Carol Linn Powell mixes martial arts with liberal arts — and beer
WORDS / CYNDLE PLAISTED RIALS
Just down the street from my house and over the Berwick Bridge, which connects Berwick, ME to Somersworth, NH, there’s a historic brick row building capped off by Borderline Beverage, a large convenience store with a surprisingly killer local beer selection. Further down the row of doors, sandwiched between The Wolf and The Raven Hookah Lounge, and Smoke and Cream, a restaurant that serves slow-smoked barbecue and small batch ice cream, is Nostos MMA, the home gym of MMA fighter and local beer enthusiast Carol Linn Powell.
That’s like “Carolyn” — never, ever just “Carol.”
“My parents wanted to be difficult,” she says of the two-name and uniquely spelled moniker. It’s not the only thing that makes her stand out. If I were to pull out the 64 pack of Crayolas to find the right color, her hair would fall somewhere between violet and fuschia, and it’s still rippling with waves from the fight braids she just took out. “I kept them in forever. Probably longer than I should have. I mean it takes so long to do them, you want ‘em to last!” It’s one way of holding onto the glow that comes with those moments under the lights, in the cage.
If you’re a fan of New England mixed martial arts, the name “Powell” in conjunction with cagefighting might ring some bells. Powell’s husband Devin is something of a local celebrity, having fought as a lightweight in the UFC. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was her introduction to the sport. “I had no idea about any of this before I started dating him,” she says. “I had done a couple classes just to try it out, but when he opened this place (in 2014), he still had a full-time job. It was either start training or never see him. I think I made a pretty good decision.”
Powell has been training off and on for the last seven years, at first just for fun. In 2016 she started taking it more seriously and looked to compete, but the opportunities for women to fight can be few and far between: “It’s not like we’re in Vegas where there’s a bunch of gyms. It’s definitely tougher to find opponents as females.”
Her most recent fight took place October 29 at Combat Zone 74: Now or Never in Manchester, NH. Organized by New England MMA, the card featured both pro and amateur matches in MMA, jiu jitsu, and kickboxing. Of the 17 matches that night, her 140 lb amateur matchup was the only female fight on the card.
She’d previously seen her opponent, Amanda Ferreira, fight a former teammate a couple years ago, which isn’t surprising given how self-contained the New England MMA community can be. “It’s a very interesting sport because we’re getting in there and beating up on each other, but then we’re having drinks after,” she says. “We all know what it takes to get into the cage — we all have a very mutual respect for each other.” That respect might’ve taken a bit of a hit after this matchup.
The fight rankled Powell, especially since it was her fourth cage appearance without a win. Her opponent’s fighting style was another point of contention. “It was so incredibly frustrating to fight someone that didn’t want to engage and just wanted to run away the whole time,” she says. “We’re fighters and we sign on the dotted line for a cage fight, not to run a 5k. Of course I have things I wish I did differently as well. I should have thrown more volume. I could have cut her off better. But there’s always shoulda coulda wouldas after a fight and I can’t go back and change what happened.”
Until Powell’s next opportunity to really show off the skills she’s gained, she’s focusing on ramping training back up and the day-to-day operations at Nostos. While her role is primarily managing the gym, she’s still doing her part to encourage little girls to grow up to be fighters. While we’re talking, a pint-sized girl in a gi arrives early for class, and Powell asks about her last tournament. The little girl is triumphant. “Oh my gosh, she forfeited? Why, did you growl at her?” Powell teases, grinning. She turns to me. “Maddie is one of our youth savages. She’s awesome.”
More children enter, eager to visit with the animals mucking about at our feet. Those pets include Fenrir and Gunnar, the dogs Powell and her husband share, a gym member’s dog, and most surprisingly, a pretty large pig named Phoebe, a member of the family since she was just a little piglet. “She’s definitely a draw,” Powell says, reaching down to pat her back. “I’ll bring people on a tour (of the gym) and say, ‘And in this area, there’re usually a lot of creatures for you to pet.’”
The vestibule fills with conversations and shoes of all sizes as gym members across the age and gender spectrums prepare for the night’s class, warming up together in the cage. Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us” pumps from the speakers and the room pulses with energy.
“It can be a very intimidating sport,” Powell says. “A lot of people think you have to immediately spar and get punched in the face. I think the hardest part is walking in the door. You can get right into the rolling around and contact, or you can never do that if you don’t want to. Probably only about 10% of the people that train here want to compete in any shape or form.”
But there’s room for all of the reasons people might come to Nostos, whether it’s to prove themselves in a cage in front of an audience, perhaps even fighting for a professional career, or if they’re just looking to prove something to themselves. “We’re super family oriented here. The tagline is ‘Welcome home.’” Which makes sense given the name of the gym: In ancient Greek literature “nostos” refers to the hero’s journey home.
