In this interview I speak to Dakota Ditcheva, mixed martial artist & PFL European flyweight champion. Hailing from Manchester, Dakota is one of the world’s most sought-after professional fighters, having risen to prominence as an amateur kickboxer and Muay Thai fighter, winning numerous championships in both disciplines, the pinnacle being her representing Great Britain at the International Federation of Muaythai Associations (IFMA) world championships.
We discuss her incredible rise from amateur to professional fighter, what it takes to win world titles, and what we can all learn from the resilience and determination required to be one of the world’s top combat sports athletes.
Q: How did combat sports come into your life?
[Dakota Ditcheva]: I’ve always been immersed in the gym environment, as my mum (Lisa Howarth, former World Kickboxing Association Champion) owned a gym since before I was born. I spent my early years there, pushing little prams around while she coached. This naturally made me sociable around combat sports. I had my first few fights at the age of four, which is incredibly young. My early introduction to fighting was significant, but interestingly, my mum, despite her own extensive experience, never pushed me towards it. After a couple of fights at that tender age, I lost interest, and she didn’t pressure me to continue. Consequently, I stopped fighting and training altogether, yet remained in the gym environment. This background has profoundly influenced who I am today, shaping my confidence and mindset. Growing up, I was small and skinny, which could have made school life much more challenging. However, being part of the combat sports world endowed me with a sense of strength and toughness. This gave me the confidence to face school challenges head-on, despite my physical stature and the taunts from others. My mother’s strength and experience in the same sport also played a crucial role in fortifying my resilience. Her example as a strong-minded individual who had navigated similar paths was incredibly empowering.
Q: How do you cope with the attention of social-media & public profile?
[Dakota Ditcheva]: The first thing to mention is that I’m not particularly fond of social media. Despite its significance in my career and life, and the effort I put into it, I don’t relish the aspect of having a large Instagram following. However, humility is key for me, a value deeply rooted in my family. We’ve come from humble beginnings; my mum has achieved great success, yet we continue to live in the same estate where she grew up. This keeps us grounded.
My mum’s impact extends beyond our family. Through her career and the gym she owns, she has been a pillar of support for many—parents, children, and especially those with learning or behavioural challenges. Observing her interactions with others, her kindness and guidance, has profoundly influenced me. Her approach to people will always be a guiding principle in my life.
So, even with the growing social media following, I remain unaffected by it. The gym, a longstanding part of our lives, and the people in it remain constant, as do I. Maintaining this grounded-ness is one of the most important aspects for me.
Q: How do you build the resilience you need for combat sports?
[Dakota Ditcheva]: I’ve discovered over time just how mentally resilient I am, a realization that has become more evident through my interactions with others, including my training partners. I’ve often remarked that I thought I was tough, but then I met them and heard about their experiences in the sport. I firmly believe that a certain level of strength and mental discipline is a prerequisite to excel in this sport. It’s a challenging path, requiring years to adapt to the physical impacts, injuries, stringent diets, and discipline. I’ve always maintained that you need to have a passion for it. It’s simple: you either love it or you hate it, and those who love it, do it.
I’m usually reluctant to compare sports, but I think it’s fair to say that our sport is on a different level when it comes to mental toughness. In sports where there’s no direct physical impact with others, the challenges are different. In our sport, we’re constantly wrestling, punching, kicking, often ending up with black eyes. It’s this constant, intense physical contact that sets our sport apart, making the mental toughness required quite unique compared to others.
Q: How do you deal with the losses?
[Dakota Ditcheva]: Fighters, based on their personalities, handle defeat in various ways. Some react loudly, others feel unjustly treated, thinking they deserved to win, or they might place the blame on others. My mum’s guidance has been pivotal in shaping my approach. She’s instilled in me that I should give my all to the sport and to every fight, without cutting corners. So, if I lose, it’s on me to accept and address it. The very next day in the gym, I start working on what went wrong.
This mindset isn’t universal. Some blame their coaches or external factors. However, in this sport, while coaches play a significant role, it ultimately comes down to the individual in the cage. My discipline lies in taking full responsibility; I don’t blame anyone else. This approach has helped me cope with past losses in Thai boxing, the discipline I was involved in earlier.
