MMA to CrossFit: Madison McElhaney Wants a Taste of the Games
Madison McElhaney knows she has an “all or nothing” personality.
- “Oh yeah totally,” said the 30-year-old. The Torrence, CA native said she got the drive from her father, and it is most definitely a double-edged sword. “That’s one part about my personality I wouldn’t change though, I’ll stay up 70 hours to get the job done if that is what it takes.”
McElhaney wasted little time in finding an outlet to pour herself into right from childhood. Her parents put her in gymnastics at the age of three and by the age of 12 she was competing at an elite level and so committed to it her mom and dad tried to get her to stop.
- “My parents begged me to stop my whole life because it’s really hard on your body, you’re always injured and can’t do much schoolwork. But I loved it, I would always walk around on my hands before I started gymnastics, so they put me in it for fun, but I always wanted to go hard.”
However at the age of 16, pushing herself to the limits caught up when she broke her hand during a competition and required emergency surgery. Her life came to a crashing halt in the form of an identity crisis and she soon found herself struggling mentally, and not coping well with the injury.
- “I did nothing from 16 to 17 but develop a pretty bad eating disorder, which I had for about four years. I was very anorexic.”
During gymnastics, she had full reign to eat whatever she wanted, however while in recovery, her mind started to get the best of her.
- “I was just a little jacked kid and then I had nothing to do so I was sad and depressed, maybe part of it was trying to figure out how to get attention, I think part of it came down to that.”
Moving on from a Previous Mindset
After she graduated from high school in 2009, McElhaney went off to the California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California, where she studied business communications. She couldn’t handle the pace of school either and expedited her degree, finishing in three years. But during her last year she went abroad to Liverpool for her studies, and it was here that McElhaney found a way to move away from a debilitating eating disorder.
She found the European lifestyle, full of walking and commuting by foot, forced a perception change from within. Getting out of her home state also helped immensely she said, allowing for a much needed perspective change to take place. She then came back to the US in 2012 and decided to try and get a career. McElhaney said she tried a number of jobs she thought she would like – marketing and public relations – but quickly found the office life was not for her.
- “Each of those jobs lasted three or four months and hated it. I up and quit about seven months after trying the whole nine to five thing, got my NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine) personal training certificate and I got a job personal training in Hollywood.”
The Next Passion
However it wasn’t until she set foot in Fortune gym in Los Angeles, CA that things really started to take shape for her. McElhaney went to the gym to get some boxing cardio, and the coaches, one of them Manny Pacquiao’s, quickly noticed raw talent.
- “He came up to me one day and said what do you think about fighting, and I thought it was disgusting and I would get mad at my dad for watching MMA on TV, I thought it was so gross.”
But she was convinced to attend a class in 2015, hitting mitts and soon McElhaney had found her next passionate obsession.
- “I was just hitting mitts with a coach and they just kept complimenting me on my rhythm and it seems like I know what I’m doing, but I had no idea what I was doing, and they kept commenting on my strength and I was really strong because I was a gymnast and so somehow they convinced that I could be the best fighter ever right there.”
McElhaney said it was music to her ears at that moment.
- “I was looking for something because I was a personal trainer at the time, it’s fun but I was just tired of bodybuilding and lifting weights.”
She made her amateur debut in November of 2015, a decision win in California, and made her pro debut in December of 2016, beating Bryanna Fissori in a decision victory. She said she was in love with mixed martial arts, the lifestyle and the amount of commitment and dedication it took to be a professional fighter.
- “During that time I thought it was the coolest life ever, I would train for eight hours a day and you don’t really have to work because you have sponsors, and you’re just always cutting weight so you’re always working on what you’re eating.”
McElhaney, nicknamed “Baby Hulk”, would have to cut close to 25 pounds a fight to make her weight of 145 pounds at featherweight. She would end up having five fights in total, all of them wins, except her last one. However once again, going hard was taking its toll on her body and psyche.
- “Every fight I had I broke something, so my first one I tore my knee, and then my second one I tore my hand and then my third one I messed up my knee again. And then I broke my ankle, and then I tore my shoulder, so it would be this thing where I would train really hard, I would fight, and then recover for two months because I was injured and then I would go straight back in and fight again.”
Her last fight, against Felicia Spencer–who would go on to compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship–ended up being her last. McElhaney broke her ankle the Saturday before she was scheduled to fight in Kansas City, however being the person she is, she refused to pull out and walked into the ring nowhere near 100 percent.
- “So I fought with a broken ankle and that was my first loss and it was close, and I almost did it and it was at that moment that I realized what the fuck am I doing? I’m fighting but I am always injured and I can hurt myself for the rest of my life. So I up and quit and retired. A lot of people thought it was because I lost, but it was just a switch in my brain.”
Onto the Next Passion
The gym that she was training in happened to have a CrossFit box in the back, and McElhaney, still with a boot on her foot, walked in and snatched 145 pounds with next to nothing in terms of training. She was hooked, instantly, again.
- “I hated CrossFit or I thought I hated CrossFit all through fighting, because I wasn’t allowed to lift weights or work out and I just thought CrossFit was dumb because I didn’t know about it.”
Now four years into her CrossFit career she has a Semifinal finish to her name, coming 10th at the Granite Games even while struggling with an auto-immune issue all season and during the competition itself. Her goal at the start was to do CrossFit as a hobby and move on from MMA, but now she realizes making the Games is within reach, and in typical McElhaney fashion, is ready to burn for that goal.
- “I probably think I still struggle with that now,” she said about her “all or nothing” ways. “‘Is this worth it, what am I doing?’ But I want to make the Games and I think it’s very doable.”