She may not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but Gillian Davis is the closest thing we have to a real-life superhero. The BJJ brown belt who runs Brazen Martial Arts with her husband, Garry (who she married on the academy’s mats), has been busy over the last couple years. In addition to working a full-time job and running the academy, she’s also earned her PhD in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, had a baby, and lost 110lbs. It’s understandable that even an avid, driven competitor like Davis would need some time away from tournaments and superfights as she focused on, you know, everything else, but tonight, she’ll be making her big return on the Fight 2 Win stage against Abi Pacinelli.
When you look at Davis’ accomplishments in martial arts — including a 3-1 MMA record and double gold in the purple belt Masters 1 division at No-Gi Worlds in 2015 — it’s hard to imagine her as anything but a motivated mat savage. However, she claims that the lifestyle she lived back in 2011 was very different from the one she leads now. She was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day and weighed 210lbs, and a month before her 30th birthday, she decided to try jiu-jitsu as part of her plan to get healthier. As it turned out, the competitive nature of the sport is what gave her the push she needed to drop the weight and change her life forever. Four months after she started training, she agreed to do a NAGA tournament (despite having no idea what “NAGA” was) and made weight at 135lbs.
Since that pivotal tournament, Davis has continued to set — and meet — her own high expectations, whether on the mats, in the cage, or in the classroom. Wanting to finish her PhD before having to go on maternity leave, she was working hard while pregnant, and even though she had to take time off training to ensure a healthy pregnancy, she says it was all worth it.
“It was a frustrating ride mostly due to nearly losing my first to preterm labor back in the early 2000s (He’s going to be 17 this year!), and apparently I’m ‘old’ now, so that adds risk also,” she says. “I think I had been going so hard for so many years that I almost welcomed a bit of a break, and I had a 200-page dissertation to write/defend and that kept me really busy. I defended my thesis in October 2017 and Graysen was born in December.”
While no PhD is easily earned, it’s worth noting that Davis’ particular area of study is pretty much exactly what you’d expect ridiculously smart people to get their PhD in. As she explains, “My thesis work involved computational analysis of families with schizophrenia, specifically looking at 10 individuals representing large families to try and find common genetic variants that predispose people to schizophrenia.”
A self-described “tech nerd,” Davis says her journey to her PhD started with a program that would give her a career in nursing. “I don’t really like people, though, and found out that if I did lab work I could still help people without actually dealing with them,” she says. “I completed an Associate’s degree in laboratory technology, but there were no jobs. So I continued on with my bachelor’s and once I finished that it just seemed to make sense to get a PhD.
“I ended up rotating to a lab that did human genetics on mental health disorders (specifically autism and schizophrenia) and just fell in love with the work and the people. Now I work on a larger project covering all psychiatric disorders where we maintain a website that allows investigators to share their data and biosamples to other researchers in the field. It’s really exciting to be involved in something that can really help to move this type of research forward.”
As if all of this wasn’t enough of a challenge, Davis was faced with another difficult, but familiar struggle following the birth of her baby: weight loss. Prior to getting pregnant, she’d maintained a walking weight of about 130lbs, and when she returned to jiu-jitsu in February 2018, she was over 200lbs. “I used to play a lot of inverted/guard and it was soul-crushing to have legs like logs and to feel like I was going to suffocate on my own fat while I was upside down. But I knew it wouldn’t be forever, and I knew it was a great opportunity to learn some new stuff.”
Davis had proven before that she could lose a lot of weight in a short amount of time, but as much as she wanted to get down to her “before” numbers again, she’s been taking her weight loss slowly for her benefit and the baby’s. She adds that she’s grateful to her F2W opponent for taking the match at 140lbs so she didn’t have to cut.
“I’m still breastfeeding and did not want to dehydrate. I’ve done MMA as low as 116. I could have easily made 130 from here, but I would not have accepted a match at that weight given the circumstances. I know my opponent has fought up to 145 for F2W and normally does lightweight for IBJJF (136/141.5 for no-gi/gi), but I understand when there is the opportunity for night-before weigh-ins people like to play the cut weight game. So I appreciate her sacrifice and that she did not make a big deal out of it.”
Through all her struggles and accomplishments, Davis has had the blessing of a great support system, especially in her husband and son. “Typically I was up at 5 a.m. to make us all breakfast (we love vegan banana oatmeal pancakes — they are life). Pack lunches for everyone, get my eldest to high school and head into work (as a graduate student), usually in by 7. I would work on my thesis until I had to leave around 1 p.m.. Get home, relax a bit with the hubby, make dinner, and then head over to Brazen to help run the front while Garry taught. Usually, I would do some office work and work more on my thesis. My advisor said she never had someone finish one so fast. I think it took me under three months.”
Rest, recharge, repeat.
As Davis makes the final preparations for her match this evening, she says she feels calm. “It’s just something else I need to do this week,” she says. “I have done as much as I can between juggling work, the kiddos, and our school. I feel ready, but I also understand I am going up against a very accomplished opponent who has been putting in a lot of work specifically for this match. I decided to make F2W my first competition back at my regular weight because it seems like a good measurement of my progress to go in a high-pressure environment against someone who trains a lot.”
Win or lose, this battle-tested competitor is looking forward to using this match as a step closer toward her personal goals (which, yes, include getting her black belt) and a great way to set a good example for those who look up to her. “Now is the time to hunt down those remaining weaknesses and set them right,” she says. “This is also why I’ve chosen to compete throughout my weight loss. I love martial arts, but it’s only a part of who I am; it does not define me in whole. I would rather my kids see me trying and failing as opposed to making up excuses or padding my record by never really putting myself out there when times were tough.”
As a final note, Davis sends out a message of gratitude to everyone who has contributed to her success. “A big thank you to my main coach/husband Garry Davis, Coach Mickey Hall, all of my teammates at Brazen Martial Arts, and all of the ladies who come out to our monthly open mat. Thanks to Coach Erik and Tonya Paulson from CSW under which we are an affiliate school. Also, thank you to Coach Billy Robinson for all of the catch wrestling wisdom he gave us, may he rest in peace. All that I have accomplished would have been impossible without these amazing coaches/people who helped me along the way.”
You can watch Davis vs. Pacinelli, plus many other exciting matches when F2W 119 streams live from Philadelphia, PA tonight on FloGrappling.