When a professional mixed martial artist hits the third round of a fight, it’s time to separate the men from the boys, or in the case of debuting bantamweight Jessica Eye, the women from the girls. In short, it’s when your gas tank is in a far different condition than it was ten minutes earlier, and where the winner is usually determined not by the better skill set, but by who wants it more.
In moments like that, Eye has just one thought when she hears the bell for the third and final round.
“You’ve been in way worse.”
For the 27-year-old Ohio native, who faces Sarah Kaufman at UFC 166 in Houston this Saturday night, “worse” means being told that you may not walk again, that if you do walk again you probably won’t play sports, and that as a woman, you won’t ever see the inside of the UFC Octagon.
She’s pretty much shot all three notions to pieces.
“I love those barriers because I love to break them down and I love to show people how to break them down,” said Eye, whose fighting career began long before she stepped into Cleveland’s Strong Style gym and began training officially.
In essence, a life of resilience, heart, and overcoming obstacles began when she was a teenager.
“I think that life happened to me at a very young age,” said Eye, a Barberton, Ohio native who lost a friend to a car accident at 15 and then one year later was sideswiped by a drunk driver, breaking her back and also forcing her father (who was pinned between two cars in the incident) to have reconstructive knee surgery.
“I had to accept that I was never going to see a friend ever again,” she said. “Then my back was broken and I wasn’t going to be able to go to the dances and get to have a normal sophomore year in high school and do those normal things that kids were doing. But I learned who my true friends were, and I learned more about myself and even more about my family and what we were able to take. It was very hard on our family financially and emotionally because it wasn’t just me, it was my father. I have my two brothers, my stepmother, and my father, and my father being the big breadwinner, it was hard on our family.”
At the time, doctors let the lifelong athlete know that returning to the field, court, or track wasn’t high on the probability scale.
“We’re not sure how walking will be or even if you could ever do sports again,” Eye was told.
She wasn’t having it, and in less than six months she was out of bed and running to rehab herself. By the end of the school year, she made it to the State championships in track, and she became an inspiration.
“I do feel that at times I had to grow up fast because of other life experiences and because of the car accident, and people needed someone to believe in at that time,” she said. “When my back was broken and I finally made it back to school and was in a back brace, people couldn’t believe that I was as optimistic as I was. It made me feel good to be a 16-year-old and then see a 20, 30, or 40-year-old be excited to see me and to see my positive energy. I said I’m gonna keep this going.”
Eleven years later, it’s still going. After giving college and the conventional work world a go, she found her true calling at 19 when she began training in mixed martial arts. Back then, the UFC was just starting to gain traction after the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, and if you were a female fighter, the road to the top was even longer and steeper. That didn’t deter her though.
“I think it was the ability to believe in myself, but also my ability to believe in MMA as a whole and knowing when I got into it in the years that I did – I was 19, I’m 27 now – it was still fairly new for men,” she said. “I know that life evolves, no matter what. Something that might be popular now might be really popular in 10 years and it also might not be that popular in 10 years. But I gave it that 50-50 chance, and I felt like I was doing the right thing, and it was hard not to focus on that.”
By 2010, Eye’s amateur career was over and she began competing professionally. She eventually became one of the top flyweights in the sport, yet even as she soared up the ranks, she always remembered a phone call she got a couple years before the one inviting her to become a UFC fighter.
“Sean Shelby left me a voice mail,” said Eye of the former Strikeforce / WEC and current UFC matchmaker. “I saved that because I said one day I’m gonna be somewhere and I’m gonna be someone in women’s MMA fighting. I might not be at the top level now, but the talent is already being recognized. I always knew in the back of my head that I was going to be somewhere.”
That somewhere is the UFC, and after back-to-back wins over respected vets Zoila Frausto Gurgel and Carina Damm, she will go up to 135 pounds to make her Octagon debut against former Strikeforce champion Sarah Kaufman.
“She’s a very well-trained athlete and a very well-spoken athlete and woman,” said Eye (10-1) of her foe. “I think that she’s a very tough opponent, and I’m excited that I get to go fight against a tough opponent because I am only as good as the talent that I’m going up against. I can’t wait to see what I’m gonna do up against someone who is just as good as me.”
If she sounds confident, she is, and with good reason. Would you be scared of any opponent that didn’t compare to two tons of steel bearing down on you on an Ohio road? Eye isn’t, and if the bell rings for round three at Toyota Center Saturday night, you can bet that she’ll be ready to answer its call.
“When I get to that third round, and my muscles are saying ‘Jess, we’re tired,’ my mind is saying ‘no, you’re not. You want this, so you better turn on and you better go.’”
Warning: Jessica Eye is Tougher than You
"I think that she’s a very tough opponent, and I’m excited that I get to go fight against a tough opponent because I am only as good as the talent that I’m going up against." - Jessica Eye