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The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Windsor fighter makes cast of'Ultimate Fighter,' bids to become strawweight champ

LAS VEGAS, Nev. - The UFC's first women's strawweight champion likely will have a compelling story to tell.

Australian Alex (Astro Girl) Chambers has a degree in astrophysics. Heather Jo (Hurricane) Clark used to relish the enforcer role in hockey. Lisa Ellis lives in a gym. Carla (Cookie Monster) Esparza used to own two pigs. Angela (Overkill) Hill won an art scholarship to college.

Justine Kish spent five years in a Russian orphanage before she was adopted by an American family. Angela Magana, whose mother overdosed on heroine, was born addicted to the drug and later was told she would never walk again after falling down three storeys. Bec Rawlings wanted to be a strawberry when she grew up.

Randa Markos, the lone Canadian in the 16-woman cast of Season 20 of "The Ultimate Fighter," escaped Iraq as a child and survived more hardship in her adopted country.

The UFC is using the reality TV show to crown its first strawweight (115-pound) champion, bringing its number of women's divisions to two alongside the bantamweight (135-pound) class. The MMA organization has eight men's divisions.

The show, which just started filming, will premiere Sept. 10.

The progress of the cast is shown by an on-set fight bracket, next to a shiny championship belt.

"I see it when I walk through the hallway and I'm mesmerized," said coach Gilbert Melendez, ranked No. 2 among lightweight contenders. "If that's not going to motivate these new girls, I don't know what is."

"That belt changes lives," said rival coach and lightweight champion Anthony (Showtime) Pettis, who will fight Melendez at the end of the show.

The UFC purchased the contracts of some of the cast from the Invicta women's promotion. Others like Markos made it via open tryouts.

"We've all trained our ass off to get here," said Markos after the cast was revealed Thursday. "It's going to be a good show."

For Markos, her road to a possible MMA championship started 28 years ago in Iraq. She left when she was three.

"We struggled a lot to get here," she said.

That struggle continued in Canada. These days Markos does not see much of her father, who was a soldier in Iraq.

"He watched a lot of people die in front of him. He's been through a lot," she said.

It's a complicated family dynamic.

"We still love him, we still care about him, we still check up on him and everything. But he's not really with us right now."

Markos, who has two brothers and a sister, credits her mother — who works in a grocery store — for keeping the whole family together through tough times.

"The strongest person I've ever met. The strongest person that I've ever seen in my life — mentally, physically. She's been through so much yet she still kept us all together."

Markos got into wrestling first. It offered a chance to escape conflict at home while offering her a chance to win or lose on her own.

She transitioned into jiu-jitsu, when she ran out of options in wrestling.

Markos (4-1) made her pro MMA debut in November 2012, after a two-year stretch in which one fight after another fell apart.

"I continued training for a fight every time," she said. "I trained really hard for two years."

She won by submission stopping Allanna Jones in the third round.

Markos, who is married, works full-time as a pharmacy technician. After her nine-to-five job, she trains until late in the evening at Windsor's Maximum Training Centre.

"I just feel the harder the work, the better I feel with my training," she said.

It means she and her husband have to find time together late at night and weekends. Just one of the many sacrifices that have been made along the way.

"I've had a lot of support behind me," she said. "A lot of people from Windsor, I mean I have a whole country behind me right now.

"I'm the only Canadian here. I'm also from the Middle East so I'm representing all the Middle Eastern women around the world. I think there's a majority of us that had it really tough being a woman, especially me being a woman and being in this sport. A lot of people looked down upon me in my culture.

"I just want to show everyone don't worry about what people say. We all have exactly the same opportunities. We just have to put everything aside and just do what we want to do."

NOTES — Markos, who stands five foot four, walks around at about 130 pounds ... The TUF cast includes Kish, who won a decision over Markos in January ... How high are the TUF 20 stakes? "Someone's going to be a UFC champion before I am in that house," said Melendez, drawing laughs.

Season 20 cast of "The Ultimate Fighter" (with fight record, age and home town)

Joanne Calderwood (8-0), 27, Glasgow, Scotland

Alex Chambers (4-1), 35, Sydney, Australia

Heather Jo Clark (6-4), 34, Los Angeles, Calif.

Aisling Daly (14-3), 26, Dublin, Ireland

Lisa Ellis (15-8), 31, Olympia, Wash.

Carla Esparza (9-2), 26, Redondo Beach, Calif.

Felice Herrig (9-5), 29, Crystal Lake, Ill.

Angela Hill (1-0), 29, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Emily Peters Kagan (3-1), 32, Bangor, Maine

Justine Kish (4-0), 26, Cramerton, N.C.

Angela Magana (11-6), 30, Farmington, N.M.

Randa Markos (4-1), 28, Windsor, Ont.

Rose Namajunas (2-1), 22, Milwaukee, Wis.

Jessica Penne (11-2), 31, Huntington Beach, Calif.

Bec Rawlings (5-3), 25, Launceston, Tasmania

Tecia Torres (4-0), 24, Fall River, Mass.

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