Interview with Cindy “Sleeper” Hales

Cindy “hails” from Seattle, Washington and continues to test herself against the best competition in both professional grappling and professional MMA. Cindy Hales is one of the premier female jiu-jitsu black belts in America having competed all over the world, including at ADCC in New Jersey last year, as well as Smack Girls in Japan this past February, which is the leading female fighting organization in the world. Cindy “hails” from Seattle, Washington and continues to test herself against the best competition in both professional grappling and professional MMA. After successfully winning a MMA fight in New Zealand on May 31st, she was quick to set her sights on her next challenge, a grappling Superfight, which will take place at the PAC SUB in Hawaii from June 27-29. We were able to sit down with Cindy to discuss everything from jiu-jitsu and MMA to her current training, professional goals, and outlook on combat sports in America.

Bevois: Hey Cindy, can you start by telling everyone how long you have been training jiu-jitsu and who promoted you to black belt?

Cindy Hales: I started training in the spring 2001 with Marcelo Alonso in Tacoma, Washington. He ended up going back to Brazil for an extended stay, so I switched up and started training with Rodrigo Lopes and Mamazinho. I got my black belt from Mamazinho and Rodrigo in 2006.

Bevois: In 2001, Marcio “Mamazinho” Laudier came to Seattle from Rio de Janeiro to help build a jiu-jitsu community in the Seattle area. What’s he up to nowadays?

Cindy Hales: About a year ago Mamazinho went back to Brazil and then I think he went to England to teach. Last I heard he was back in Brazil, but I haven’t talked to him for a while so I can’t confirm it. If anyone sees him, have him get a hold of me, I miss learning to curse in Portuguese.

Bevois: Now you train with black belts Rodrigo Lopes, Stefan Dahlstet, and Michelle “Wags” Wagner. Tell us a little bit about them.

Cindy Hales: Rodrigo has been one of my good friends and best training partners for years now. I still have trouble with his game and I’m always having to go home and try to come up with ways to beat his moves. He runs the Gracie Barra School in Seattle now. It is the biggest gi program in the area. He’s a great teacher and just creates a really cool environment.

Stefan is cool, too. I remember the first time I ever came to train with the guys in Seattle, Stefan ran a clinic on me. It didn’t help that I was out too late the night before and ended up puking in the bathroom. He has a tight game and is another one of the guys I like rolling with. He just got his Masters degree so he may be moving out of Seattle. If he does, everyone up here is going to miss him tons.

And Michelle a.k.a. Wags. She is one of the few girls in the area that has been training consistently for a really long time. I don’t get to roll with her as much now because we are at different schools, but we used to train together all of the time. She always had me cracking up in class and Mamazinho would get mad.

Bevois: So you currently teach and train at Gracie Barra Seattle. Tell us a little bit about your school, your team, and the jiu-jitsu scene in the Pacific Northwest.

Cindy Hales: Gracie Barra Seattle is where I do most of my training. I teach no-gi grappling there and I’m also starting up a basic boxing class and help with the kid’s program that Stefan runs. I totally love training there, because we have a really great crew of people that train hard, have fun, and are just really supportive of me and what I am doing. There is a core group of people that have been around a long time and have really solid technique. Then there are also tons of new guys, lots of white and blue belts. The school just has a great energy and team feeling to it.

I also train out of a couple other gyms – Ring Demon MMA in Tukwila and Majine Boxing in Snoqualmie. Ring Demon is run by Eric Dahlberg, another Mamazinho black belt, and focuses more on no-gi, wrestling, kickboxing, and MMA. Eric has a talent for dissecting technique and a person’s game and developing solid strategies on how to beat them. Mike Gavronksi of Majine Boxing, does my boxing and conditioning. He has worked wonders on my hands in the last few months. He has a real attention to detail and is willing to spend as much time as it takes to get something right.

The northwest is really coming into its own as far as BJJ and grappling. There is a solid community of people up here who have created some good tournaments, like the Revolution tournaments and the Sub league events. There are more schools now and so the level keeps improving and the events are getting bigger. There have been big names coming out of the area for a long time and there are going to be even more in the future.

Bevois: Do you have any other teammates, male or female, that we should keep our eye on?

Cindy Hales: Eric Dahlberg is definitely a name to watch for. He has been on and off the injury list for quite a while and is pretty infamous in the northwest. When he is healthy, he will give anyone at 175 lbs trouble. Also, Sean Wilson is another name to watch for. He is a truly gifted athlete and has crazy explosiveness for a 155 lbs. He comes from a wrestling background and has a purple belt under Rodrigo. As he further hones his submissions and stand up, he will be a real terror on the mat and in the ring. There are also more kids programs popping up so there will definitely be some other great players coming out of the area in the next 10 years.

