The first time Iraqi-Canadian MMA fighter Randa Markos threw a punch, it was in a small ring in her high school in Windsor, Canada. It was after school, and she’d walked into a wrestling practice. She felt her entire body fill with joy — there was something incredibly cathartic and freeing about the act.
She ran home right after, needing to tell her parents what she’d just experienced.
“No, you’re a girl,” her parents said at the time. “Girls can’t do that.”
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Her Middle Eastern, Roman Catholic family had little interest in allowing their girl to pursue a “man’s sport.”
So, for four years, Markos lied to them every time she went to wrestle. She was just going to play volleyball, she told them.
Markos understood her family had sacrificed a lot to get her to that point. They had arrived in Canada as refugees during the Iran-Iraq War in 1988. Her father watched his friends suffer brutal deaths in the war, and he wanted better things for his family. They walked for four days and reached the Iraq-Turkey border as his distant relative in Canada had agreed to apply for their Canadian visas.
The family was transported from the border to Istanbul, where they were allowed to stay for a year — and hope and pray for their paperwork to come through. When that didn’t happen, they were sent back to the border and imprisoned. Markos said the family was certain they were going to be deported back to Iraq.
Then, something miraculous happened, she said. Officials intimated that the family had obtained the necessary paperwork. They could finally move to Canada and get the fresh start they had always wanted. Randa Markos was just three years old.
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Her parents struggled with the move, she said. They had to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Markos had big responsibilities early on.
“You got to go get a job,” she was told.
And she did. When one job wasn’t enough, she got two. She’d helped pay her family’s rent, phone bill and grocery bill for as long as she could remember.
She would do anything they’d ask of her — but wrestling was hers. It was something she did for herself. They didn’t have the right to take that away from her.
“God is not going to look at me and go, ‘What are you doing? This is horrible,'” Markos said. “I am not doing anything wrong. That’s why I always went against what my parents told me, because I asked myself, ‘Am I going to hell for playing a man’s sport? No.’ There are a few differences between men and women, but we are human — why can’t we do what we love?”
Two decades — and several fights both on and out of the cage — later, the 33-year-old mixed martial artist will take on Angela Hill on Saturday in Nashville, Tennessee, to show she belongs with the best fighters on the planet.
Canada gave Markos everything. It gave her the freedom to pursue a sport that was illegal for women to practice in Iraq; it gave her the opportunity to apply for scholarships in wrestling; it gave her the willpower to stand up for what she believed in.
But she said Canada also gave her a controlling father who had difficulty adapting to the changes that came with running away from Iraq. A father who followed her around Windsor when she was a teenager to monitor her whereabouts and who wanted her to stay in Windsor, get married and have a family.
Markos, however, had grander plans. She said she’d received scholarship offers to pursue college wrestling from other parts of Canada. When she asked her father, he said, “There is no chance you’re leaving Windsor.”
And that was that. Markos didn’t wrestle for almost three years while getting her pharmacy assistant degree at the University of Windsor. The school did not have a wrestling team.
She put her head down and excelled at school. But she was constantly aware of the hole she felt inside of her. That was around the same time she connected with Jeff Thomas, now her husband and an MMA fighter. She watched him during a jiu-jitsu session at a local gym in Windsor and instantly knew what she was missing in her life. As soon as she was done with school, she got a job as a pharmacy technician and signed up for jiu-jitsu lessons.
She immediately felt herself smiling more. She was doing the one thing she truly loved: fighting.
Not much later, Markos started competing again. After compiling a 4-2 record as an amateur, she decided to go pro because there were more opportunities to fight and all matches were sanctioned.
She picked up her first pro win in November 2012 — a third-round armbar submission against Allana Jones — after taking the fight on one week’s notice. She didn’t think twice about accepting the challenge, knowing she waited years for the opportunity.
But the most memorable moment of her early career was being a part of “The Ultimate Fighter 20,” a UFC-produced reality television series. Competing went from a personal endeavor to a professional “my face is on the big screen” thing.
“After I had won a few fights and I’d been on the big screen in the big cage, I realized, ‘OK, this is cool. I am one of the best in the world. I am actually one of the best in the world,” she said.
She was on the big stage now, but she said she wasn’t entirely comfortable talking about her struggles — her family’s journey from Iraq, the challenges she endured from her father, the everyday struggles of immigrant life in Canada.
But she slowly opened up when she noticed kids and adults going up to her and having conversations about their hardships, asking her for advice.
“People listen to what you say. They are watching your every move. That really affected me,” Markos said. “I came out in a positive way, and if somebody can look at me and see that and say, ‘I could do the right thing,’ then that’s good.”
She realized this went beyond sport — and she was more than OK with that.
Markos has been wrestling for decades, but the thought that something she once did for a hobby is now her career still takes her breath away sometimes. Particularly since she quit her pharmacy career a few years ago to pursue fighting full time. She could always go back to it when her body has had enough, but for now, she wants to give it her all.
The most important thing for Markos is finding consistent success. She has fought in the UFC 10 times since 2014 — four wins, five losses and most recently, in September, a draw against Marina Rodriguez.
Markos is gifted at jiu-jitsu but wants to add more skills to her resume. She believes 2019 is that time. For her Saturday fight against Hill, Markos has been training more in muay thai, sharpening her use of elbows, fists and knees, she said.
“Even now I can’t believe this is my career — I am a professional wrestler!” Markos said. “It was something I did for fun, something that helped me with my emotions. I am excited to debut my new skills in Nashville, and hopefully it will be a memorable fight.”