On a Tuesday afternoon in early May at a mixed-martial-arts studio in North Park, Ashley Curry and a friend climb into a ring for a little routine sparring. Across the room, about a dozen people in workout clothes skip rope and do pushups to hip-hop.
At 5-foot-4, Curry eyes her much-taller sparring partner from under wild, curly black hair with blonde streaks. That hair bounces as she darts aggressively around her target. Throwing a combination of jabs, kicks and knees, she backs her opponent into a corner, taking a seemingly painful kick to her shin before responding with an explosive uppercut.
"Getting punched in the face is the least of my worries, long term," the 25-year-old kickboxer told CityBeat with a smile. About four years ago, Curry was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, or MS, an unpredictable disease that affects the central nervous system, disrupting the flow of information between the body and the brain.
"It feels like I'm being shocked all day," she says. "Stress makes it worse. The heat makes it worse. I feel it the most at night when everything's settling down, and I'm getting ready to go to bed, and I can't go to bed because it hurts."
However, Curry clearly doesn't want anyone to feel bad for her. In fact, she wants to inspire others with MS to bravely face the unnerving disease. About 2.3 million people around the word have MS, which can manifest itself in a wide variety of symptoms, from fatigue and dizziness to an inability to walk and blindness, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
To that end, Curry's preparing to possibly become the first Muay Thai kickboxer with MS to go professional. In December, joining a group of students from the gym where she trains, Undisputed North Park, she plans to travel to Thailand and compete in her first paid competitions.
"If I can go down in history as the first to ever do it then why not?" she says. "Then someone can look back and say, 'I have multiple sclerosis, but I can still do this.'"
Her instructor, Kru Scotty, says she has significant potential. "She's ready," says the kickboxing instructor of more than 20 years. "If I didn't think she was ready to go to Thailand, I would tell her. She's a bully in the ring. That's what I love. Very aggressive."
Growing up the daughter of military parents, Curry moved around a lot as a child. Born in Georgia, she lived with grandparents in Alabama and Texas while her parents were deployed on duty.
Graduating from high school in Cypress, Texas, she joined the Navy at 17 and served for about six years, until 2013. Stationed in Japan in 2011, she was diagnosed with MS and transferred to Hawaii and then San Diego for treatment.
Those first few years after the diagnosis were challenging, Curry said. "Your life isn't over. You just have a new normal, and it's a hard transition."
In 2012, she saw a therapist for depression. The therapist recommended she find a hobby. Immediately, she flashed on an event a friend had recently brought her to at a gym in North Park. She had taken a few kickboxing classes before her diagnosis, and as soon as she left the therapist's office, she drove to the gym and signed up.
"It made me realize that I really am depressed because I don't do anything," she says. "I literally just went to work and went home. And then I stayed in the bed when I didn't work. So I needed to find something that makes me feel alive and makes me feel happy."
Today, she's a licensed phlebotomist and works at a group home in Spring Valley as a behavioral specialist for children with special needs. While she's a forceful kickboxer, she says she's averse to violence outside the ring.
Scotty, her instructor, agrees: "Ashley's a no-nonsense type of girl. But she has a super big heart. If you spend any time with her, you realize just how good of a person she is."
While Curry describes herself as a "lone wolf," Scotty said she's really become "part of the family" at Undisputed North Park, which, in part, is why he's so excited to have her on the team that's traveling to Thailand this winter.
Of course, for Curry's parents, it's a little unsettling to imagine her competing professionally where gloves and a mouthpiece are the only protection allowed.
"It makes me nervous," says her mother, Marion Curry. "I don't want anything to happen to her, but it's a chance that she doesn't mind taking, so it's something that I have to accept."
In part, that acceptance comes from the positive effect kickboxing has already had on her daughter's struggle with MS. Not only has it helped her deal with depression, but she's dramatically improved physically.
Shortly before joining the gym in 2012, she had started relying on a wheelchair to get around. That stopped after she began kickboxing on a regular basis.
As a result of the kickboxing, Ashley Curry said she immediately noticed a significant change, both physically and mentally.
"Since I'd been diagnosed, I was told to be very cautious, take your medicine, relax, sit down, don't overdo yourself," she said. "Now, I'm at a point where me overdoing myself, that's a good day."
And her parents have seen a change, as well.
"It's been really positive for her because it keeps her motivated," says Marion Curry. "She was walking in a fog of 'Why me?' When she began to do martial arts and kickboxing, she began to try to forget about it."
There's evidence to suggest that Curry's ambitions may have wide implications for others suffering from the disease. A 2011 study from the University of Dayton in Ohio found that people living with MS benefitted from kickboxing, showing "meaningful improvements in participants' balance, walking ability and posture."
However, the study looked at people engaged in exercise that topped out with hitting heavy bags, not full contact fighting. While the long-term implications of professional fighting are unknown, Curry says for her, it's worth the risk.
"Great things come with change and challenge and taking chances," she says. "What if this does end up being the best thing I could have ever done? I would never have known if I was too afraid.
"I have no idea how this is going to play out," she added. "The first thing I do when I wake up is wiggle my toes and make sure I can. And then I have to play it by ear, each day."