Globetrotting fighter eager for more ring action

By Brandon Bosworth

There are many ways to travel the world. Some go for business, or for pleasure as tourists. Others travel as part of their service to the military.

And then there are those such as Lia Berger-Mata’afa, who simply grapples her way around the globe.

That’s been the path for the Maui-born fighter. For the first of this year, she has been a globetrotting wrestler who’s been competing at elite levels. Her second-place finish at the Oceania Championships in Sydney, Australia earned her a spot to compete at the African/Oceania Olympic Trials, held in Morocco, where she placed fifth and just barely missed out on an Olympic spot. She also finished 14th in an Olympic-qualifying event in Helsinki, Finland.

A graduate of Lahainaluna High School, she always played sports growing up, including soccer, volleyball and swimming. It was during her freshman year that she discovered wrestling.

“I was the first female wrestler on Maui and among the few women in the entire state that helped pioneer the growth of sport for women,” she says. “I competed with the boys for most of my high school career, beating a lot of them! I only got to wrestle with girls sporadically.”

In her junior year, Berger-Mata’afa competed in the first “All Girls” unofficial state tournament, placing first as well as taking home the Most Outstanding Wrestler Award. As a senior, she took home the state title in the 140-pound division. She ended her high school career with an undefeated record against female opponents, pinning each competitor in the first period except for her opponent in the state finals, which still won rather handily, 12-3.

Berger-Mata’afa’s family would soon follow in her wrestling footsteps.

“My sister, Gina-Bella Mata’afa, was a four-time state finisher,” she says. “My brother, Hercules Mata’afa, was last year’s runner-up in the state tourney at 215 pounds as a sophomore. And I have two more siblings who wrestle with youth programs as well.”

After graduating high school, Berger-Mata’afa attended Boston University, where she majored in International Relations and earned all-star honors playing rugby. Returning to Hawaii, she earned a second B.A. in Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Still possessing a strong love for combat sports, Berger-Mata’afa started training in mixed martial arts with Chris Leben of Fight School about two years ago. Soon after she began, Berger-Mata’afa felt ready to step into the ring. She was partially inspired by her brother-in-law, Kendall Grove, who has fought in the UFC and is the current ShoFight middleweight champion.

Berger-Mata’afa made her MMA debut last October at the Waikiki Shell against Tiare Kahoekapu, winning by shoulder lock submission in the second round. And while she was ready to take on additional bouts, other things took priority.

“It was an awesome experience to be in the cage,” she says. “I had a few fights lined up after that, but I had to postpone them for an opportunity to wrestle for American Samoa and try to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. Even though I hadn’t wrestled competitively in over 12 years, I jumped at the opportunity.”

Berger-Mata’afa is currently director of operations at the HI-Flyer Wrestling Club, and works closely with head coach Jake Clark. She also continues to train with both Leben and local trainer Travis Ewing.

And all that training will no doubt come in handy, as the second half of 2012 looks to be just as busy as the first.

“I will be returning to the cage Aug. 18 on Kauai for my second MMA fight,” she says. “I am also training for the World Combat Grappling Championships held in Moscow, Russia this year in mid-October, (and) will be competing for American Samoa.”

“And,” she adds, “I’m looking ahead to the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.”

WHO: Lia Berger-Mata’afa
WHAT: Local MMA fighter and wrestler
HOMETOWN: Lahaina, Maui
TRAINERS: Chris Leben, Travis Ewing, Jake Clark
FIGHT DISCIPLINES: Wrestling, Mixed Martial Arts, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu