Sheila Bird is not your average gal. A quick Google search of her name will let you know that the 36-year-old Calgary native is an eight-time gold medal world champion in grappling, holds a 107-8 record in the women’s division of the sport, and was the first Canadian woman to achieve a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Stepping into the cage for the first time in 2006, she has also added a 2-0 professional mixed martial arts (MMA) record to her long list of accomplishments. In other words, Bird is a badass fighting machine.
Having practised Jiu-Jitsu for nearly 15 years, and as the co-owner of Champions Creed Martial Arts gym here in Calgary, Bird has witnessed MMA progress as a sport worldwide as well as locally. With its immense growth in popularity, she says that the biggest change she’s seen within the past five years is in the appreciation people have gained for the sport. She attributes this largely to the popularity of the Ultimate Fighter TV show, which brought MMA to more mainstream audiences.
“Before the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) got popular, people heard martial arts and they just thought karate,” she says. “Doing this for a living now, more people recognize my profession and respect it because they can see what it is.”
Still, there are a lot of deep-seated misconceptions about MMA that the sport has yet to overcome. “People think that fighters have egos and are just tough guys,” says Bird. “But the people who make it far are usually very humble because they’re being humbled constantly at the gym.” She explains that in order to truly prepare for competition, fighters have to simulate the real thing as much as possible, which means getting beat up. A lot. That’ll knock modesty into just about anyone.
One of the biggest myths Bird has had to tackle is that girls can’t fight. Unfortunately, there still exists the idea that women aren’t capable of being as skilled as men. “I think in some ways women have more to prove than the guys, because you still hear ‘she’s good... for a girl,’ You get that... a lot,” she notes.
A look through the comments on Bird’s YouTube videos and you’ll see that there are even people who don’t think the fights are real. “There are clearly people out there who just don’t want to believe that women can be tough,” she says. “For me though, I know that I’m doing what I need to do to get to where I want to be, and that’s all I care about. And I think really by doing that, that’s what earns you respect. You’ve got to walk the talk.”
For young women just entering the sport, it’s important to have role models like Bird. She’s professional in every sense of the word and is a true representation of the incredible level of skill, hard work and determination that is required to be successful in the sport. Women’s MMA isn’t bitch-slapping, it isn’t hair-pulling catfights and it certainly isn’t mud-wrestling.
Bird has also worked to dispel the preconceived notion that all female fighters are, well... butch. Though she may be tough-as-all-hell in the cage, Bird has a softer side, too. “Most people only see that side of me,” she says. “But I like to sing, I play the flute, I like crafts [laughs], I like shopping, all the things other girls like. I’m a girl, too!”
And if you’re still not convinced, check out her nails: glossy, candy-pink manicure.
Looking to the future, Bird aims to take her Jiu-Jitsu to the next level, working towards earning a second-degree black belt. “I don’t think there is another Canadian female with that degree yet, so I’m hoping to get there first! Not that I’m competitive or anything...” she jokes.
For now, she’s focusing on taking home her third professional MMA win at this weekend’s Aggression Fighting Champion (AFC) event at the Telus Convention Centre. If Bird’s track record is any indication of how the bout will go down, fans and friends can expect another exciting show.