During her four years at Westlake High School, Waldorf native Tara Graff recalled playing soccer and softball for the Wolverines while attending virtually every wrestling match to watch her then-boyfriend compete.
But since graduating from the College of Southern Maryland and then working full time, Graff has started a family and embarked on a combative career of her own. Nicknamed the “Tiny Terror” since her second amateur bout, Graff (1-2) is currently a professional mixed martial arts, or MMA, fighter and this Friday, April 9, following an unplanned eight-month layoff, she will take part in her fourth match at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.
“Back when I was in high school at Westlake, there were few girls who wrestled,” said Graff, who trains at Royal Martial Arts in Waldorf under the watchful eye of coach Mike Pagano. “But I don’t think I ever missed any of my boyfriend’s matches. But once I got into MMA and started fighting on an amateur basis, I was hooked. I won my first amateur bout then lost my next four, but they were all valuable learning experiences. You learn more about yourself from losses than you do from wins.”
Graff has trained extensively for her bouts over the years, balancing motherhood — she has two sons, Kaiden, 11, and Ian, 7, and a step-daughter, Piper, 6 — and her professional career in the medical field with training. Her most recent fight was last August when she lost to Valerie Loureda by a second-round knockout, and her previous match last December was postponed until this weekend. The last week leading up to the fight has offered her a chance to relax, wind down and grasp her thoughts and emotions.
“The training the previous couple of months was really intense,” said Graff, who will turn 35 in late June. “But this past week I’ve been able to slow down and scale back and just focus on what I need to do on Friday. You really need the last week to give your muscles and joints a chance to rest before the fight. You have to stay loose and be able to move around the cage quickly.”
At many of the venues where she has fought, Graff has had a boisterous, loyal supporting group in attendance. But amid the current COVID-19 protocols still in place in most New England states, Graff will step into the cage on Friday in front of an empty arena. Her fans and supporters and various admirers can still view her bout live via You Tube.
“Unfortunately, my main support group will not be there on Friday,” said Graff, who boasts a petite, 5’4”, 125-pound frame. “But I know they’ll be watching at home on the computer and rooting for me. I’ve enjoyed every step of the way. There’s a lot of hard work involved, but I’ve always told all my kids if you want anything you have to work hard for it. No one is going to give you anything.”