Revenge of the Mantis Shrimp

From religion major to mixed martial artist.

By Bill Donahue | March 1, 2015

Genteel and dapper, and given, always, to tucking a neat white kerchief into his breast pocket, the poet T.S. Eliot had very little to do with the pugilist arts, and it may be safely assumed that, in turn, most boxers and wrestlers carry little regard for the esteemed modernist. There are exceptions to every rule, though, and Emily Corso ’10 is a shining example. 

Emily is a professional mixed martial arts fighter, ranked 14th in the world among 125-pound flyweights. She is one of very few pro athletes among Reed’s 20,000 living alumni, and each time she steps into the ring, she takes inspiration from the T.S. Eliot quote that’s tattooed, in looping cursive, around her left wrist.

The quote, from Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock reads, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” 

“It reminds me that if something’s hard you still have to do it,” says Emily. “It’s about being a change maker.” 

In the eight years since she took a self-defense class at Reed to meet her PE requirements, Emily has been disturbing the universe daily. She’s evolved from a shy, unmuscled religion major—in her words, “a brain floating in a jar”—to a ripped, confident fight maestra who supplements her modest professional winnings by teaching self-defense part time and moonlighting as a personal trainer.

Emily credits Prof. Michael Foat ’86 [religion 1996–] for inspiring her at Reed. “I’d go by his office and just hang out and talk,” she says. “He was very supportive.”   

But what’s carried her most is her own self-discipline and strength. She revels in three hour sessions at the gym—in, she says, “living in my body and taking up physical space. Women aren’t supposed to do that, you know.” In the ring, she is, thanks to the extensive jiu-jitsu training she received from wrestling specialist Bill Bradley [CSO 2003–07]. (She’s still learning the other parts of the sport, boxing and kicking.) Since going pro last May, Emily has won all four of her matches by pinioning her foe into submission. In one fight in Great Falls, Montana, she won in less than 90 seconds—and then proved herself, in a post-bout interview, a peppy enthusiast for her sport. “My opponents were sweet,” she said, her hair tied back into a ponytail as she wore black-framed eyeglasses. “The crowd was really sweet. The other camp was respectful towards me both before and after the fight.” 

Later, in discussing the ring name she’s chosen for herself, the Mantis Shrimp, Emily made clear that it is in fact possible to be both a geeked-out Reedie and a fearsome brawler. “The Mantis Shrimp,” she said, now waxing oceanographic, “has a bright technicolor shell, and it dismantles its prey. It moves so quickly that it creates a vacuum bubble. When the bubble bursts, the prey gets knocked out. It’s a very violent animal full of random vicious aptitude, even though it’s not scary looking. It can break the glass in an aquarium.”

Yes, Emily “the Mantis Shrimp” Corso has a unique stage persona, and yes, she’s inviting to bout promoters. In December, the premier company in women’s MMA, Invicta Fighting Championships, signed her onto a multibout contract that will extend past 2015. Bryson Davis ’09, a Portland lawyer who serves as Emily’s agent, negotiated the contract. It’s unclear where she’ll fight—likely in the Midwest, given that Invicta is based in Missouri—but it is clear that her MMA journey will, oddly enough, afford her a way to enact the principles she learned at Reed. 

“When I graduated,” she says, “I wanted to change the world. I thought fundraising was my calling, so I got a job doing that at the Portland Art Museum, and I told them, ‘I’ve got this hobby. I might come into work with bruises.’ Eventually  I went pro. And I still want to change the world. And I think it’s possible to do that by fighting and teaching. I can help other people to live in their bodies, to not be afraid. Because, really, everyone should feel license to disturb the universe.”

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