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Nate Cullison and Alyssa Garcia, two amateur mixed martial arts fighters wanting to make it big in MMA fighting train at Jackson's MMA Gym in Pueblo, Colorado. (Kevin Malella for PULP)

Breaking into the cage

Two very different amateur fighters in Southern Colorado have the same goal: to join the professional MMA ranks.

To look at Alyssa Garcia and Nate Cullison, you would hardly suspect they were accomplished mixed martial artists – weighing a fearsome 240 pounds of solid muscle (that’s, of course, if they both stepped on the scale at the same time).

Weighing in at a mere 125 pounds, Cullison, 23, is the heavyweight of the two top performers at Jackson’s MMA Colorado in south Pueblo. He competes in the flyweight division and has won all five of the mixed martial arts (MMA) fights he has ever competed in. While Garcia, a 28-year-old, 115-pound, straw-weight, has won four out of five of her matches.

For those unfamiliar with MMA, the sport includes a variety of disciplines among them Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing, and wrestling. One might say that Garcia and Cullison are on opposite ends of the MMA spectrum. Garcia is a petite (5’ 2’’) powerhouse in wrestling and jiu-jitsu, while Cullison at 5’ 6’’ specializes in boxing and jiu-jitsu. Besides their sexes, the two are very different in other respects as well.

One might say both fighters are on opposite ends of the MMA spectrum. Garcia is a petite (5-foot-2-inch) powerhouse in wrestling and jiu-jitsu, while Cullison at 5-6 specializes in boxing and jiu-jitsu. Besides their sexes, the two are very different in other respects as well.

Alyssa Garcia (Kevin Malella for PULP)

An overachiever

“I’ve come from a heritage of wrestlers,” Garcia said, adding her father and uncle were both accomplished in the sport. Her father, Pastor Charles Garcia, had his Olympic wrestling dream dashed when, in 1980, the U.S. and other countries boycotted the Moscow Olympics because of the then-Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

As for Alyssa, while growing up she and her four younger siblings wrestled with their father in the garage. “In my eighth-grade year I decided to try wrestling,” she said. “When I went home [after making the decision to wrestle in school], they [her family] said, ‘You’re going to get hurt.’”

Garcia “wrestled with the guys,” and in her freshman year of high school, she made it on the varsity wrestling squad and, believe it or not, she also played football. In 2007 and 2008 Garcia made nationals in female wrestling and was a two-time High School All-American. But then Garcia was sidelined by a shoulder injury, which pretty much ended her wrestling career. She had planned to attend the prestigious Northern Michigan U.S. Olympic Education Center (23-time gold medalist Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps is an alumnus), but that was not to happen.

Alyssa Garcia (Kevin Malella for PULP)

Then, when her wrestling career was over, Garcia, at 19, chose to take on MMA. She started with an MMA group called “Team Hitman” while working for Trane Heating and Cooling in Pueblo, a job she held for six years starting out as an assembly worker, then being promoted to supervisor, then she transferred to the shipping department where she operated a forklift.

While working at Trane and fighting, Garcia “picked up” the sport of bodybuilding, during which time she took first in the Figure division and second in the Bikini division at the Rocky Mountain Natural Championships. In bodybuilding, “natural” means contestants don’t take steroids or other body-enhancing drugs.

Between fighting MMA, bodybuilding and working, Garcia managed to fit in being selected Miss Pueblo in 2012.

After leaving her job at Trane, Garcia attended the Police Academy at Pueblo Community College, graduating in December 2016. Now she’s a patrol officer with the Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office.

All during this time, Garcia continued her MMA training and fighting – developing jiu-jitsu skills and now working on her boxing skills, which she admits are still pretty weak.

Nevertheless, Garcia won four of five of her most recent MMA matches. In 2012 in Denver, she won her first fight, a technical knockout (TKO), in 23 seconds. Her second fight, in Colorado Springs took her a little longer – scoring a TKO in 1 minute, 54 seconds. She lost her third fight, also in Colorado Springs, the victim of a “rear naked choke” hold, a move she was unfamiliar with.

