UFC 231: Katlyn Chookagian No Longer Hidden in Plain Sight

UFC 231 Katlyn Chookagian
Credit: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

After years of flying under the radar, Katlyn Chookagian is prepared to have her breakout moment against Jessica Eye and earn a title shot at UFC 231.

In one year, the UFC flyweight division has been tumultuous as its inaugural champion has been stripped and several veterans of the Octagon have had a resurgence in the weight class. However, a break-out star could emerge at 125 as “Blonde Fighter” Katlyn Chookagian takes on Jessica Eye in a title eliminator on the same night that the belt is on the line.

A UFC title contender today, Chookagian’s start as a martial artist began at an early age. “I have an older brother who is four years older than me. He did karate, so growing up I was always going with mom and him to his classes and sitting in the lobby so it was kind of a natural progression. Just being four years younger than my brother, everything he did I wanted to do. Once I started, I just always was obsessed with it. Growing up I did other sports. I did karate and then eventually I got into boxing and kickboxing in high school.  But martial arts was my obsession. I did that every day. Even if I did other sports, my main thing was martial arts.”

While her early training at Tiger Schulmann’s was while it was still considered a karate school, it is also where she was first exposed to MMA as she was around fighters like Jimmie Rivera, Lyman Good, and Julio Arce. Chookagian admits that while she knew she liked training and was watching her school incorporate other disciplines, she wasn’t quick to catch on to the UFC or even watch it when her brother had it on TV when she was younger. She continued to train and compete in each discipline separately, while at the same time watching her instructors compete in local fights. It wasn’t until she saw the amateur circuit emerge that she realized MMA was what she wanted to do.

As Chookagian looked to improve her jiu-jitsu and get more involved in MMA, she made her way to her current team with Mark Henry and Renzo Gracie who train fighters such as Frankie Edgar, Eddie Alvarez, Zabit Magomedsharipov and others just to name a few.

“A friend introduced me to a Renzo Gracie affiliate in Newark. I started training in a gi and doing serious jiu-jitsu. I took a whole year off from striking. From that affiliate, they just did jiu-jitsu and they said ‘oh if you want to get into MMA you should start training at Renzo’s in the city. They have MMA classes.’ That’s how I made it over there and I started meeting everyone at Ricardo Almeida’s who did MMA and that’s where Mark Henry is. So that’s how I found my way to them, all through the Renzo Gracie affiliate.”

The origin of her unique name, as many in the fight game, was one that popped up out of circumstance rather than a conscious choice.

“I was in college and Instagram became popular and my friends were like ‘you have to get it.’ I thought ‘This is so stupid.  No one will ever use this. It’s just Facebook but only pictures, why don’t you just put them on Facebook?’ My roommate was like ‘just make one.’ I wanted something with fighting. I didn’t want something girly. So I just made it quick and was like ‘uh, Blonde Fighter!’ and I was like ‘okay whatever, I’m not even going to use this.’ Obviously, Instagram blew up. I kept it. Everyone started referring to me as ‘Blonde Fighter,’ even as a joke and then even people I would meet would be like ‘Oh you’re Blonde Fighter.’ It was so catchy, even though I had it as my Instagram name but I wasn’t trying to make it my fighting nickname for a year. Eventually, I couldn’t fight it anymore. More people know me as ‘Blonde Fighter’ than Katlyn so I just kind of stuck with it.”

When asked if she would pick something different had she known what would happen, she says, “No. I never liked nicknames for girls. At least for myself in general. I always thought they seemed a little corny or forced. Some people think my name is weird. But in the gym, my boyfriend, my parents, everybody calls me Blonde Fighter or BF. I think if it happens organically that it’s the best way so I can’t fight it.”

Chookagian would have a hot start to her career, starting with a perfect 10-0 across three weight classes. Uniquely, she is one of the few fighters to accumulate such a record without first having fought in Invicta where many of the female fighters fans are familiar with have gotten their start. Many point to it as the reason why Chookagian has flown under the radar even in her UFC career.

As luck would have it, injury kept her from being available for The Ultimate Fighter 26, which crowned the inaugural UFC women’s flyweight champion. Chookagian suffered a torn labrum in her final fight at bantamweight and the tryouts were announced the night before her surgery. She was left to know that as she recovered in a sling, her competition was preparing for the opportunity of a lifetime.

Prior to that, Chookagian entered the UFC as a bantamweight in 2016 with the hope that the company would open up a flyweight division, which they did a year later. She would go 2-1, her only loss coming by split-decision to Liz Carmouche, before her current streak of back-to-back victories at 125. Also, the MMA world has begun taking notice of her career.

“I think since the last fight it started to change. I think that the more the division plays out, the more people will realize where I’m at in the rankings. Like right after TUF, everyone just knew the girls from the show but I’d already beaten three of them before the show. But no one knew those fights because they weren’t in the UFC. If I just keep winning, the exposure doesn’t matter. If I don’t get the exposure but keep winning then people will notice me. That’s all that matters. Nothing else is important except for winning.”

Despite the setbacks of a year ago, Chookagian may well be hitting her peak at exactly the right time. She holds the most victories over current UFC flyweights, including wins over title contender Sijara Eubanks and TUF veteran Lauren Murphy. She was also already pegged to be the back-up for the title when Valentina Shevchenko was previously scheduled to fight Eubanks for the title in November. While it is not expected, she does remain aware of the possibility of stepping into a UFC championship fight at the eleventh hour.

“Now for this fight between Joanna and Valentina, it’s not likely that someone is going to miss weight. At least this time I know that I have a fight and if something happens I will be prepared and can be there to pick up the fight.”

With the flyweight division being relatively new, many fighters have pointed out that the rankings are not the best indicator of one’s place in the division. That said, it is unanimously accepted that the winner of Chookagian and her opponent Jessica Eye should be next for the winner of Saturday’s championship bout between Joanna Jędrzejczyk and Valentina Shevchenko. Of the two, Chookagian has picked Shevchenko to win.

That said, her task will be easier said than done. In 2016, Jessica Eye was in the midst of a four-fight losing streak and took a year-long hiatus from the sport. After having several fights fall through, she returned this year with back-to-back victories at flyweight and will be on the short list for a title shot with a win on Saturday.

“I’m excited to fight her. She has a lot of experience. She’s been in the UFC a long time, she was fighting here when I was an amateur. She’s good everywhere. I think she is very tough and strong. That being said I don’t think she’s particularly great in any specific area.  I think that in all the specific areas I’m way better. Even though I don’t have as much UFC experience, I’ve been training since I was a kid and I train with some of the best people in the world in each aspect whether it’s jiu-jitsu, wrestling or striking. I think that my experience and the level of my training is superior to hers. Her being a good opponent, I think I’m going to be able to showcase how good I am in every area.”

It’s one of the great anomalies of professional sports: how an athlete can dedicate their life to their craft and yet is still a surprise when the world finally takes notice. But that’s exactly the position Katlyn Chookagian has set up for herself. With the UFC spotlight on her, the ascension from contender to title challenger could be just one victory away.