If you’ve ever watched the 1971 classic movie “Fiddler on the Roof,” you likely remember the song “Matchmaker,” in which the ladies sing in hopeful expectation that the village’s matchmaker will make them a good match for a husband. Have you ever wondered how fighters get matched? Maybe they have to sing the same song but modified to, “Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match; find me a fight! Catch me a bout!” For many fight fans, and a surprisingly large amount of fighters as well, the role of matchmakers is unknown, misunderstood, and somewhat of a mystical process that leaves many in the same position as Tevye’s daughters: optimistically hopeful yet unsure of what comes next.
In order to shed some light on the matchmaking process, I sat down with Jen Heffentrager, the matchmaker for USKA (United States Kickboxing Alliance) and owner/instructor of Resolution One Conditioning and Kickboxing in Gilbertsville, PA. She is currently in the process of making history by having matched the first two female professional Muay Thai fights in Pennsylvania. Jen started boxing eight years ago, leading her to become a boxing trainer, which in turn led to her training MMA and kickboxing. She earned her first degree black belt, white stripe, from Irv Althouse and has since begun to promote her own students. Jen is a veteran of matchmaking, having matched for 12 USKA shows–including the upcoming January 28th card. Her interview highlights the often unseen role matchmakers have, her passion for the challenge of her role, and her own personal journey.
Fighting Stance Media: What first got you interested in being a matchmaker?
Jen Heffentrager: I fought my first fight on a USKA card for Irv. It is because of that experience that I was fortunate enough to meet Irv. We became friends quickly and I think he saw the passion in me for everything having to do with the fight world. I was interested in getting fighters in the ring, helping them reach success. I started helping him out, he showed me the ropes, so to speak, and then I got licensed for matchmaking pro and ammy [amateur] in PA.
FSM: What has been the biggest surprise of your role?
Jen: I think the biggest surprise of the role has just been the role itself! If someone had told me even 10 years ago this is what I’d be doing, I never would have believed it. It’s also surprising that I love it more than I even did when I started doing it, and that I’m obsessed with it.
FSM: What is the most rewarding part of matching fights?
Jen: The great thing about matchmaking is that the rewards are ongoing from start to finish, and beyond. When I initially speak to a fighter about a possible match, to securing that match, to seeing that match take place in the ring, there’s rewards every step of the way. And the rewards keep coming, as in cases of matching a debut fight, and then matching that fighter again and again, seeing their progression and their passion grow. It’s pretty amazing.
FSM: What mindset do you have when you are matching fighters?
Jen: My matchmaking mindset is “LET’S DO THIS!” I approach each card that needs to be matched with a fight mindset of my own. I get all pumped up mentally and my adrenaline kicks in. I have hundreds of papers and tons of folders with weight classes, records, styles; I put it all out in front of me, and I think to myself, “I’m making this happen.” I’m coming out of this with a full card of amazing fights. It is challenging and can be frustrating, but I get obsessed with figuring it out. What are the best matches I can make for the fighters and for USKA? What matches will draw people in? What do ticket buyers want to see? There are so many elements to it.
FSM: When do you know when you have made the best match?
Jen: I know I have made the best match when I have looked at all the factors involved and put two opponents next to each other on paper and everything aligns. So much thought goes into it on my part in the pre match/pre fight phase that I know I’ve done my job. The fighters have their job to do in the ring.
FSM: USKA is set to have the first ever professional female Muay Thai fights in PA. How does it make you feel to be a part of such significant history? Did you approach matching these historical fights any differently than other fights?
Jen: This is not the first time USKA has made significant history. We are the first ones to do pro [Muay Thai] in PA, so making history again by having the first female pro fights was the next natural and NECESSARY progression here. My approach for this was just a bottom line mindset for me. BOTTOM LINE, PRO FEMALES ARE BEING PRESENTED ON THIS CARD. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. It was happening. I’ve been talking to one particular fighter, Lisa Edinger, since July 2016 about this. I had said to her then, “You are turning pro and I want USKA to be your pro debut”. It didn’t even hit me at the time that it would be groundbreaking in that no pro female fights had even happened yet in PA on our cards, I was just determined to have female pro fights on the card.
FSM: What have you learned about yourself as a person from this role?
Jen: I think this role has been a reminder of who I am, what I’ve done, where I’ve been. It has maybe solidified any doubts I may have had about my strengths and capabilities and character. This role pulls all the best parts of me together. I am a fierce person that doesn’t quit, especially when challenged, especially when others look at me and assume I will fail. Why? Because I’m a female, because I don’t have a lengthy fight career, because they assume I don’t know enough? I have proven that wrong. But that’s not why I did this. I did this to be something to the fighters. To give them a chance to fight, to start their journey or continue their journey. And I will do whatever it takes to see that happen. I will sacrifice my time, energy, sleep, training time, to get fighters a fight. It’s who I am. This role suits me perfectly in so many ways.
FSM: What is one thing you wish other people understood about the job of matchmaking?
Jen: I wish people understood that this job is NOT easy. I’m sure most people think they could do it. It’s simple, right? You have a bunch of fighters, pair them up, and you’re good to go. WRONG. This is a job that takes crazy dedication, attention to detail, TIME…and by time, I mean 24/7! This job never stops. There’s always another fight, fighter, coach, that needs to be addressed. My phone blows up. Email, text, calls, Facebook messenger–it’s insane. And you have to care. A LOT. You can’t half ass this job. You have to be all in. It is very consuming mentally. You want to see the best outcome for all parties involved and all perspectives. You have to know the rules! This stuff takes thought and focus and SACRIFICE. It’s not a cake walk. You have to know that it can all fall apart like a house of cards. You have to have a THICK SKIN. This isn’t for the sensitive types. You have to stand your ground in this game, or you will get trampled.
FSM: What has been the most challenging aspect?
Jen: The most challenging part of this for me is knowing when to pull back and come up for air and attend to the other areas of my life. It is a challenging job overall, and I love a good challenge to the point that it will be all I want to do until I “conquer” it, so to speak. I have to find a balance and know when to put it down and walk away for a little bit.
FSM: What is a key to being successful?
Jen: Caring about the end results. Being willing to do whatever it takes whenever you need to for any reason no matter what, and being a little bit crazy. You also have to love the rewards and challenges and frustrations and failures equally in order to succeed.
FSM: What is it like working with USKA promoter Irv Althouse?
Jen: The event itself and pulling it all together is stressful, but working alongside Irv is not stressful. He has given me an amazing opportunity to be his partner and matchmaker at USKA. He IS kickboxing and Muay Thai in PA! He has taught me so much, taken me under his wing, but he has also let me have and use my large, loud voice for change and progression, and let me set my eye on this arena. I am grateful to work with someone with a reputation in the fight community such as his and to be associated with USKA.
In her responses Jen mentioned Lisa Edinger, check out FSM’s article on Lisa to learn more about her story. Come witness history by watching PA’s first ever professional female Muay Thai fights this Saturday (1/28/2017) by getting a ticket through http://www.uskafights.com/tickets