Helen Harper: Making History in Malaysia

It was a cold day in England when Helen Harper discovered her love for combat sports. Delicately placed at the top of a hill in the middle of a high class neighborhood, Harper usually spent her days doing aerobics with the elderly. Listening to the huff and puff of groaning wives whose husbands had retreated to the golf course nearby for a few moments of solitude, Helen shouted cheery commands to groups of old faces- “And turn, and down! Spread your legs and lean back, sloooowly!”

But not today.

It was a snow day, and the usual customers had cancelled all their appointments. The restless chatter of aging biddies had faded, and all but the quiet drone of an air conditioner remained inside the well lit gym house. The only other trainer in the building, a boxing coach, playfully asked Helen if she wanted a lesson. She said yes. They strapped on the mits. They went 5 rounds.

And she’s been fighting ever since.

It’s sundown in Phuket. Helen Harper sweeps her scraggly brown hair out of her eyes and adjusts the lapel of her Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gi. The instructor shouts in broken English to change partners. A large, rough looking Russian slaps her hand and immediately puts Helen on her back. She twists beneath him, locking her legs around his shoulder and rolling the larger man onto his side. They exchange leg lock attempts before Helen breaks free, slips under the Russian’s arm and latches onto his back. Time is called. They shake hands. Training ends.

This is Helen Harper’s daily routine: Wake up. Train. Work. Sleep. Eat. Train.

It is the life of a mixed martial artist in Thailand, and the only female member of Phuket Top Team’s fighting squad. Working alongside Bellator members JJ Ambrose and Anthony Leone, the rising Andrew Leone, and grizzled veteran Rob Lisita, Helen Harper has earned the respect of her teammates through dedication, hard-work, and one of the best ground games in the country.

“These guys are like my brothers,” said Helen. “We’re always pushing each other to get better, and they look after me.”

After falling in love with mixed martial arts in her home country, Helen journeyed across the pond to Thailand where she first trained at Tiger Muay Thai, before switching gyms to Phuket Top Team. “Everyone is like a family here. It’s a different environment,” she said.

Compared to the bleary countryside of Sheffield, Thailand was heaven on earth. Surrounded by a field of swaying rubber trees; training took place beneath an outdoor canopy on a winding road in Chalong. After BJJ was done, Helen and the team might have taken a dip in the sparkling clear waters off the Patong Coast, or trekked through the jungle hills of Phuket alongside rough-skinned trained elephants.

After a few months Harper eventually returned home to her job in England. She can remember sitting in the rigid grey property management office as he boss thumbed through her resume`. They were giving her a job- a high paying promotion- but her thoughts kept straying back to Thailand, back to fighting and Phuket Top Team.

“I’ve decided to go back to Thailand,” Helen said suddenly.

Her bosses looked quizzically at each other. “Just now?”

“Yes,” said Helen. “Just now.”

After making the spur of the moment decision, the London native found herself truly living the life she had always wanted for the very first time. “I love to train. I love it,” she said.

Helen Harper didn’t grow up as a fighter, but she has always been a performer. At 5 years old, a young Helen had already taken to the stage, splitting her time between all forms of dance. It was the first step in a long career in the spotlight.

Years later, Helen discovered, as most young girls do, a love of horse-riding. While her family didn’t have the money to give her proper lessons, she worked at the yard every day and received instruction from the head riders after all the classes had ended. It was a world full of riding the wildest, meanest, hard-to-break horses of the lot- a practice that got Helen so experienced to taming the worst of the stable her leg muscles (Originally honed from years of dance) became muscular and unlady-like. More fit to wrestling down bulls than curtsying.

helenharper

Being a woman in MMA isn’t easy. Despite the challenges and perceptions associated with female MMA, Harper has decided to step up to the plate with gusto. She believes that the rise in popularity in MMA will eventually allow for her favorite sport to become mainstream enough for everyone to participate without questions.

“…even my taxi driver in Manila knew about the UFC,” Helen said. “It’s spreading across the world so fast, and if you say you’re a fighter people won’t always give you a strange look anymore.”

Tomorrow in Malaysia, Helen is looking to continue that dream, as she faces Zhen “The Iron Rose” Wei.

“I dream about how I’m going to win my fight in Malaysia,” said Harper. “I want to win this shit.”

Helen’s fight at MFC will be a blockbuster event for more than one reason. Despite Helen’s track record as a finisher, and her opponent’s 1-0 TKO victory, fan’s will be witnessing an event that transcends the boundaries of fighting- it will be the first ever women’s MMA fight in Malaysia. A landmark in women’s mixed martial arts.

In the past few years WMMA has slowly begun to take hold in the West. After the passing of Japan’s Jewel promotion into perpetual obscurity, the rise of Invicta and Rounda Rousey in the UFC put female fighters in a serious light that they had never before experienced in mainstream culture.

And while there was (and is) resistance to the female mixed martial arts movement in Asia, most major organizations are starting to see the times are changing. Indian promotion SFL regularly puts on WMMA shows, and with MFC’s first foray into allowing women time in the ring, the floodgates will surely open to unleash a wave of talented fighters into the Asian mma scene.

Despite all the pressure, Helen seems to be taking the historical moment in stride. “Yeah, there’s pressure. And some pressure is a good thing,” she said. “As long as you don’t let it ruin you. I perform better when I relax, take a few deep breaths, and let everything fall into place.”

Harper knows a lot about relaxing under pressure. Last weekend she made her first ever visit to the Pan Asians, one of the largest Jiu-Jitsu tournaments in the world. After getting 3rd place in the all-Gi portion of the tournament, Helen decided to calm down and just have fun.

“I thought to myself, you already have a medal. You got what you wanted to get. Now let’s go out and enjoy what we’re doing.”

Having fun payed off. In the no-gi tournament Helen got first place, and finished two of her opponents with a guillotine. After winning the gold medal her teammates urged her to compete in the all-around competition, where she squared off against opponents who were significantly more experienced than she was. In a dazzling display, Harper finished five opponents in a row with her guillotine choke, before losing in the final round on points.

Her performance against some of the top female grapplers in Asia gave the London native a boost of confidence she hadn’t experienced before. “I know I’m going to submit this girl (in MFC). I have no doubt that when it hits the ground she’s going to tap out,” she said.

Helen’s confidence and pride is contagious, and you can’t help but get excited as the day for her fight approaches. Tomorrow will be a big day…not just for Helen, but for mixed martial arts.

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Categories: Asian MMA, Featured, Interview, MFC, MMA

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4 Comments on “Helen Harper: Making History in Malaysia”

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    […] I almost forgot, I was privileged enough to speak to Chad Sanderson of http://www.fightsportasia.com last week before the fight and he was kind enough to put some words together about me. Thank you so much for such a well written article Chad! You can see said article here. […]

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