Red Bluff’s female heavy-hitter
Avery Vilche is a small but feisty mixed-martial-arts fighter
Though she’s only 5 feet, 2 inches tall and weighs only 125 pounds, Avery Vilche walked confidently into the cage, ready to spar with a young man at least 15 pounds heavier than she. Almost immediately, she took charge, throwing him around with more force than anyone would expect from the tiny fighter.
Nicknamed the Eskimo Warrior, the 41-year-old mixed-martial-arts fighter from Red Bluff may not have size in her corner, but she’s never been one to back down from a challenge. After starting as a boxer before women were even allowed to participate in U.S. Amateur Boxing, and earning several commendations including a gold medal in the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, Vilche continues to overcome obstacles and adversity as she trains for her next fight in North Carolina this Friday (June 17).
“All my life I have been drawn to fighting,” the feisty Vilche said during a recent interview at the gym she owns with her husband. “When you are in a boxing ring or a cage and you are going against someone who wants to hurt you as much as you want to hurt them, it’s the ultimate adrenaline rush.”
The common response to Vilche’s passion for dancing around the boxing ring is skepticism. She’s either too small, too old, or too … female.
“People say, ‘Wow, you’re a fighter?’ But then I wonder if Manny Pacquiao gets the same thing as a male,” Vilche said of the pro boxer who has won 10 world titles and eight weight divisions and hits only 5-feet-6 on a good day.
“She might be 41, but she trains like she’s 20,” said Manuel Whatley, Vilche’s boxing coach, who has been around martial arts for 30 years and says he recognizes the fighter in her. “She has the most outgoing personality, but when it comes to her training she is all business.”
Vilche, who works full-time at Tehama County Mental Health, has been involved with various forms of fighting since she was 19 years old. She was the only woman on her Chico State wrestling team. And as soon as U.S. Amateur Boxing started allowing female boxers in 1993, she became a Golden Gloves Champion. Vilche then made the switch to kickboxing and became an International Kickboxing Federation bantamweight champ.
Vilche retired from the ring at the early age of 26 in the wake of a few personal injuries, and a few years later, in 1999, she and her husband, John, lost their first training gym to the economy.
It wasn’t until 2007 that Vilche, while watching Ultimate Fighter Championships, discovered mixed martial arts and came out of her corner ready to fight again.
“I remember thinking, ‘Now, that’s real fighting,’” Vilche said. “That’s boxing and kickboxing and the chokes and arm bars and everything you would want to do in a fight you can do in mixed martial arts. I have got to try this.”
At the time, John was hesitant, but after she resumed her training and proved her desire to fight, he relented.
In 2008, Vilche—who is part Yup’ik, a native Alaskan tribe—traveled north to Fairbanks, Alaska, to compete in the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics. She won the gold medal for ear weight—a contest in which participants tie weights to their ears and see how far they can walk.
“They just do the craziest stuff up there, really,” Vilche said.
The Vilches are tackling this new challenge head-on—they opened Psycho Fitness and MMA Gym in Red Bluff this April (Vilche’s boxing nickname used to be “Psycho”). The gym has everything needed for Vilche’s training and the classes they provide. John built a small cage in one corner, across from mats and ropes to climb to build upper-body strength. It has become Vilche’s martial-arts haven.
Before Vilche can even get to the gym, however, she works a full day at the Tehama County Mental Health facility as a rehab specialist. With a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Chico State, Vilche says working with the disabled has given her the satisfaction of helping others reach their potential.
“I am results driven, and I see people take leaps and bounds every single day,” she said. “It really charges me up to see such transformations.”
After work, Vilche teaches one class at the gym, and before going through her training for the day, she trains her own fighters, like Alex Fazleev.
The 24-year-old Russian says Vilche’s intensity and devotion to his training are what have inspired him to train harder.
“She bases our training on her own experience and situations that we can learn from,” Fazleev said. Vilche spars with her fighters in the cage as a part of their training and has no problem throwing him around, Fazleev joked.
The lesson that Vilche hopes to teach new fighters is to knock out the naysayers and follow your dreams as far as they will take you.
“I have people tell me every day how stupid it is that I’m doing this,” Vilche said, “but if it’s a dream, then you need to at least try.”