Interestingly, my biggest fear isn’t the fight itself. I don’t get nervous about the physical aspect of fighting. My nervousness stems from the fear of losing, not living up to my own expectations of victory in front of an audience. I’m driven by a winner’s mentality, and that’s a significant pressure in this sport. When I step into the cage, I know I’ve prepared thoroughly. If I lose, it’s something I need to confront and work through with my team when we return to the gym.
Q: Do you think female fighters have equity in combat sports?
[Dakota Ditcheva]: Over the years, I’ve observed a significant shift in the sport, especially from the perspective of my mum, who has seen even more drastic changes since her time. Recently, I was the only female fighter on the card where I won my belt. There’s still a disparity between the number of male and female fighters, which is understandable given there aren’t as many women in the sport. Therefore, it’s unrealistic to expect a card full of female fighters.
However, I’m quite realistic about the fact that women are still lagging behind in some aspects, not always due to a lack of equality. Progress has been made. For instance, in the EFL, I’m paid more than some male fighters, which is a significant achievement. When I enter the gym nowadays, I’ve never encountered resistance or been told I shouldn’t train there or share the same mat, which is a stark contrast to my mum’s experiences. She once walked into a gym in Thailand and was denied entry to the ring simply because she was a woman. These stories and experiences highlight how much the world of female fighters has evolved in this sport.
Q: Why do you think combat sports are so popular?
[Dakota Ditcheva]: Honestly, there are several reasons, but from my perspective, when I watch someone else fight, someone I don’t personally know, I get just as nervous as when I’m fighting myself. It’s likely that viewers experience similar emotions and endorphins to what we feel in the heat of battle. Watching the sport gives you a glimpse, albeit a small one, of what we feel on fight night. This addictive rush of feelings is exactly why I keep fighting. And I reckon it’s the same for viewers; you’re eager to find out about the next weekend’s fights because you want to recapture that thrilling sensation, though what you feel is only a fraction of what we experience, maybe ten or a hundred times less intense.
I think people often underestimate the emotional rollercoaster we go through as fighters. But it’s also likely that the impact on viewers is underestimated. I truly believe you experience similar emotions watching us fight, because I certainly do when I watch others. This might explain why people are so captivated by the sport.
It all comes back to the fact that while some may not be physically inclined or willing to step into the cage and fight, they still experience that fighting feeling. There are those who would hate nothing more than to be locked in a cage with an opponent, yet they can’t help but find the whole scenario exhilarating.
Q: How can people make a start in combat sports?
[Dakota Ditcheva]: The key thing, or rather the first thing, is to set aside any expectations. Don’t form a preconceived notion of what your experience will be like. Also, it’s crucial not to give up after your first session. Different environments offer varied experiences. The experience at my gym, for instance, is different from what my mum’s gym offers, and both are distinct from other gyms I’ve visited. The aim is to immerse yourself in the training, to find joy in the environment, and to relish the learning process without any pre-set expectations or pressures.
Nowadays, there are plenty of beginner courses available, but often, people are intimidated by the idea of entering a ‘fighting gym’ or a room full of fighters. It’s important to remember that we’re all just normal people who started in the same way as anyone else. The crucial part is having the confidence to step into that first session and begin enjoying something new. Embrace the experience without fear or preconceptions.
Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?
[Dakota Ditcheva]: Certainly, there are countless aspects I’d like to be remembered for. One major goal is to make a difference for females in the sport and to become the best female fighter, pound for pound, in the world. That’s hugely important to me. But beyond that, I want to be a source of inspiration.
My family dynamic, I believe, is particularly inspiring to others. I receive numerous messages from people expressing admiration for the relationship I share with my siblings, wishing they could have something similar with their own brothers or sisters. Our family offers a unique perspective on what family life can be. That’s one reason I started a YouTube channel – to give people a closer look into our lives. Nowadays, the importance of family is often overshadowed by materialistic pursuits, social media, and other distractions. I aim to highlight the significance of a close-knit family through our example.
Our family unity is something I’m very proud of. My brothers, as well as my parents, have sacrificed a great deal to support my career in sport. In return, I strive to give back to them as much as I can. My ambition is not to be remembered for one specific achievement, but rather as someone who inspired families to express love and support for each other, to chase their dreams, and to realize the value of togetherness in achieving those dreams.