Tech Sgt. Leah Letson was as nervous as she’s ever been. It had been three years – and a variety of health issues – since she squared up against anyone.
The mixed-martial artist, who doubles as a Wisconsin Air National Guardsman, was medically cleared in July after a hypothyroidism diagnosis. By November, she was face-to-face in the cage with Felicia Spencer, a former Invicta FC featherweight champion.
“I was still second-guessing whether or not my body could handle the fight… I built up this very scary thing in my head for three years of coming back,” Letson said.
But it was more than just a fight – It was a fight she fought for.
“I had a sense of like excitement and pride and happiness that I was able to actually make it back there,” said Letson, who succumbed via TKO in the third round. “It was such an accomplishment for me… It felt good to step back in the cage again.”
Finding MMA through the military
Letson, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee alumna, enlisted in the Guard in 2012 at 19 years old, following in her veteran grandfather’s footsteps.
She chose the Air National Guard in order to continue her studies, remain near family and friends and pursue both a civilian and military career. And preparing for basic training was her unintended gateway into MMA.
Instructors from a cardio kickboxing class invited her to the MMA gym they owned, where she tried jiu jitsu for the first time.
“I just immediately fell in love with it because it was so challenging,” Letson said. “I love challenging myself and pushing myself.”
Once in basic training, it was the first time Letson proved to herself she could do anything she set her mind to.
“Growing up, I wasn’t this super tough kid… I didn’t know how I was going to do in basic training,” she said.
By the end, she graduated with honors.
“That translated over into MMA,” she said. “When I first started, I used that same mindset … When I went into my first fight, I just kind of had that same attitude.”
A knockout debut
Letson’s first fight was in November of 2013 – on less than 24 hours’ notice.
“Being in the cage, I remember feeling like the most alive I’ve ever felt in my life… nothing else in life really compares to that kind of adrenaline rush,” she said.
Except maybe winning by TKO in the first round.
“I didn’t know what to expect at all,” she said. “I’m pretty sure winning is what made me fall even more in love with the sport.”
In 2017, Letson deployed with the 128th Air Control Squadron out of Volk Field Air National Guard Base for six to seven months to the 727 EACS at Al Dhafra Air Base. While she enjoyed the deployment itself, Letson said being away from family and friends was “one of the hardest things” she had to do.
Not to mention stepping away from MMA meant walking away from a “complete lifestyle.” While she was able to run and lift weights while deployed, she said nothing compares to the type of cardio it takes to fight.
“Getting back into fight shape again… that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. And having to push through that mentally,” she said.
Signing with UFC
UFC signed Letson shortly after she returned from Abu Dhabi, and after Yana Kunitskaya was pulled from their fight, Letson was left without an opponent.
That’s when she was asked about season 28 of UFC’s “The Ultimate Fighter,” which featured the first female featherweight cast.
“It was going to be a good experience for me, get me some publicity and exposure and all that,” Letson said. “… It was actually, one of those things kind of like basic training [where you’re] happy you did it but wouldn’t really want to do it again.”
The experience itself was also like basic – just “without all the yelling,” Letson quipped.
“I kind of had an advantage over the rest of contestants,” Letson said. “It was their first time experiencing something like this. I just kind of used my military training to get through it, whereas they struggled a lot.”
But one year later, she had to step away from the cage.
“Each fight got harder and harder to cut weight,” Letson said. “I knew at one point, I could eat a piece of bread and I would put on weight. My body was just holding on to weight.”
The exhaustion she felt after her first UFC fight prompted her to seek medical attention.
“I couldn’t get through a practice without wanting to fall asleep,” she said.
She had her thyroid tested, received a hypothyroidism diagnosis and a “whole laundry list” of health issues that needed to be addressed.
“I was close to hitting some organ failure,” she said.
With the diagnosis confirmed, Letson began working with a specialist. The first couple of months, she took probiotics to change the bacteria in her stomach and address her gut bile. The next year was spent regulating her hormones. Lastly, she addressed her mitochondria – the powerhouse of the cell – through supplements and medication because she said it wasn’t taking in food properly and using it for fuel properly.
Alex Rosencutter, one of Letson’s trainers, has worked with her since 2014 after Letson sought him out to prepare for her fighting career.
“With her being the athlete that she is, MMA is dealing with an acyclic competition cycle, meaning that there’s no direct in season or offseason,” he said. “You have to be 100% ready at all times.”
His focus is on strength conditioning and ensuring Letson’s energy systems are firing “in the right manner.”
“[We’re] really helping her in day to day, to help control her stress all of her different inputs she’s receiving,” Rosencutter said.
Managing ‘extreme depression’
When Letson stepped away from the cage, she went through “an extreme depression” because fighting had been her identity.
“The Guard gave me a sense of purpose still… I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to recover fully,” she said. “[So I thought], ‘Well, at least I have another career to define myself.”
Through technology, Rosencutter said, he can monitor Letson’s heart-rate variability in timeframes ranging from day to day, week to week, to month to month, factoring in training, general life stressors, alcohol intake and the like.
The way she balances her Guard duties and fighting career is something Rosencutter said can’t be taught.
“She has it internally already,” he said. “She does a really good job at it. I’ve seen her schedule that she makes out every single week. All written out… so she knows she’s getting everything done… [and] staying accountable to it.”
First UFC fight back
There were a lot of positives to come out of that first fight back, according to Rosencutter, even though Letson didn’t walk away with the W.
“She stood in the cage with a very strong, powerful, talented and experienced fighter who, I think if anybody else in that cage other than Leah, would have ended in the first round,” he said.
Letson approached the fight with “grit and determination,” controlling what she could and getting through it.
“Physically, she was fully prepared, and she’s just gotta keep hitting the same notes,” he said.
Rosencutter said Letson has always been strong, fast and athletic. But in the time he’s known her, it’s her mindset and “emotional intelligence” that have grown the most.
“Starting out, she was unsure of herself as a fighter and a young woman,” he said. “Now as the years have gone on, her mindset has grown completely into somebody who knows what she needs to attack… [She has] grown into somebody who now has her own coaching business and can serve as as a mentor for other young females coming up through MMA and even in the military as well.”
Letson will make her UFC bantamweight debut in October against Chelsea Chandler.