Most recently, Garcia won her fourth and fifth MMA fights – one in 54 seconds using an “arm brace” hold and the other in 1 minute, 39 seconds using the same hold. She is currently training for her sixth fight scheduled early next year at a time and place yet to be determined.

Garcia attributes the successes throughout her life to her family, adding, “In everything I do, all the glory goes to God.”

But Garcia still has ambitions and she thanks her coaches at Jackson’s for helping her realize them. “I want to represent Pueblo in MMA,” she said. She hopes to compete professionally on a national stage in ether the Bellator MMA or the Legacy Fighting Alliance, both organizations have matches that are televised nationally.

As amatuer fighters Garcia and Cullison don’t get paid but they have hopes of getting noticed by pro scouts. They will continue training and fighting in the amateur ranks until they get noticed by scouts or “matchmakers,” who either see them fight in person or see them online according to promotor J.R. Chavez of Top Shelf Entertainment that promotes amateur fights, locally.

Chavez said it usually takes amateur fighters eight to 13 fights with successful records (12-1 for example) before they are recognized by scouts from what he calls the “medium circuit” or semi-professional fighting groups, among them Bellator MMA or the Legacy Fighting Alliance, which do pay their fighters.

He said these semi-pro organizations in turn send their successful fighters to the professional UFC. For the MMA-uninitiated, UFC or Ultimate Fighting Championship, a Las Vegas-based MMA fighting promotion company that employs professional fighters nationally is the dream for all MMA fighting in the lower ranks.

Nate Cullison (Kevin Malella for PULP)

A laser-like focus

“I was always an aggressive kid,” said Cullison, adding that he had his eyes glued to the television screen watching, at first, professional wrestling, then later, MMA cage matches. He said when he was 15, he sparred with friends before he met his coach and mentor Josh Childress in 2011, who now is an MMA and Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor at Jackson’s.

Cullison underwent five years of MMA training in boxing and jiu-jitsu before he had his first cage match on July 22, 2017, in Pueblo. He took out his opponent in the first round in a time of 1 minute, 18 seconds. After that, Cullison fought and won his next four matches over a period of just six months in Colorado Springs, in Pueblo, in New Mexico, and then back in Pueblo. After that grueling pace, Cullison said his coaches at Jackson’s wanted him to take a break, but he hopes to get back into the caged octagon by February of next year.

“I’m infatuated with my fighting,” he said. “[MMA] is the sport of fighters. There’s nothing like it.”

Nate Cullison (Kevin Malella for PULP)

Yet Cullison’s success in MMA has come with some setbacks personally. This year he took a hiatus from school at the Colorado State University-Pueblo, where he majors in exercise science, so he could take odd jobs to help pay for his tuition, and he lives with his parents to save money. Cullison, who was working at Mister Car Wash when we spoke to him at Jackson’s gym in October, said he has had difficulty interviewing for jobs.

“When they ask, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ I really want to say, ‘I see myself on UFC,’” Cullison said. For the MMA-uninitiated, UFC stands for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a Las Vegas-based MMA fighting promotion company that employs professional fighters nationally.

Despite the fact that he doesn’t “really like school,” Cullison intends to return to CSU-Pueblo in the 2019 fall semester to take the 30 credits he needs to graduate.

Cullison’s family life hasn’t been easy. His older brother has autism. His brother also lives at home. And Cullison said his parents didn’t like his decision to concentrate on MMA fighting at first, saying they preferred that he stay in college and get an education. However, “After a while, they supported [him],” he said.

In a low-point in his personal life, Cullison broke up with his girlfriend of six years. “We were growing up and seemed to be going in different directions.”

The breakup had nothing to do with his MMA fighting career, he said, but it did result in Cullison getting more serious about the sport. “We both had different goals,” he said of his former relationship.

Cullison’s goal now, of course, like that of Garcia’s, is to find fame and fortune as a professional MMA fighter.