When Alesha Zappitella first took up the sport of wrestling, it never really occurred to her that she was the only girl on a team filled with nothing but boys.
Growing up in a small town in the most northeastern corner of Ohio, the future Invicta FC atomweight champion was interested in wrestling from a very early age thanks to her older brother. In her world, she never even contemplated that this was a sport meant for any particular gender, despite her school not actually having a program for girl’s wrestling.
“I honestly never really even put it together that I was the only girl until it was pointed out to me,” Zappitella told MMA Fighting. “My brother started wrestling when I was like 1 [year old] and I would go to his practices, and I just started running around on the mats and doing takedowns. I learned how to walk, I learned how to run, I learned how to shoot. To me, it was normal.
“I thought they were all doing it because it was fun and I wanted to join the fun, too. It wasn’t any different. I was never looked at as different because I was just there.”
While her teammates never made Zappitella feel like anything other than just another wrestler, she soon found out that there were plenty of parents from opposing schools who didn’t feel the same way.
In fact, Zappitella discovered that many of the wrestlers facing her weren’t just out to beat her or trying to humiliate her during a match — they wanted to injure her just to prove a point.
“In elementary school, dad’s would tell their children to go out and hurt me because they need to show me why a girl wasn’t supposed to be wrestling,” Zappitella revealed. “Nine times out of 10, I would pin their boy and their boy would leave the mat crying. It followed me all the way through high school.
“I remember at one tournament, I was leading the warmups as the captain of the team. I earned that spot. I was absolutely, undeniably one of the best on the team. I had been there the longest. I knew what I was doing. One of the other kids was like ‘Conneaut is having their girl lead their warmups, how funny is that?’ It is what it is. This has happened multiple times. I didn’t really care. I would just go out on the mats and I’d pin the boys. I pinned almost every single guy that I ever went against.”
Despite those obstacles, Zappitella refused to give up on wrestling because she not only enjoyed the sport, but she was getting rather good at it. Of course, she was also just a natural athlete in general, so she played numerous other sports in addition to wrestling. But that changed after some advice she received from one of her coaches.
“I think I was in fifth grade, and I was an all-star for softball and my softball coach told me I needed to quit wrestling and pursue a girl’s sport because I would never get anywhere with wrestling,” Zappitella said. “It was a boy’s sport.
“At that time, I quit softball and I started wrestling year round. He learned his lesson.”
Truth be told, Zappitella was happy with that decision because she not only embraced wrestling, but she became one of the top athletes at her school regardless of gender.
She put together an incredible winning record while constantly crashing the boy’s club in a state like Ohio, which has produced dozens of world champions in the sport of wrestling.
“I was the only girl within probably an hour radius in wrestling,” Zappitella said. “I always wrestled the boys, grew up wrestling the boys in Ohio and Pennsylvania and I saw the absolute best wrestling in the country as a young girl.”
Considering the kind of sexism she faced during those formative years, it would be completely understandable if Zappitella was bitter or angry about the unfair treatment she received.
Instead, she used every single word said against her as motivation, and while there were plenty of tears shed over the years, Zappitella will readily admit most of the crying came from her competition.
“It really did fire me up a little bit more than just going out there and beating somebody,” Zappitella said. “If I heard they were talking bad about me because I’m a different gender, I would just go out there and beat them even worse. I had some people who would refuse to wrestle me because I was a girl. It really did fuel my fire.”
Zappitella eventually gave up wrestling and decided to become a professional mixed martial artist, which has yielded plenty of positive results for her career.
She not only found a home at Invicta Fighting Championships, but she became the promotion’s atomweight champion this past year, a title previously held by fighters such as UFC veterans Michelle Waterson and Jessica Penne.
Obviously, sexism still exists in sports — sadly, that may never change — but Zappitella knows she made the right choice with her career in MMA where women are routinely celebrated as superstars on par with their male counterparts.
“Honestly, it makes me feel pretty great that not only are we revered so highly in mixed martial arts but I’m in Invicta where it’s all women,” Zappitella said. “We have our own organization. It’s all about us and we’re just gaining momentum every single day.”
On Friday, Zappitella will make the first defense of her 105-pound title at the debut Invicta FC event after the promotion was purchased by Anthem Sports and Entertainment with the card also airing for free on YouTube.
Throughout all the trials and tribulations she faced in wrestling, Zappitella never questioned her commitment to the sport, and she can happily say the same thing now that she’s become of one of the faces of Invicta FC as a reigning champion.
“Being a small female, there’s a lot of things I’ve been told along the way that I can’t do,” Zappitella said. “My body type is not the body type to fit the normal woman. I’m not tall enough, I never will be. So the fact that there is a 105-pound division and a home for me at Invicta, I’m very grateful.
“I’m just excited to see where it goes. I’m excited to show the little girls out there how powerful we can be and we can do anything we set our minds to.”