Another of Powell’s homes might be familiar to our readers: Banded Brewing in Biddeford. She started working part time in the tasting room in 2016. “It’s been really cool being in the beer world,” she says. “It’s almost similar to the MMA world as well. It’s a big community, and there’s a lot of crossover (between the MMA and beer communities).”
You can see why it’s another place that matches Powell’s energy. “Banded’s tagline is ‘Band Together.’ We love collaborations, always trying to build that sense of community,” she says. “When Lucky Pigeon opened, people asked how we felt about another brewery coming to the mill, but if you can go to Biddeford and hit three breweries in one spot (Blaze Brewing is also in the mills, with Run of the Mill and Barrelled Souls just over the river in Saco) that’s awesome. It’s good for everybody.”
Probably the most exciting and unexpected thing she does at Banded is running their book club, which meets every five to seven weeks. Powell started the gig in October 2019, and managed to keep it going all through the darkest and most isolated days of the pandemic, via Zoom. She particularly enjoys the task of choosing a new book each time, which she does in partnership with Elements, a specialty coffeeshop, bookstore, and local craft beer bar in Biddeford.
“For October I usually do a thriller, summer will be a throwback … We read Fight Club in June. I also try to take into account things that are going on in the world,” she says. “With the rise in Asian hate crimes this year, I really wanted to pick a book by an Asian author.” It was important to her to encourage the New England-dwelling folks in the book club to expand their perspectives a bit, to encounter ideas and experiences outside of their own. “Because why else read?”
So what ties these differing interests together? “They all have big communities in common. Big MMA community, big beer community, big book community,” she says. “I’ll find people that are into all three things, too, like some of our members and coaches from here joining the book club. My worlds are colliding and I just love it.”
With a life already this full, I’m curious what she’s looking forward to for 2022. For the book club, she says, “Just keep going. We’ve been doing so well. Pretty much every meeting I have 4 or 5 new people.”
She’ll stay busy in her managerial role at the gym too: “We’ve had an incredible year here with all our new fighters; we’ve had 18 fights, and we’ve gone 15 and 3, which is pretty much unheard of.” The pride is evident on her face, and I get the sense she’s just as excited for the successes of their members as she would be for her own. “I think we have the opportunity in the next year to take some of our fighters pretty far. Some are on the brink of going pro. People are seeing what we’re doing here and a lot of them are eager to come train with us.”
And what about her own fighting aspirations?
“I don’t really know what timeframe I’m looking for for my next fight, but probably February or March.” After our conversation is over, she’ll be back in the cage for her first training session since the fight in October, and I can see she’s itching to get to it. She’s in good shape physically, and says it was the least injured she’s been in her entire training camp, but it’s not just the physical that needs some TLC after a frustrating loss. “It had been such a long lay-off, then finally getting into the cage. To lose like that … I felt like I had learned so much since I last got to fight, and I didn’t get to show that. I had to lick my internal wounds after that fight.”
Powell gazes out over the rows of fighters as they move deftly through warm ups, and I can practically feel the tingle in her limbs as she waits to join them. She mentions she’s interested in focusing more on kickboxing going forward. “Part of me thinks maybe I’ll do another MMA fight someday, but jiu jitsu was never really my thing,” she says. “Jiu jitsu is so different, on the ground, fighting off your back. Kickboxing you’re on your feet. It’s more familiar. Who knows, maybe I’ll even do a boxing fight someday.”
She’s not ruling anything out, but there’s some stuff to juggle along the way. “It’s a lot being a manager here, managing all the guys, then trying to focus on my own career too,” she says. “I’ll take the next few months, train for fun, but then hopefully fight early 2022.”
Her eyes catch mine, a mischievous sheen lighting them: “Maybe finally figure out what it’s like to win.”
FIGHT LIKE A GIRL
With some of the opinions you can find while scrolling social media — file under “Very Loud and Very Wrong” — it’d be easy to assume that lots of people think women should stay out of traditionally masculine sports, but that hasn’t been Powell’s experience at all. “I think whenever we’re at shows most people like the women’s fights even better,” she says. “There are so few of them, it’s kind of special. For me, I know I’m a lot more colorful in there, so that’s kind of refreshing. It’s fun. I think people just like seeing girls throw down.”
For a woman in a male-dominated arena, the pressure to conform to the vibe and expectations of that space can be strong, but Carol Linn’s not afraid to bring her own flavor to the cage. “It’s not a very girly sport,” she says, “so I try to bring as much femininity as possible into it. I fight in a skirt, I change my hair every time, and I always try to make my walkout song as girly as possible.”
So far she’s used one Christina Aguilera song (“Fighter,” naturally) and three Kesha songs. In her last fight she used “Raising Hell” from Kesha’s most recent album — the lyrics really resonated, especially after having fights postponed: “I’m still here, still bringin’ it to you.” Powell eagerly awaits her next time in the cage, when she can start the fight by bringing it with another super girly walkout, and end it in what she knows will be the best way: “With my hand raised, feeling all my hard work pay off.”
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