Hatice “The Turkish Delight” Ozyurt, was born in the Netherlands, to Turkish parents. They were very traditional and devout people. Theirs had been an arranged marriage, when they were in their late teens. Turkish tradition dictated that Hatice should herself be married at age 18, but her mother Fatma wanted a different life for her only daughter.
“In the beginning, when I started mixed martial arts, 18 years ago, my family on my father’s side they didn’t accept that a Turkish girl was starting MMA because they expected that at 17 or 18 years old, I would be married…But my mother said ‘when I have a daughter, she will have a choice’”
Hatice started kickboxing at age 12, becoming the first Turkish female in the Netherlands to do so. Nobody in her family accepted it. They thought it unladylike and undignified, but her mother stood up for her.
“She said ‘no, I am going to support my daughter,’ she said to me ‘promise me that you will make of your sport a success.’ I said I promise you mom and I going to be a champion. She said ‘good, because I am going to fight for you, so don’t make a fool of me.’”
Hatice went on to win a world title at age 18. In the face of so much opposition, I was curious to hear what had enticed Hatice into the world of MMA. She talked about the influence of Dutch K1 fighters. She was very taken with Ray Sefo in particular.
“I was very set on him. I said to my mom, one day I am going to meet him. So, I did, he is now my coach in America.”
As a child Hatice had been short and had very full lips. The other kids teased and bullied her because of it. When she started high school one of the ring leaders was there and she began to threaten Hatice again. Hatice had taken one kickboxing lesson when the bully approached her in Walmart.
“She wanted to hit me. I had just had one kickboxing lesson. I gave her a hook and she broke her cheek. Her parents were happy I did it, she made trouble with everyone.”
Hatice’s parents, on the other hand, were not impressed by their daughter’s display of strength. Her mother insisted that she go to the girl’s home with flowers and apologise. It was non-negotiable. After the apology her mother said,
“Okay, I’m proud of you. But never, ever put your hands on someone because you do kickboxing. If you do, I will take the Turkish shoes, and I will hit you!”
It is obvious when speaking with Hatice the huge impact her mother had on her life and her career. Sadly, her mother passed away on the 29th of December. The evening I spoke with Hatice she had spent the day clearing out her mother’s clothes for donation to charity. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been for her.
Every fighter I have spoken to has had their own struggles to deal with, but none have been quite as recent or as raw as Hatice’s. I think for many, such a tragic event would have led them to withdraw from the fight, but for Hatice, it has made her more determined than ever.
Hatice shared a little bit of her mother’s incredible story with me. 15 years ago, Fatma was diagnosed with cancer. She had the disease in five places. Without treatment she was expected to live 3-6 months, even with it the prognosis was not good. The doctor’s warned Hatice’s father to prepare for the worst.
Then a teenager, Hatice overheard what the doctor had said and understandably became upset.
“I cried and my mom said ‘don’t cry my child. You are my daughter, I raised you both to stand up straight, with your head high.’ I said mom, don’t leave us, and she said ‘I am not going to leave. Promise me, be successful in your sport. Don’t ever, ever throw your towel in in that ring, because mom is not going to do that also. I am going to beat this cancer.’”
A year later, following surgery and chemotherapy, Hatice’s mother went into remission. She was given the all clear and even the doctors were amazed. She had beaten the odds. However, her mother’s words have stayed with Hatice throughout her life.
“Those words gave me so much power. When I stand on the catwalk or in the cage, I don’t care about my opponent. I don’t care how many kilos they are or how many titles they have…If they asked me tomorrow ‘do you want to fight Cris Cyborg?’ then I will fight.”
Fatma died peacefully, in her sleep, 15 years later. In the days before her death, she seemed almost to be preparing to leave this world. She had conversations with her family. She instructed Hatice, and her bother Avni, a successful bodybuilder, to make sure they stay on the right path. She had even had her hair done.
“Now I am more dedicated to do the thing that I promised her…The money is not the issue for me. This fight is more than Bellator.”
Hatice’s journey to Bellator 217 has not been a straightforward one. She is going into the fight with a professional record of 1 win and 6 losses. Having been a highly successful kickboxer, there have been opportunities for the Turkish woman to go back to that sport, but she has remained steadfast in her MMA ambitions.
“If you paid me $100,000 to fight a kickboxing tournament, I would not do it. MMA is my thing. MMA is what I love to do.”
Hatice’s coaches warned her that with her poor record she may not have an opportunity to go straight into a big promotion for MMA.
“I said you’re right. There are a lot of ladies who deserve it more than me. But if it is written for me, then I will be in it…They (Bellator) gave me a chance, and it was like on a golden plate…When I heard it, I fell to my knees”
I asked Hatice about her MMA career to date.
“In the beginning I struggled a lot. I think it is because you do 16 years of kickboxing and Muay Thai… My striking is very good. I have a good striking record.”
Hatice initially trained in an MMA gym which did not emphasise grappling and wrestling. She was told that this would hinder her progress, but her loyalty made her stay where she was.
“And then I lost. Not because I don’t know the game plan, but I don’t open my mind and my heart on the ground. Maybe I was a tiny bit arrogant…But you are not going to win this MMA with only striking.”
Hatice is now training Tatsujindojo and is perpetually working on her weaknesses. She counsels other kickboxers, who may be looking to transition to MMA, not to make the same mistakes she did.
The 31-year-old is excited at the prospect of perhaps facing Sinead Kavanagh during her 4 fight Bellator contract. She suffered defeat at the hands of Dublin woman 3 years ago and would relish the opportunity of a rematch. Going into that fight Hatice had a shoulder injury and refused to cancel the bout. It was one week out and Hatice respected the hard work and preparation Sinead would have put in during her camp. She didn’t want to deny her opponent the opportunity to fight. She assures me that she has rounded out her skillset since she last faced Sinead and would be expecting a different outcome should they get the chance to face each other again.
“I am very mysterious. If you see my Instagram, I don’t post a lot of things, because I don’t want to be arrogant. I am Hatice. I only can show in the cage who I am… I want to show the skills I have learned in the gym, in the cage and not on Instagram. I don’t need likes or followers.”
On February 23rd, Hatice will face Northern Ireland’s Leah McCourt who has a professional record of 1 win and 1 loss.
“I respect every fighter. She (Leah) is a mother…She looks like a nice person… Let the best woman win. She fights for her daughter and I fight for my mom. We both have a beautiful thing to fight for. When I step in the cage, it’s a different Hatice, because then it’s business.”
The fight is at featherweight, which is close to the weight Hatice walks around at. If Bellator opens a 135lb division, Hatice will aim to fight at that weight, as then she will face athletes the closer to her own height.
Hatice made me laugh when she told me about showing the promotional poster to her mom. Fatma talked about how pretty Leah is, and urged her daughter not to hit her opponent in the face.
Hatice has one of the purest motivations possible going into her fight in Dublin’s 3 Arena. Looking past the fight, Hatice will be taking some time out to grieve the loss of her mother, which until now she hasn’t had an opportunity to do. She plans a vacation and will go to Turkey and visit her mother’s grave.
“This pain, you cannot describe it. It’s like a piece of me is buried with her. But the other piece is here…Everything around us is a test. Now I see things much better than before. For me it’s very important to make the things that I promised come true.”
I want to personally thank Hatice for taking time to talk to me, during what must be an impossibly difficult time in her life. Her mother must be exceptionally proud of her incredible daughter. We wish Hatice the very best for the future and look forward to seeing her in action later this month.
Written by: Arwen Sheridan