The crowd at the United Center was pretty loud last month for the UFC on FOX event at the storied Chicago arena. No one was louder than Jessica Eye.
As her teammate Stipe Miocic battled it out for three rounds with Gabriel Gonzaga, the UFC women’s bantamweight contender shouted out encouragement and instructions, often in the same sentence. It was more than a hint of the intensity the 27-year-old Ohio native brings to everything in her life.
“Me and Stipe started at Strongstyle within two weeks of each other,” said Eye. “We’re from completely different ends of the world, and he’s like a big brother to me. He’s been in my life for such a long time and I want to see him succeed so bad.”
When she says bad, it’s more like “baaaaddd,” as to emphasize just how much she wants to see the heavyweight contender make it to the top. It makes it abundantly clear that if you have Eye in your corner, you’ve got someone who has your back for life. That’s a nice thing to have these days, even if Eye hasn’t always been the recipient of the same support.
Life in Ohio wasn’t great growing up, though that’s not something she brings up without you broaching the subject first. She broke her back when sideswiped by a drunk driver as a teenager, and even as a rising star in mixed martial arts, there were those who wanted her to fail simply because of the way she looked.
“I remember one time someone said to me ‘I ain’t cheering for the pretty girls because the pretty girls got it made,’” Eye recalled. “And they meant it towards me. I’ll never forget it, and it always sticks in my head. Do you think because I’m pretty I had a perfect life? Do you think because I have a nice face that I had mom and dad and everything was handed to me? Because if that’s the case, you are sadly mistaken and you’re very narrow-minded.”
Eye can’t help the way she looks, and she can’t do anything but deal with the hand she’s been dealt in life. And the way she’s dealt with it is by fighting – not just in a physical sense, but in a philosophical one as well. If you paint her into a corner, literally or figuratively, she’s coming out swinging.
“Fighting, for me, is what I’m used to,” said Eye, who faces Alexis Davis this weekend at UFC 170 in Las Vegas. “I feel like any fighter that truly has that killer instinct in them had some kind of emotional turmoil and they found a way to channel it. God bless it, man, I found something I’m really good at and that is super familiar to me because of the childhood that I had, and it works for me. I feel like life set me up for this, I really do.”
Winner of 10 of her 12 pro MMA fights, Eye is on the short list of contenders for the title Ronda Rousey defends in the UFC 170 main event against Sara McMann, and if she beats Davis, she will be on a list that is even shorter. So when you ask her about the possibility of challenging for a title before the year is out, it’s almost as if you asked her if the sky is blue or the Earth is round.
“Where else would I be on track to go, and if that’s what they want me to do, I do what the people that are paying me tell me to do,” she said. “And isn’t that the ultimate goal, to win the fights against the best so that you can fight the very best? So if that’s the situation, I’ll put my big girl pants on and I get ready to do what I do best.”
What she does best is fight. Not compete in a point kickboxing bout or wrestling or jiu-jitsu match. Sure, she has technique, but it’s not a sporting event when Eye puts the gloves on. That’s something that’s lost on some of her peers, and she knows it.
“It’s almost like their thoughts get lost in their mind and they don’t know how to fix it,” she said. When that happens, when thoughts of competing to win turn to thoughts of survival, Eye steps her game up. She’s almost fearless, content in knowing that whatever happens in three rounds or less of sanctioned combat can’t hurt her more than what life has thrown at her. And there have been two curveballs that she’s taken over the last three months that have tested her more than any fight.
The most recent is probably the least important in the great scheme of things, as it was revealed earlier this month that she tested positive for cannabinoids after her UFC debut win over Sarah Kaufman in October of 2013, prompting the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation to issue a fine and a probated suspension, as well as a reversal of her win to a no contest.
“I struggled with it,” she said of the aftermath of the news hitting the wires. “I went through a few different emotions – I was angry, I was sad, I was upset, I was motivated to fix it.”
Yet eventually, she came to grips with it.
“I told myself ‘You are capable of making mistakes, but these are mistakes that can be fixed and ones that are not going to truly change your career.’”
Eye will fight this Saturday, which was allowed under the terms of her probation with the Texas commission. That doesn’t mean her out of the Octagon fights are over, as she’s still dealing with the illness of her father, Randy, who was diagnosed with the terminal cancer glioblastoma late last year. A baseball-sized tumor was removed from Randy’s brain and he is currently going through treatment, but he is far from out of the woods.