Bevois: How did you get your nickname “Sleeper”? Do you like putting people to sleep when they are “Sleepless in Seattle”?

Cindy Hales: I don’t remember where it actually started, but it was sort of a double entendre. The obvious of putting people to sleep with jiu-jitsu and then because I didn’t look like much and people would underestimate me and then I would beat them with superior technique and athleticism. Like a car that doesn’t look like much, but leaves everyone else in the race behind. Guys always come in thinking they are going to run right through me and then they find out that isn’t the case.

Bevois: On May 31st you won a MMA fight at Princesses of Pain – Australasia vs. America in Auckland, New Zealand. Your opponent was standout Australian fighter Fiona Muxlow who is the Primetime MMA champ. Fiona won her division at the ADCC Oceania Trials in 2006 and represented Australia in the ADCC finals last year in New Jersey. She was also the local New Zealand favorite too, after winning the Australasian Knockouts crown in Auckland last June. Can you tell us about her and the fight?

Cindy Hales: I knew of Fiona from ADCC in 2007, where she had a really tough 1st round draw in Kelly Paul. I heard and knew she had a strong ground game and that she was just physically really tough. I prepared really hard for the fight and was expecting her to stand up with me. I trained my hands like crazy, because I felt like my ground game was on level with hers already. The fight was pretty quick, 1 minute 33 seconds. We stood up briefly, with a few combinations thrown. She backed me into the corner and I was able to turn her into the corner and land a couple of knees. She went for a takedown and I got the guillotine and jumped guard and was able to take it to the ground. From there I knew I was going to win because that is basically my favorite place to set the triangle up from. She tried to fight the hands on the guillotine and I transitioned to the triangle. She defended it and was trying to squirt out the back and punch me with her free arm. I was able to keep the triangle and catch her arm in a kimura for the win. I have a lot of respect for Fiona and think that she is a great competitor and I am glad that I had the opportunity to fight her in New Zealand.

Bevois: You were actually a late replacement for Elaina Maxwell, who had to withdraw from the card due to an injury. How long did you have to prepare for the fight?

Cindy Hales: I trained specifically for Fiona for about 6 weeks, which is a pretty good lead time, at least for me. I met Lana Stefanac, the U.S. team captain, at a Fatal Femmes fight where I fought Shawn Tamarabuchi. I talked with her about trying to get on the card as a 125 pounder, but that didn’t happen, so they brought me on in the 140 pound spot.

Bevois: Fiona competed in the 60 kg to 67 kg weight class at ADCC, while you competed in the under 55 kg weight class. However, your fight was for the under 64 kg International Title. Did the size issue concern you?

Cindy Hales: I was a little worried about the size. I remembered Fiona being pretty big at ADCC and she looked big on the tapes that I saw. I walk at around 135 pounds and have been cutting down to 120-125 for competitions. I figured I would be much faster than her and was planning to create scrambles in the fight because I believed that is where I would win. I was mainly worried about getting kicked in the head by her, because I was assuming she was cutting from about 155 pounds or so.

Bevois: Your only loss in MMA came in your second pro fight against Megumi Fujii, who is arguably the best pound for pound female fighter in the world. The fight took place in Japan in the opening round of the Smack Girl – World Remix Tournament and you had to weigh-in at 115 pounds. Did the jet lag and huge weight cut affect you, and what weight are you most comfortable competing at?

Cindy Hales: The weight cut is what really killed me on this fight. I normally fight at 120-135 pounds. This one was at 115 pounds with same day weigh-ins, about 4 hours before the fight. I was on a pretty insane diet regimen that consisted of around 400-500 calories a day for about 6 weeks along with some hormone supplements that help you release stored fat. I was basically going crazy from starvation and felt terrible by the time I got to Japan. I had been trying to get into Smack Girl for a long time and also I really wanted to fight Megumi. The opportunity came up to compete in the Remix tournament at 115 pounds, so I figured I had to take it because I may not get another one. I really believe that the outcome would be different at 120 pounds. Not to disrespect Megumi at all, because she is definitely one of the most technical female grapplers out there. I have followed her since I began grappling and have a ton of respect for her and all of the ADCC girls. I want to negotiate that fight to happen at 120 pounds under full MMA rules in the US. Under these conditions I think it will be a much different and definitely a more exciting and active fight. All in all, I am glad I had this experience. I have changed a ton about my training and my thinking since this fight. I consider it a big milestone and turning point in my career.

Bevois: Gina Carano, Shayna Baszler, and Tara LaRosa are possibly the top three female fighters in the world at 140 pounds. Gina and Shayna fight in the EliteXC and Tara recently signed with the AFL. How do you like your chances against them and what do you think about those two organizations?

