Fighting through fear

GVL / Kevin Sielaff - Nikita Netjes trains with Santoz Farias at Triumph MMA on Plainfield Ave. in Grand Rapids Tuesday, April 12, 2016.

Kevin Sielaff

GVL / Kevin Sielaff – Nikita Netjes trains with Santoz Farias at Triumph MMA on Plainfield Ave. in Grand Rapids Tuesday, April 12, 2016.

Audra Gamble

Nikita Netjes steps into the ring, dressed in a red sports bra and black shorts. Another woman awaits in the ring. The two greet each other, and the punches start to fly. Kicks, uppercuts, sharp elbows and jabs greet the two as they fight for dominance. Often, the women come out of the cage with black eyes or blood trickling down the side of their faces.

But none of this comes as surprise to Netjes—she’s been fighting her entire life, and she has no interest in stopping.

Five years ago, Netjes was sexually assaulted twice. Since then, she hasn’t won a single fight. Regardless, she’s hoping her luck in the fighting cage turns around.

“Before all that happened, I wouldn’t lose,” she said. “I lost all faith in myself in the cage.”

Netjes, 25, is a mixed martial arts fighter. MMA is a full-contact fighting sport, combining aspects of multiple fighting techniques.

“MMA is boxing, kickboxing, jiu jitsu and wrestling,” Netjes said. “It’s combining all the forms of martial arts into one.”

Netjes has been fighting competitively since high school, where she began as a wrestler. The only girl on a team full of boys, she quickly began raking in the wins.

She competed in state championships, national championships and found herself on the international stage.

She got a full-ride scholarship to the NAIA University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky, but left after a semester. Nejtes felt burned out—wrestling had become a chore rather than her passion. An East Grand Rapids, Michigan native, Netjes came back home to attend Grand Valley State.

During this transition, Netjes found a new passion in MMA and made the switch from wrestling.

“It was a pretty massive switch,” she said. “They both are super physical, but getting punched is the big difference.”

To the untrained eye, MMA fighting seems to have few guidelines on acceptable behavior. That isn’t far from the truth.

“To keep it humane, you can’t bite or try to break someone’s finger,” Netjes said. “There’s no hair pulling, but beside that, it’s pretty much trying to get the person to tap out or knock them out.”

The threat of pain isn’t Netjes’ biggest problem in the cage. Her own mind is.

After she was raped in 2011, her life was derailed and she joined the Air Force to get back on track. During her time in the military, she was sexually assaulted again.

“On Halloween in 2011, I was ranked second in the world as an amateur. I was just walking through my opponents. Then, I got raped,” Netjes said. “I haven’t won a fight since.

“It completely destroyed everything. That really carried over into every aspect of life. When I got back from the military, I did a fight and I got destroyed against a girl who I should dominate. Before that happened, I would have destroyed her.”

Netjes never stopped training, but she took a break from professional fights.

“I haven’t fought the last (four) years,” she said. “Fighting is mostly in your head. Most fighters are fighting events that happened in their life or they have had hard lives. They fight because it’s a good outlet. That’s what I’ve been doing.”

Recently, Netjes has been focusing on getting past reliving her sexual assault experiences in the cage.

“I was freezing in the cage, just shutting down,” she said. “I’ve taken these last (four) years to just focus on PTSD and work through that. I’m going to make sure I win my next fight.”

After her hiatus, Netjes finally feels she’s ready to step back into the spotlight.

“She is a great all-arounder, she has amazing wrestling skills which she uses well on the ground, and is a huge drive for her,” said Monica Nix, a U.K.-based MMA fighter who trained with Netjes at the London Fight Factory. “Sometimes, it’s good to take a break from something you’re stuck on and come back with fresh eyes. I think it will be great for her to come back.”

With the big date of her return right around the corner, Netjes feels confident, but nervous.

“Going into this, it’s nerve-racking,” she said. “It’s publicly fighting my own personal life in the cage. I need to win this fight and make something of the sexual assaults. I need to not let the PTSD win.”

In addition to getting back to competitive fighting, Netjes is also seeking legal prosecution of her attacker, through a division in the military that looks to overturn rape cases.

After battling her inner demons, Netjes thinks she’s got what it takes to climb back to the top. Just in the nick of time, too, since her comeback fight is slotted for April 29 in Salt Lake City.“This is where I’ve taken the time to train. The next few fights, I’ll blow through the competition,” Netjes said. “I’ll be fighting girls who look at my 0-2 pro record and think “Oh, she’s a piece of cake.’ They don’t understand that I’ve been working my butt off. I expect that this next year will be explosive for me. The UFC should be just around the corner.”

That positivity may serve as a huge benefit to Netjes heading in to her upcoming matchup. Her less-than-stellar professional record may make opponents underestimate her abilities, or at least that’s what she hopes. But anyone who knows Netjes isn’t counting her out just yet.

“It’s really hard to knock me out. I’m really tough. I can take a ton of punches,” she said. “To be able to keep fighting in the cage means I’ve kept fighting in my whole life.

“I’ll keep fighting. I won’t stop.”