MMA veteran Shayna Baszler has come a long way from fighting in cornfields

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LAS VEGAS, NV - JUNE 6: Shayna Baszier (green shorts) tackles Julianna Pena (blue shorts) in their preliminary fight during filming of season eighteen of The Ultimate Fighter on June 6, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Al Powers/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Julianna Pena; Shayna Baszier

Shayna Baszler isn't going to collect a Social Security check any time soon, though by women's mixed martial arts standards, she's ancient.

Baszler is 34 and has been fighting for more than 11 years, dating back to a time when women's MMA was literally little more than a carnival sideshow attraction.

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Shayna Baszier is consoled by Ronda Rousey after being submitted during The Ultimate Fighter. (Getty)

Shayna Baszier is consoled by Ronda Rousey after being submitted during The Ultimate Fighter. (Getty)

She fought in cornfields in South Dakota, where cars parked in a circle and shined their headlights onto the ring to illuminate the venue. She fought when women were called out of the stands to challenge her. She fought on shows where people signed up at the door to rumble.

Baszler made her, ahem, professional debut a few days after the Florida Marlins won their second World Series in October 2003.

Nothing Baszler sees on Saturday, when she faces Bethe Correia in a three-round women's bantamweight match at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, Calif., on the main card of UFC 177, will faze her because nothing can possibly happen that she hasn't already experienced.

Never did Baszler fight for money, because there wasn't any money to be had.

She laughs when asked the size of the purse she earned in some of her early fights.

"I didn't get paid," she said. "It's not like we even fought for free. I can't tell you how many fights I had where I had to pay to go fight. It was a lot of them."

When she made what is regarded as her professional debut on Oct. 31, 2003, never once did she think that 11 years later she'd be fighting in front of a large crowd on pay-per-view in a major arena.

She didn't get into fighting to get rich because getting rich off fighting, particularly for a woman who was a submission fighter, was a ridiculous notion.

Baszler began MMA before the UFC had turned the corner. UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta had begun to question his investment then, wondering whether he'd be able to survive the financial losses long enough to avoid pulling the plug and perhaps killing the sport altogether.

"What people don't grasp is the motivation of why I fight, and how it's different from the girls you're going to see coming up," Baszler said. "It wasn't because I wanted to make this a job, because that wasn't even a possibility. It's not like I was saying, 'Oh, I want to make it to the UFC one day,' because the sport wasn't big enough then that a guy could have this as his job.

"They weren't making enough from fighting to live off of, so you can imagine where the women were. This wasn't even close to being on the radar of being a career. I was going to school, I was working – at one point, I had two jobs – and I was still trying to train and fight. I didn't get into MMA because I wanted to be UFC champion. That wasn't my motivation."

But she loved to fight, and it was a way to express herself and impact the crowd, so she hung around long enough that she's fighting in an era when there is big money to be made, even for women fighters.

UFC president Dana White famously had said no women would ever fight for his company and he stuck to that stance until he saw Ronda Rousey fight. White believed Rousey could become a star and created a women's division for her. And when he had Rousey and Miesha Tate coach on "The Ultimate Fighter," he opted to bring women onto the show as fighters.

Most of the veterans of the sport such as Baszler, Tara LaRosa and Roxanne Modafferi were selected for the show. But when Baszler lost her first bout to eventual champion Julianna Pena, she was despondent.

She felt like she blew her best opportunity. Her manager had been talking with the UFC about signing her without her going onto the show. But she opted to appear on the reality series and was upset in her first fight.

After getting so close, she thought she'd blown it and would never get the opportunity to fight in the UFC.

The next day, her spirits brightened after a meeting with White in his office at the TUF Gym.

"Dana told me that he knew me and he knew what I'd done and how long I'd been around and he told me that I didn't have to worry [because] I was going to get a chance to have [a UFC fight]."

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Bethe Correia (right) lands a head shot on Jessamyn Duke during UFC 172. (USA TODAY Sports)

Bethe Correia (right) lands a head shot on Jessamyn Duke during UFC 172. (USA TODAY Sports)

That chance will come against Correia, who created a name for herself at UFC 172 in Baltimore by beating Jessamyn Duke. Duke is teammates with Rousey, Baszler and Marina Shafir and together, the pro wrestling fans refer to themselves as "The Four Horsewomen."

After beating Duke, Correia held up four fingers, then dropped one, meaning one down, three to go.

Rather than being irritated, Baszler got a kick out of it.

"I have to give her credit for that because it was pretty good," she said.

They'll settle whatever score there is between them on Saturday on a night that will forever carry meaning for Baszler.

"I honestly never thought I'd see this moment, because it was always so unrealistic," she said. "When I fight, it's just going to be another fight. It's afterward that it's probably going to hit me what I've done and how far I, and we collectively as the pioneers in this sport, have really come."

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