Cindy Hales: All of those girls are at the top of the game right now. I know that I can not only hang with all of them, but that I have a great chance at beating any of them. Both EliteXC and AFL are great organizations and I have a lot of respect for both of them for promoting female fighters. I am currently trying to get on with one of these organizations, so that I can get my chance to put my name on the list of top fighters in the world. I have competed at the top levels in grappling and have taken huge chances in my MMA fights. I love to compete and I want to go with the best of the best. I believe in the technique that I have, in my athleticism and in my innate need to compete and win, and I am going take my place as one of the elite fighters in the world.

Bevois: A lot of famous fighters have come out of The Evergreen State, such as Randy Couture, Maurice Smith, Jeff Monson, Matt Hume, Josh Barnett, and Dennis Hallman. The IFL had a show in Everett a year ago and Strikeforce just held their first show at the Tacoma Dome in February. Is MMA gaining a lot more attention in Washington?

Cindy Hales: MMA is growing in Washington just like in the rest of the world. It used to be that all of the MMA shows were at relatively small venues. The first show at the Tacoma Dome was pretty small, there were tons of empty seats. At the last show at the Tacoma Dome, Strikeforce, there was a huge line of people waiting for the doors to open. It was a huge event. It was awesome to see how much it has taken off in the area.

Bevois: Who are some of your favorite MMA fighters and jiu-jitsu players to watch compete or model your game after?

Cindy Hales: Like I said before, I really like Megumi Fujii as a fighter and a grappler. Urijah Faber is on the top of my list right now. He is so creative with his moves and I really like to watch his fights. Of course, Marcelo Garcia is one my all time favorites in grappling. How can you not like that guy? I am trying to incorporate more wrestling into my game so I have really been watching a lot of the more wrestling influenced guys – Dan Henderson, Randy Couture. There are other guys like Ricardo Liborio, Jacare, Terere, Mario Sperry that I have always liked. The list is huge really, I try to see technique from as many people as I can and then see how it will incorporate into my game or just how to defend myself against it. Also, I have been watching lots of straight boxing – Tyson, Ali, Mayweather. I think I am just starting to really be able to appreciate boxing and all of its intricacies.

Bevois: There have been some rumors going around the Internet world about you vowing to submit Gazzy Parman. You two did have a close overtime match in 2005 that you won, but you both seem to show a lot of respect towards each other in conversation. Was that vow simply a rumor and would you eventually like to have another match with Gazzy?

Cindy Hales: There was no vow made on my part. I was initially going to be competing in the GQ pro trials in New Jersey at the end of June and I was interviewed regarding that tournament. I was asked what I thought of the girls in my division and how I felt about competing against Gazzy. There was some controversy in our finals match back in 2005. I won on a sudden death takedown. I don’t like winning in that manner and I commented in the interview that I was looking forward to competing against Gazzy again and that this time I was going to submit her. It wasn’t a vow, I was just stating what I thought would happen. It really has nothing to do with Gazzy at all. I am sure she feels the exact same way. People enter grappling tournaments to win. I have always loved to compete and I love to win. I train hard so that I can win. I believe in myself and my technique and that I can beat anyone out there between 120-135 pounds on any given day. I am not trying to be cocky or arrogant, there are tons of great grapplers out there and Gazzy is one of them. I just have confidence that the next time we compete it will go my way, just like I have confidence that I can beat Megumi, that I can beat Gina and Tara. I am a competitor and I train and prepare to win. It is not personal or malicious, I expect my opponents to feel the exact same way about me. It is our jobs as fighters to go out and win. Who wants to watch a fighter who prepared to lose? As far as the Internet world and all of that goes, it is all part of it. Promoters promote, that is what they do. What better way to get people excited about the card than to bring up old rivalries and feed off of them and exaggerate them. That is part of the big picture game in terms of marketing fights and fighters. I don’t take any of it too seriously. I have respect for all the people I compete against. All of the Internet hype about Gazzy and I is just fluff to get people to buy tickets and get engaged in the match up. If that’s what it takes to get people to come out and watch then that is fine with me. Once they get there they will be exposed to world class grappling and hopefully see the real beauty of the sport and be able to move past all of the hype about vows and all of that.

Bevois: Speaking of the Internet, a lot of people feel athletes should be allowed to tape their own matches for their own private personal use and training, if promoters are going to end up making money off their name and likeness. How do you feel about this?

Cindy Hales: I absolutely think that fighters should have the ability to tape their matches for personal use and training, especially when often promotions say they will provide tape and then never do. I have fights and grappling matches that I was promised footage on, that I still haven’t received. Watching video is a really beneficial tool. It allows a fighter to really review what happened and what can be improved upon moving forward. I believe first and foremost in technique and constantly improving and learning and I want any tool I can that will help me achieve this.

