Two hours before the bell rings for the first mixed martial arts fight on the night’s card, Mary Murphy Edwards ’82 is cageside, dressed in black with a small roller bag. Her clothing choice is practical: it hides any blood splatters that could come her way sitting that close to the action.
As the deputy commissioner of unarmed combat sports for the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services, Edwards is one of a handful of women nationally in charge of every step of the process involved in boxing, kickboxing, and mixed martial arts bouts. She approves or rejects matchups that promoters propose, hires officials, and oversees fighter weigh-ins. Edwards is also a seventh-degree black belt in Shaolin Kempo Karate, which means there’s no place else she’d rather be on a Saturday night in downtown Madison.
She doesn’t flinch when the sweat and spit start flying.
“Do you have to go to the fights?” some of her more squeamish officemates have asked as she prepares to travel most weekends to events around the state. Her response is unequivocal: “That’s the best part.”
Edwards began to “live and breathe” martial arts not long after graduating from UW–Madison with degrees in French and international relations, including a year abroad in France with plans for a career in law or business. She married young and moved to Vermont, where she began studying at Villari’s Martial Arts Center, taking three classes a day to earn her black belt in three years.
The daughter of a high school wrestling and football coach in a small southwest Wisconsin town faced pushback from her family. Her father didn’t think much of martial arts at the time. Her mother was horrified. “I was literally told, ‘Don’t do these things. It’s not ladylike,’ ” she says. Within a few years, Edwards and her husband relocated to Montreal to open a new location for the Villari’s martial arts franchise.
“They were so shocked to see a woman. I was asked many times if I was a model or an actress just wearing a belt,” she says. “And I was running the school.”
After six years, Edwards returned to Madison to open another location for the martial arts school on State Street, where she still serves as its highest-ranking instructor. Her children called her “Master Murphy” when they were growing up.
Twenty-four hours before the bell rings for the first round, two dozen fighters gather in a banquet room above a Madison bar to register and weigh in. The fighters take turns stripping down to their underwear to step on the scale. Edwards sits at an L-shaped table with the event’s promoter. A pile of $20 bills and license applications for fighters and the people who will be in their corners rises next to her laptop. One fighter grumbles about having to “drop $120 just to fight.” Edwards notes later, “If you want a posse, you have to pay for it.”
On the January 25 fight night, inspectors on her team expel people from the locker room if they aren’t licensed. The atmosphere creeps toward chaotic as fans crowd into a large ballroom inside the Monona Terrace convention center. The bar opens and the noise builds with an assist from a DJ playlist that includes “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses at top volume. The vibe belies the calm precision and discipline Edwards and her team employ to enforce the rules from start to finish.
“I love the fighters,” she says. “I’d do anything to help keep them safe.”
But Edwards has suspended fighters for bad behavior or unsportsmanlike conduct. “Don’t come to my state and disrespect my ring,” she says of one who flipped the bird behind her back after she warned him. “I won’t approve him for fights going forward.”
Before the fights begin, Edwards and her team inspect the cage and go through an evacuation plan. She also enlists the only woman inspector present to administer required pregnancy tests for fighters in the sole female bout on the card.
At intermission, she goes back to the locker room to check on a fighter getting stitches from the ringside doctor and another with a swollen hand.
Later in the night, she checks on other fighters as they exit the medical area. “How do you keep the face so pretty?” she asks a female fighter, who points out her nose is crooked from a previous injury and gives Edwards a hug goodbye.
Edwards will enter the results and stats from tonight’s fights into a national database when she returns to the office on Monday, a day she is supposed to take off but won’t. “Their record is everything,” she says.
She leaves the locker room, roller bag in hand. “Most nights you think, ‘I get paid for going to a good fight.’ ” •
Jenny Price ’96 is a former coeditor of On Wisconsin. She can now cross sitting cageside at a mixed martial arts fight off her bucket list.
Published in the Winter 2020 issue