Dr. A.J. Marsden tending a wounded mixed martial arts warrior. Photo Credit: Lucas Noonan
By Gabrielle Russon
Blood oozed from the fighter’s nose. His face was battered. A scrape above his eye spelled possible trouble.
It was almost time for Andrea “A.J.” Marsden to get to work.
Marsden, a Beacon College associate psychology professor, moonlights as a cutwoman for Bellator MMA, one of the largest combat sports promoters.
For 60 seconds between rounds, she bandages athletes so they can survive another blow and stay in the fight. She also wraps their hands before each battle begins. It puts her right in the middle of the thrilling, violent and enormously popular MMA that boasts millions of fans around the world.
Watching the match from her spot behind the coaches, Marsden makes a mental checklist for her minute to piece the fighter back together.
“You see all this blood, you’re like, ‘Okay, I gotta do this, I gotta do this, I gotta do this’,” Marsden said. “You assess the situation. What do I need to take care of first? And then what might I have time for at the end? So you set a plan.”
All eyes fall on her during those 60 seconds. The fighter stares at her as she stops his bleeding. The crowd watches, too. Don’t forget the invisible audience, the fans watching on YouTube and Showtime where Bellator matches air.
“It’s the ultimate form of somebody watching you work,” said her husband, Matt Marsden, the lead cutman for Bellator.
Performing triage on a fighter’s injuries, Marsden said she stays focused in the zone.
“You don’t really think about it. You just act,” said Marsden, who worked her first big Bellator show in 2020. “You go in there, and you do it.”
Marsden is part of a small minority of women working behind the scenes in combat sports. She became the first female cutman to work a professional MMA fight in Paris and Japan.
She is proud of her role in the industry and the other women leading the charge in MMA. Marsden hopes it inspires other girls and women to get involved in the sport.
“The women fighters are breaking barriers,” Marsden said. “If you compare a female fight today versus a female MMA fight from 2008, the difference is night and day, the skills that these women have.”
As one of the rare women in her role, Marsden spoke positively about the other cutmen who encourage her and trade tips to the MMA fighters who are professional and appreciative of her work.
Still, not everyone is supportive of women entering a male-dominated sport. Marsden acknowledged she is assigned to work only with fighters who treat her with respect. Some men harboring sexism still exist in the industry – a sad reality Marsden knows.
Marsden’s journey began in Wisconsin where she grew up playing traditional sports, like basketball and volleyball. After high school, she joined the military, hoping to see the world. (She ended up going to Missouri and Texas instead.)
In the U.S. Army, she became a surgical nurse and fell in love with combat training, learning how to test and push her body. She also fell in love with her future husband, a lifelong fan of combat sports.
Marsden took up kickboxing and Jiu Jitsu. Along the way, she also earned her Ph.D. and started teaching psychology at Beacon in 2014.
Before a recent fight in Connecticut, Marsden wrapped the hands of a young professional fighter who was visibly nervous. Marsden’s background made her the perfect sports psychologist to help him.
“Tell me your game plan,” she said. “Tell me how you envision this fight going. What do you see at the end?
The more the man talked, the more confident he became.
“I’ll see you cage-side,” Marsden said.
The fighter won the match.
Back in the classroom at Beacon, Dan O’Rourke discovered his professor loved MMA fighting just as much as he did.
When O’Rourke got a bad case of pneumonia and was hospitalized during the semester, Marsden used her industry connections and asked O’Rourke’s favorite fighter, Roy “Big Country” Nelson, to send a personal video with recovery wishes.
“He dedicated the fight to me,” said O’Rourke, a 2020 Beacon graduate. “She gave me the poster of the fight card with his autograph on it. I still have it hanging up in my room. That’s why A.J. is one of the greatest people I’ve ever come into contact with in my entire life.”