Bevois: You are set to face Gracie Humaita black belt Gabriela Bermudez at the World Grappling Games’ PAC SUB in Honolulu, Hawaii on the weekend of June 27-29. On the 28th you two will compete in a gi and then on the 29th you two will compete in no-gi. Do you prefer one over the other?

Cindy Hales: I definitely prefer no-gi and have trained exclusively no-gi for the past 3 years. This gi match is good for me though, because it is making me revisit my roots as a BJJ player. I have really gone off on a tangent with no-gi and wrestling and have to think about the nuances of the gi will change my perspective again. The first few days back in the gi definitely irritated me a little bit. I respect the gi a lot and also respect Gabriela as a gi player. I have a bit of a strategy laid out for this match up, we will see if it works. One thing is for sure, I am going to be much happier when we get to the no-gi day.

Bevois: You and Gazzy along with Felicia Oh are three of the most decorated black belt women in America. Do you think jiu-jitsu will eventually become more popular among women the way it is with men?

Cindy Hales: Definitely, I think jiu-jitsu will pick up for women. There is just sort of a learning curve both in terms of just accepting the validity and value of the sport, as well as a technical learning curve. The level of women is already getting higher and I think as more girls get into it at a young age, along with wrestling being offered to more girls in school, we will see this keep improving. Also with women being featured in events like PAC SUB and also in mainstream MMA organizations, the sport becomes more legitimate for women. Girls can see that it is an option for them just as much as it is for the guys. It is a really exciting time right now and it is up to the female competitors and the promoters to handle it in the right way so that the sport is able to continue to grow.

Bevois: You and Gabi will be competing alongside the Jeff Monson and Kumu Cambra, who are both very accomplished in the sport. Are you excited to see this match take place live at the PAC SUB?

Cindy Hales: I am always excited to watch Jeff Monson. I have trained with him a few times when he was in Olympia, WA at the Top Team school there and he has helped me out in the past as far as getting on events so I will be cheering for him. I have heard a lot about Kumu and know that he is going to be the favorite of the Hawaiian fans and a lot of the Egan Inoue/Grappling Unlimited fans. It should be an exciting match up not matter who wins. This time though, I am going with my hometown fighter and friend, and pick Monson to win.

Bevois: B.J. Penn, Egan Inoue, Mia St. John, Jeff Glover, Mike Fowler, Ryan Lizares, Sidney Silva, Scott Bieri, Joel Tudor, Sim Go, Dentinho, Niko Vitale, Rafael Lovato Jr., and many other big names in the sport are also scheduled to be attending this event. How do you feel about competing in the PAC SUB, in a sport that is so popular among the local Hawaiian fans and competitors?

Cindy Hales: I am super excited to compete in Hawaii. From what I hear the martial arts and fighting culture there is huge, so to be able to compete there alongside some of the top players in the world and at such a large event is going to be awesome. I am excited to see not only all of the grappling, but also all the other stuff that is happening in conjunction with the tournament. I like meeting new people, seeing all of the new gear and all of that kind of stuff, so I am looking forward to having a great time. Also , I have never been to Hawaii so I am also really eager to see the sites, enjoy the sun and the beaches. This is a dream trip for me, Seattle is cold and rainy and I can’t wait to be in Hawaii doing what I love to do most.

Bevois: What are some of your future goals in jiu-jitsu and MMA?

Cindy Hales: I am going to be focusing on competing in both grappling and MMA events for the next 5 years or so. I am ready to make up for the lost time I had when I was out in 2006 with an injury. I have so many people that I want to compete against and there are some titles out there that I want to win. My game has really evolved and I just keep getting better, so make sure and watch for me in the future. Beyond that, I love teaching and will move into that after I finish with my fighting career. I want to have a strong kids program and competition team and so I am always thinking about how I can best do that and about getting all the knowledge and technique I can so that one day I can help create truly great champions.

Bevois: Do you have any sponsors that you would like to thank?

Cindy Hales: I would like to thank Madsen Medical Spa,, On The Mat, Reelworld, and House of Pain for there sponsorship and support. I also need to thank my work, Redapt Systems, for all the support and understanding they give me. And of course my coaches and training partners – Rodrigo Lopes, Mike Gavronski, Eric Dahlberg , Josh Cutler, Alex Love, and everyone else.

Bevois: Is there anything else that you would like to add before you compete at the World Grappling Games’ PAC SUB in Hawaii on June 27-29?

Cindy Hales: I think that about covers it. Just thanks again to everyone.

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