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May 21, 2013

‘There’s no better feeling than winning the fight’

MMA Fighter Roma 'Panther' Pawelek finds passion in conflict management

In March, Oregon Law 1L student Roma Pawelek acquired a pinched nerve on the right side of her neck that caused pain to shoot down her shoulder. The culprit? An illegal neck crank Pawelek received while training with a partner at a local gym. For Pawelek, injury is the price one pays for entering the physical world of MMA fighting.

"If you're not getting hurt, you're probably not training hard enough," Pawelek said. Roma-MMA Fight (2)

Mixed Martial Arts fighting, or MMA fighting, is a full-contact sport that incorporates grappling and striking techniques spanning multiple martial arts forms, including Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, Muay Thai and amateur wrestling. Pawelek trains six days a week, in addition to being a full-time student. She was drawn to the sport because of the supportive community, the physical closeness of the sport and because MMA allows her to become a jack-of-all-trades rather than the master of a specific form.

"It's one of the most intimate sports," Pawelek said. "There's no ball you're going after—you're literally going after another person."

Even more unusual, Pawelek applied for and was accepted as a joint degree student with the Conflict and Dispute Resolution Master's program (CRES), focusing on environmental law. For Pawelek, MMA fighting and CRES go hand-in-hand. Both are about resolving conflict; it's just that one takes place at the negotiating table while the other takes place on a gym mat.

Pawelek, originally from Highland Park, Illinois, first encountered fighting six years ago while she was an undergraduate studying English at Carleton College. She had been training for a body building competition when she met a professor who engaged her in a philosophical conversation about the art of boxing. The conversation stayed with her, and she later learned boxing from that coach who also became her mentor. One year later she founded the Carleton Boxing Club. She also picked up parkour, and from there developed her fighting nickname: "Panther."

It took several years for Pawelek to work up to MMA fighting because she had to learn and draw on a variety of martial arts and wrestling techniques. After graduating from Carleton College with a bachelor's degree in English, Pawelek lived in Costa Rica for almost a year. There she started an outdoor martial arts gym near the ocean with a Serbian kickboxer. After she returned to the U.S., she journeyed to Montana, where she began training for MMA fights out of the Dog Pound, a local warehouse-turned-gym that was started by University of Oregon graduate Matt Powers.

Pawelek describes the gym as something out of the movie Fight Club.

"You would just show up and fight," she said. "Our coach, Matt, spent a lot of time developing the fighters on the team into top competitors. It was like a family."

Pawelek chose to attend Oregon Law to open up further career opportunities. Specifically, she wanted to study environmental law and knew the school had a strong environmental program. Pawelek had an interest in outdoor activities like hiking and fly fishing, making Oregon Law, nestled in scenic Eugene, an ideal choice. In 2012 she enrolled in the school.

Roma-MMA FightAssistant Professor Jen Reynolds, who is also associate director for the Appropriate Dispute Resolution Program, recently hired Pawelek to help her create an "orientation boot camp" that combines physical and mental training for incoming 1Ls. Through the boot camp, Reynolds wants to prepare first-year students for the level of physical and mental acuity law school demands.

"Law school does require a certain level of mental fitness and discipline, not to mention physical stamina, and matching good study habits with physical exercise seemed like a great idea for our students," said Reynolds. "Not only does [Pawelek] train people (many of them lawyers) at the gym, she understands how law school works and how important the mind-body connection is."

Reynolds was the force that encouraged Pawelek to train for an upcoming MMA fight in the summer rather than apply for externships. With MMA fighting, a fighter's body can withstand physical impact only so long before it succumbs to injury and develops long-term health problems. Reynolds knew that Pawelek only had a small window of time to compete in MMA fights, and encouraged her to take a summer to pursue her passion while her schedule was still flexible.

Pawelek won two fights this past spring—a Jiu-Jitsu tournament, and an MMA match. She says that training and fighting helps her focus on schoolwork.

"Hobbies refresh you and make your study time more productive," said Pawelek.

When summer ends, Pawelek will trade in MMA for her true love: Jiu-Jitsu. For a little over a year she's trained in Jiu-Jitsu at Northwest Martial Arts in Eugene, Oregon. Pawelek says that in Jiu-Jitsu, it's easier for smaller fighters like her to beat larger fighters based on technique. In addition, while MMA can be hard on a fighter's body, Jiu-Jitsu is gentler and a therefore a better long-term option.

"In the professional world you can't come to work with black eyes and scratches," Pawelek said.

In her spare time, Pawelek works as a part-time personal trainer at the Downtown Athletic Club, and spends time with her boyfriend, another Jiu-Jitsu fighter whom she met in Montana. "Some of my classmates make fun of me," Pawelek said. "I come to class and when it's over I teleport out." Despite her busy schedule, she manages to successfully juggle training, fights, schoolwork, her job and her personal life.

"School is the best time to practice a hobby because you have a flexible schedule," said Pawelek.

Upon graduating from Oregon Law, Pawelek would like to apply her degree to resolving environmental conflicts. But until then, she'll balance her studies in conflict resolution with time in the ring.

"There's no better feeling than winning the fight," she said.

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