“Right now, it’s limbo time,” said Eye. “We won’t know until late-March whether or not they’ve been able to keep it down. The cancer that my father has is a very, very rare type of brain tumor where people can live with it, but it never goes into remission. The tumor will always grow back; it’s just a matter of time. But it’s about slowing it down and preserving as much of the brain that they can. It will be what takes my father’s life though.”
That gravity is evident in Eye’s voice when she talks about her father, but at the same time, she brightens up when she explains how this cancer has brought the two together.
“Something happened to my dad on November 26th, the night before he went into surgery, not knowing whether he was going to make it out of it or not,” she said. “I sat with my dad that entire night and I held his hand, and that was the first time me and my dad ever held hands in our lives. Ever. I never held his hand. It was probably one of the most amazing things for me and him both, and now our relationship is completely different. My dad has that feeling from his daughter that he always wanted and I have that feeling from my father that I always wanted.”
It wasn’t always there, but Eye never stopped believing in her father and that one day the two would have the relationship she wanted. It’s that loyalty thing again.
“Most people don’t know anything about Jessica Eye,” she explains. “They know who Jessica ‘Evil’ Eye is, but they don’t know who Jessica Eye is, and I don’t expect them to. I’ve only let people in on the things that I truly want to, but I had a very rough childhood, and my father is dealing with that now, and we’ve come to terms with some of the things that happened that were bad between all of us in the family. I didn’t have a picture-perfect childhood. I didn’t have mom / dad. My dad worked a lot. He was a skilled tradesman and he worked 15 hours a day on a regular basis. The best way I can put it is that my dad provided for me financially. I never went without nice things, I always had a roof over my head, I always had food and I always had what I needed. Did I get what I wanted all the time? Not necessarily, and wanting is the sense of emotion too. But just because I didn’t get that doesn’t mean that I have to victimize myself.”
She never has. You could say it’s because she’s Rust Belt tough, or that she was born with the heart of a fighter. She admits that it may be a mix of both, but that only you can decide whether to use something as a crutch or not.
“It’s on you and how you look at life and what you use as motivation,” she said. “When I started fighting when I was 19 years old, we (her and her father) wanted to see me as a champion. That’s our life goal, and if they’re saying this is terminal for my dad, I’m not stopping. This is the time to keep going. This is not the time to go ‘woe is me’ and fall into a hole. It’s the time to stand up on top of the mountain for as long as we can and hold our hands high and enjoy the success that this is bringing.”
It’s why when Eye had the opportunity to go to Chicago last month and cheer on Miocic, Randy Eye was the one who encouraged her to go, even though she was reluctant after going with her father to his daily doctor appointments.
“My dad was so excited for me to go to Chicago,” she said. “He gets upset with me sometimes because I gotta be there for every treatment and every doctor’s appointment. But Chicago was a real eye opener for me. People made me feel so good and so loved and that was really cool.”
And father and daughter eventually came up with a compromise. Eye would go to treatment with her father on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, taking off Tuesdays and Thursdays. She bought Randy an iPhone, so he can keep her abreast of any developments when she’s not there, and it’s a situation she’s comfortable with.
“He told me ‘I’ve got my battles and you’ve got yours, but we do it together and we don’t necessarily have to be right next to each other,’” said Eye. “He’s fighting so hard and it’s nice to see a completely different person in him right now. To him, the first battle was getting the tumor out, and now he feels that he can beat this. So we’re gonna work real hard, and you never know.”
The immediate goal for Randy Eye is to get well enough so he can be in attendance to watch his daughter fight in the UFC. For Jessica, it’s to win this fight Saturday night and get back home to Ohio. For most, this would be an unattainable goal. For Eye, it’s business as usual.
“If things were smooth, then I would be worried,” she laughs. “If things were normal and I didn’t have 10 million kazillion things on my plate and things pulling me in a million directions, I would be like ‘oh my God, something bad’s gonna happen.’ I feel like that helps me keep my focus and I truly love a challenge mentally. Anybody can challenge themselves physically, but to challenge yourself mentally is on a completely different level, and there are so many motivations right now.”
Yet on fight night, the only one is to win.
“People worry about how I’m gonna handle this, but for 15 minutes of my life, it’s about me,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about my childhood or about what people think of me. For 15 minutes I get to be as selfish as I’ve ever wanted to be and I don’t get judged on that. And it’s familiar to me.”
Jessica Eye: 15 Minutes
"For 15 minutes I get to be as selfish as I’ve ever wanted to be and I don’t get judged on that." - Jessica Eye