of her coaches told her she was working harder than some of the pro fighters and suggested she take a bout, Davids begged off.
“At first, I was like, ‘Oh no, no. I don’t think so,’” Davids said.
In 2006, Davids finally gave in and made her amateur MMA debut. She beat Courtney Martell at International Sport Combat Federation’s Midwest FightFest by submission with a triangle choke in just 44 seconds. The main event of that card featured current UFC bantamweight Tonya Evinger.
Davids lost her second bout a few months later and then took time off from fighting while going to law school at Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y. But she didn’t stop training. It remained a sizable part of her life. Davids wanted to throw herself into Brazilian jiu-jitsu, so she traveled 90 minutes almost daily from Ithaca to Syracuse to train with black belt Guybson Sa. On those drives, Davids said she would listen to recordings of her law classes.
Also during that time, Davids trained under coach Ryan Ciotoli at Team BombSquad in Cortland, N.Y. It was there she crossed paths with a neophyte trainee by the name of Jon Jones, who would of course go on to become one of the best MMA fighters of all-time.
Davids, though, was more interested in the women’s game. She said she used to scour the internet looking for fights from athletes like Shayna Baszler and others. In the mid-to-late aughts, women’s MMA was still in its infant stages and Davids felt both drawn to it and part of it. When Gina Carano and Julie Kedzie fought at EliteXC: Destiny in February 2007 in the first women’s MMA fight to air on live television, Davids and her friends got together to watch it on Showtime.
“It was such a huge deal,” Davids said. “Not to say that women headlining a UFC isn’t a big deal now, but the fact that we had something truly historic happen in the not-so-distance past, it’s kind of weird to be part of this time in history, if that makes sense.”
Davids graduated Cornell with a law degree in 2009 and worked as an attorney thereafter. She moved back to Kansas and was very active working with Native American tribes. Davids herself is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, a Native American Tribe in Wisconsin. Her work with tribes in New Mexico led her to her first stint at Jackson’s, where she befriended Kedzie, Greg Jackson, Holly Holm and others.
In 2016, she was one of just 16 people chosen to be a part of the White House Fellowship program. Davids worked for one year in the office of President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Transportation, Anthony R. Foxx, where she gained valuable knowledge of federal-level policy. She was in on multiple meetings with President Obama and worked directly with high-level government officials.
Davids said she wants to run for Congress, because she believes that Yoder, the incumbent, is no longer doing the correct job for his constituents.
“I looked at the race and I felt like my skill set and my passion for change and civic engagement really drove me to make the decision that now is really the time for me to do this,” Davids said.
Politics is certainly a different game than MMA, but Davids said there are things she has learned as a martial arts that carry over well. She compared the high stress of a cage fight to tough situations in Congress that will affect a large amount of people.
“For me, it impacts every facet of my life,” Davids said. “From my ability in staying calm — and it’s not to say I don’t get upset or any of that stuff. But I do think that like when you spend a while bunch of time literally getting punched, if you get angry every time you get punched, you’re not gonna last that long, because you’re gonna get burnt out.
“Just knowing that you do this thing on a regular basis that most people, one, never experience, and two, that you can recognize that you can disentangle your emotions from your physical state, from your ability to perform. For me just being able to recognize that, having that mindset is really, really helpful.”
Davids will never fight again, she said, but plans on continuing her training as long as possible, especially in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. She’s currently a purple belt in the Atos system. Training in martial arts, she said, is a very different experience than her work in public service and now politics.
“My ability to contribute, to add to or increase the chances that things could be better — all of that stuff is very outward facing,” Davids said. “And martial arts is the thing that was like, this feels like mine. When I do martial arts, I feel like its inward facing. Like, I’m improving myself, I’m getting healthier. It’s almost like mindfulness for something.”
Though her MMA career is finished, Davids was one of just a handful — maybe just a few dozen — of female fighters competing back in 2006. She is elated about where women’s MMA is now and even took in a recent Invicta show last month in Kansas City, Mo.
In 2018, no one even bats an eyelash when women headline a major UFC card.
“Regardless if I made it or not, I really wanted women’s MMA to be a real thing,” Davids said. “You know what I mean? A thing where people aren’t just like, ‘Oh, women do that?’ And now it is. It’s amazing. It’s been really cool to watch this all play out.
“To go from hit-and-miss promotions barely taking women’s fighting seriously to women headlining on a regular basis, high-level fights, it’s an amazing thing to see. And it happened in what I felt was a pretty quick succession — though not fast enough — as far as professional sports go. It’s really exciting.”
Davids’ progression has been equally impressive, as she goes from the mats to the podium, from the cage to the political arena.
The gloves might be off now, but the Kansas Congressional candidate still won’t be afraid to get into a scrap.
“Just knowing you can get into a cage and do that,” Davids said, “is part of how the mindset of a fighter can be applied to pretty much any situation really.”