By Claire Harlin
They call her “The Time Bomb,” but it didn’t take much time at all for Solana Beach resident Tiffany Van Soest to make a name for herself in the professional boxing scene.
The 22-year-old had her first match in the pro Muay Thai kickboxing (meaning full-contact punching and kicking) circuit on Oct. 22 at the Las Vegas Hilton, and her debut turned heads worldwide. The underdog defeated four-time world champion Lena “Hunter” Ovchynnikova of the Ukraine, one of the most decorated female fighters in the industry.
“I felt like I could spin the ring on my finger,” said Van Soest. “I knew I had won before the fight started because she wouldn’t look me in the eye.”
Things have been rapidly taking off for the featherweight fighter, who’s in the process of scoping out her next match.
“In a million years I never expected be to well known for anything,” she said.
The international attention has been “surreal,” she said, but at home in Solana Beach, the down-to-Earth Riverside native is much like other ladies her age. She juggles work and school — she’ll graduate in May from California State University, San Marcos with a kinesiology degree — and she relishes the rare moments when she can break from the punching bag and hit the surf.
“When I paddle out, it’s like my reset,” she said.
Van Soest is a natural athlete, but her ability to excel at basically any sport she attempts may also come from her ultra-competitive nature.
“I hate losing more than I love winning,” she said. “And I really love winning.”
She started played soccer at age 5 and continued playing through college. She has also dabbled in baseball, basketball and golf.
But Van Soest’s passion for fighting dates back to when she started karate at 8 years old, even though she never stepped in the ring until she was 18.
“I had to be able to sign my own release because my parents wouldn’t,” she said. “They couldn’t stand to watch me fight.”
Her parents, who live in Riverside, have since warmed up to the idea of their little girl exchanging kicks and jabs with the top female fighters in the world. They are incredibly supportive, Van Soest said — but they still cover their eyes sometimes when she’s in the ring.
“After every fight they say, ‘That was the last one, right?’” she said.
Before her professional debut last month, Van Soest excelled in close to a dozen amateur matches, including one in China against Tang “Don King” Jin — the first-ever women’s mixed martial arts fight held on mainland China in the country’s history.
Van Soest is composed, well-spoken and upbeat. Her sincere smile and natural beauty hide any hint to the fact that she’s endured knocks to the face, a broken nose and fractured ribs. She’s also lucky to have never sustained injuries in the ring.
“You take all your knocks in the gym so you don’t feel them when it counts,” she said, adding that she got her nickname, “The Time Bomb,” after getting hit really hard and then “going off like a fuse.”
Ever since, that explosiveness has embodied Van Soest’s fight persona, which grows stronger with each challenge that comes her way.
Van Soest trains six days a week, with the seventh being an “active rest” day, and in the weeks before a fight her life is even more intense. Sometimes she’s forced to endure meager, protein-only diets in order to drop from her regular weight of 135 pounds to weigh in at 125.
Training is no pain, no gain for Van Soest, but the hardest moments, she said, are also the most powerful. She remembers one Friday night, for example, when she completed an intense three-hour training in which she sparred “round after round after round” with her teammates.
“I was dead tired,” she said. But her training that night wasn’t over when it seemed over. Her coach, Alex Palma, put a 40-pound vest and five-pound gloves on her and asked her to flip a 150-pound weighted bag up and down the gym for 10 minutes.
“I looked at him like he was crazy,” she said. “But I did what he said.”
He commanded random kicks and burpees — push-ups that start from the standing position — during the exercise, and sometimes he’d push against the bag to add resistance.
“I had tears coming down my face,” she said. “Every fiber in my body was screaming. It was the longest 10 minutes of my life.”
When the workout was over, she said she laid in a pool of her own sweat and thought, “If I can do that, what am I capable of?”
In what Van Soest said was a major turning point in her career and life, the Time Bomb ticked.
“It was then,” she said, “I realized I want to be the best in the world.”