After taking muay Thai classes at a local gym to continue her athletics participation, Bethany Marshall was approached by one of her instructors about working on grappling.
She didn't know it then, but the teacher thought she might have a future in MMA. She just wasn't totally comfortable taking part in a full class.
Marshall had shown evidence of successful MMA qualities in her family background and experiences. She could perform, a trait she inherited from a father who once played guitar for a 1970s Christian rock band (in fact, how he met her mother). She also is committed, which was underlined during the summer when she broke from serious training to help care for her boyfriend, who was being treated for testicular cancer.
The instructor urged her to reconsider the grappling, even offering private instruction until she was comfortable. When she emerged from that underground training, she was ready for a promising career.
"He worked with me individually for almost a year," Marshall told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com). "Then I went in with everyone else, and I loved it."
Marshall quickly turned that muay Thai and grappling experience into an undefeated record. She enters her matchup against Barb Honchak (5-1) at Invicta Fighting Championships 2 on July 28 in Kansas City, Kan., at 4-0. Moving down to a more comfortable 125 pounds, the Virginia native and resident hopes another victory can move her further along in her career.
Beyond her early encouragement from coaches, Marshall has the strong support of a tight-knit family that includes seven children who were all homeschooled. She was a swimmer and a gymnast before a martial artist, and her entire family has embraced her career that will see its fifth fight on next week.
"To be honest, my mom didn't like it so much at first, especially starting with the grappling tournaments," she said. "Now everyone sees how much I prepare for this, and they're really supportive of what I'm doing."
Marshall's father played guitar for a Christian rock band in the 1970s called The Bridge. One night, her mother attended one of the shows, and she and her friends eventually ended up talking with members of the group.
Soon, she was traveling with the group, and she continued to do so when the couple was married. They even stayed on the road when Marshall's mother had her first son, which started a theme of the family staying close.
Asked if she had heard the group's music, Marshall said, "There was a great spiritual vibe to them, and I thought they were awesome."
After he stopped his music career, Marshall's father stayed involved with instruments and opening his own custom-guitar business. Settling down in Newport News, Va., Marshall's mother homeschooled the seven children, Marshall and three brothers and three sisters.
While several of her siblings were musically gifted, Marshall was better athletically. She started swimming at age 4 and did it for 13 years, and she took up gymnastics at age 9 for the next seven years.
Even though she couldn't participate in school-related competitions, Marshall said the benefit of homeschooling was the tightness it brought to her family.
"We were more encouraged to focus on the things we liked, and I think we constantly learned a lot about each other," she said. "We saw our dad running his business and the work ethic he had. I wouldn't trade that situation for anything."
It just took a few more years for Marshall to find the sport that fit best.
Marshall felt she had just about finished with her competitive swimming and gymnastics careers by the time she was 16 years old. But, she still wanted something competitive to enjoy.
A cousin mentioned a nearby gym that taught classes in muay Thai, which the cousin thought Marshall could embrace because of her athletics experiences in movement.
"I was terrible in the beginning," Marshall said. "Then I just got more comfortable, and it was something I really enjoyed."
Her teachers, meanwhile, could see her skill and went as far as working with her privately for about a year to ensure she pursued grappling. She had an amateur MMA fight by the time she was 17, and she finished her amateur career at 5-1.
In November 2008, Marshall made her professional debut with a Cagefest Xtreme victory against Marina DeVol. A confidence boost came in January 2010 when she accepted a fight at a Raging Wolf show with 10 days to prepare and scored a victory in just 20 seconds against Christina Domke.
She continued her momentum with a March 2011 win against Stacy Grant at M-1 Challenge 24 before she and her boyfriend, amateur fighter Zac Allen, learned he had testicular cancer. Cooling her training to help Allen, Marshall pulled back from MMA.
"Now he's trying to raise awareness, especially for early detection," said Marshall, who noted Allen's website supporting that cause is savethemarbles.com.
Once Allen was cleared medically, Marshall refocused on MMA. She decided to drop down to a more comfortable 125 pounds and found her next opportunity in Invicta. Despite 16 months between fights, she said she gained new perspective on the sport following Allen's medical struggles and hopes to continue her undefeated record against Honchak.
"I think I have a lot of appreciation now for the opportunities I have," she said. "I'm so proud of (Allen), and I can use that inspiration in my training, hopefully with some good results."
Award-winning newspaper reporter Kyle Nagel is the lead features writer for MMAjunkie.com. His weekly "Fight Path" column focuses on the circumstances that led fighters to a profession in MMA. Know a fighter with an interesting story? Email us at news [at] mmajunkie.com.