Heading into a title shot at UFC 238 that once seemed like just a pipe dream, we spoke to Jessica Eye about everything that has made her who she is today.
The gym is musty. It’s late May in Las Vegas. Even though the weather outside is a bit chilly for this time of year, the body heat makes the inside of this place uncomfortably warm. As I sit with UFC flyweight Jessica Eye for a post-workout chat about her upcoming title fight, coaches can be heard calling out boxing combinations. The sounds are followed by the thud of punches hitting pads. Elsewhere within this sprawling compound, folks are lifting weights in one corner and hitting heavy bags or grappling for hours on end in another.
This is Xtreme Couture, founded by and named after the former UFC Champion Randy Couture. An MMA super gym that is home to dozens of UFC fighters and many more who aspire to join them on the major league roster. It’s Memorial Day, but no one here is celebrating the holiday just yet. They are all doing homework. The type of homework one does when they will soon be locked in a cage to fight another human being.
The name of this game is to punch, kick, knee, elbow, choke and otherwise brutalize your opponent until they are unconscious or they choose to quit. The stakes are always high. It’s not only their pride and legacy they fight for, but whatever the reason, their mental and physical health are always in jeopardy too.
UFC women’s flyweight number one contender Jessica Eye currently has more riding on her UFC 238 co-main event bout than any of her peers. If they are doing homework for a college assignment or a graduate thesis, she is preparing a dissertation for her PhD. June 8, she will challenge Valentina Shevchenko for the most coveted prize in all of Mixed Martial Arts – a UFC world title.
From her October 2013 UFC debut, to a September 2016 split decision loss in her hometown of Cleveland, Jessica Eye only had one win across seven fights. After losing four of those consecutively, she didn’t return to competition for 15 months. Eye came to the world’s premiere mixed martial arts organization with an impressive 10-1 record. Although she previously competed at flyweight, the 125lb women’s division did not exist in the UFC in 2013.
She had no choice but to fight in the heavier bantamweight division, where the non-title fight limit is 136lbs. Despite stepping up to face a bigger opponent, Eye won her UFC debut. What should have been the most celebratory moment of her career turned into a huge disappointment when the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation overturned the ruling to a no-contest after she tested positive for marijuana.
Setbacks are nothing new to the rough and tumble country girl from rural Ohio. Jessica Eye has seen far worse in her lifetime. Long before fighting in a cage, Eye had overcome the type of adversity that no one, especially a gifted high school athlete, should have to endure. From mental and physical abuse, to a horrible car accident that left her with a severe injury, Eye had experienced enough trauma to last a lifetime by the time she was a teenager.
She was just a small town girl. The type that Journey writes songs about. A pretty young lady who spent almost all of her free time immersed in athletics, running track, or playing soccer and basketball. When Jessica was just 16 years old, she and her father were on the side of the road, troubleshooting her stalled vehicle when a drunk driver hit them. Both suffered injuries. She was a young kid — and a significant piece of her life was taken by the driver’s irresponsible and despicable actions. Her back was broken. She couldn’t walk for months. “I was 16 years old when I broke my back. That was just a crazy situation. I think adversity is something that I’ve always dealt with,” she says, looking back. “Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I use it to enlighten and share. Someone else might need that inspiration.”
Many who have experienced similar accidents of that magnitude never fully recover. The physical damage resulting from such a severe injury usually prevents any further participation in sports. Jessica Eye had a force multiplier of difficulty working against her. Though she later became close with her father, it wasn’t always like that. “I had a very troubled relationship with my father growing up. We dealt with a lot of abuse,” Eye tells me. “I was familiar with physical contact, in an abrasive way, so when I realized fighting was a real sport I felt like it’s something I could be really good at.”
Through it all, martial arts was her sanctuary. “I feel like martial arts found me. I feel like it was my calling, where I could make the most impact on the world, and where I feel the most alive,” Eye explains about the inception of her martial arts journey. When she dropped four UFC fights in a row, it put her back into a place that she never wanted to revisit, a proverbial pit of despair.
“It was super depressing. My father passed away. I was dealing with some personal problems. There was just a lot going on,” Eye recalls. “When I got in the cage I wasn’t the best fighter I could’ve been during those fights.” After more than a year away from competition she had time to reflect and embrace the harsh reality of essentially being out of work. “I’ve had to sell my fight gear, and sell priceless things that I wish I didn’t have to sell, things that were more valuable to me than the money I got for them.”
Eye understood what got her there, but more importantly, she knew how to get herself out of the rut. “When I took the time off, and got my mind right, fixed my life, I really just started focusing on what was important — the training.” Once more, she rose to the challenge of defying improbable odds and put the past behind her. “I felt like no longer was I considered a loser but I was considered a winner. And I felt like a winner. That makes a difference,” Eye says. “I finally said one day, ‘I’m sick of this. I’m sick of being depressed. I’m sick of being sad. I want to be happy. I’m going to do this.’”
“I know what I’m capable of, in a division that I feel was created for me.”
At that moment, she vowed never to return to that dark place. Eye knows her worth. She is built for combat and answers to a greater calling than simple wins and losses. “I’m able to be a great advocate for people who have suffered from abuse,” she says, “most people don’t know how to get themselves out of those dark places. I survived those really dark mental times and pulled myself through it.”
“I’m still just a midwest girl trying to make this dream a reality,” she tells me. “The more that I’m inspired, and the happier that I am, the more I can inspire other people”. The return to her natural weight, where she has 10 wins, was a welcome rebirth for her wavering career. The inception of the UFC flyweight division was certainly a blessing that she longed for. She attributes her current wave of success to the mental aspect of her process more than the physical.
“I have more confidence, more self-belief. I care less about what other people think and that’s allowed me to get better. And I know what I’m capable of, in a division that I feel was created for me. Here we are! Here we are, a year and a half later, fighting for a world title,” she says, as a wave of emotion radiates through her incredible smile.
As of this writing, UFC 238 fight posters can be found on billboards throughout Las Vegas and the biggest one of all is plastered across the side of the UFC Performance Institute. “It doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t feel like it’s happening. The title fight is just around the corner, but it doesn’t feel like it is.” But the truth is, it is real, all of it.
Jessica Eye, who has been written off by many detractors over the past five years, will indeed challenge for a UFC Championship. Just as she refused to give in when a devastating injury left her unable to walk for months, she has emerged from the ashes of certain defeat to create the most powerful wave of momentum her career has ever seen. Win or lose, Eye has reached a summit the vast majority of professional MMA fighters will never see — UFC title contention.