“Who doesn’t have a neck tattoo?”
Angela Hill chased her facetious question with a laugh before acknowledging that there might only be a couple fighters active in the strawweight division currently sporting ink on their necks, suggesting the numbers were higher in the past.
The subject came up because Saturday marks a dual first in the lengthy UFC career of the strawweight stalwart: her first fight in Brazil, and, as she said in the Instagram post that brought about our laugh, the first time she’s faced off with an opponent with a neck tattoo.
“It’s kind of as surprising as me not fighting (outside of the United States) as much; like how did this not already happen?” added Hill, who takes on Brazilian Denise Gomes on Saturday in Sao Paulo.
In a career that includes 23 previous visits to the Octagon, this week’s business trip to Brazil is just the fourth time Hill has competed abroad, and her first since venturing to Auckland, New Zealand in February 2020, where she registered a short notice win over Loma Lookboonmee.
“I love traveling — I met my husband traveling — and it’s a thing we do, so whenever we get to travel for a fight, it’s an adventure,” offered the 38-year-old. “I’m excited for this one; it’s the first time I’ve ever been to Brazil. I’d love to travel more often.”
While her pairing with Gomes brings a pair of firsts, the nature of the matchup itself is a decidedly familiar one for the 38-year-old born in “PG County” and currently residing in San Diego.
Currently positioned at No. 12 in the rankings, Hill is once again being asked to serve as the veteran measuring stick for a young, ascending fighter. This time, it’s the 23-year-old Gomes, who dropped her short notice promotional debut last September, but has since registered consecutive stoppage wins over Bruna Brasil and Yazmin Jauregui to establish herself as one of the most intriguing emerging fighters in the division.
“It’s one of those things that I kind of fall into because of my fight history, because of the people I haven’t beaten, so I end up being in this position a lot,” Hill said, offering an honest, unemotional assessment of why she frequently ends up in these types of fights. “I have to fight a couple ‘new blood’ girls to prove I’m good enough to fight someone that is ranked, and if I don’t pass that test, I’m back to fighting these ‘new blood' girls, and usually I get the best ones.
“You see how good Loopy (Godinez) is doing now. You see how good Emily Ducote is doing now. I get the best new girls to fight, and if I beat them, I get the chance to say, ‘Hey, I’m still one of the best strawweights in the world.’”
Hill bested Godinez and Ducote in back-to-back outings to wrap her 2022 campaign, earning herself an opportunity to fight forward in the rankings in her first bout of 2023.
Paired off with Mackenzie Dern in the main event of a mid-May fight card at the UFC APEX, the former Ultimate Fighter contestant landed on the wrong side of the results in a competitive, entertaining scrap that garnered Fight of the Night honors, and now, she’s back to fighting another “new blood” in Gomes.
Whether you want to refer to the position as a “gatekeeper” or “measuring stick,” everyone that has previously filled the role feels differently about it.
Some, like Bobby Green, take pride in being the veteran challenge ascending hopefuls need to pass before continuing further up the lightweight ranks; his face lighting up when I called him a “truth machine” last month before he went out and made quick work of 155-pound hopeful Grant Dawson, validating the moniker in the process.
Others have no interest in seeing themselves as anything other than another hungry competitor trying to get ahead in their respective divisions, unwilling or incapable of accepting a position as another other than a “future contender.”
Hill falls somewhere in between, recognizing it’s good work if you can get it, while also making it clear that she’d much rather be stationed a little further up the divisional rankings, where the stresses of each potential setback don’t feel as daunting.
“Some people can take it as an insult, but it’s the results of my results, the results of my wins and losses, and I’m just happy I have a job!” she said, smiling.
“(But being No. 12) is worse than being No. 2,” continued Hill. “You’re fighting the toughest chicks, you’re giving the girls in the Top 10 game plans to beat them, and if you win, yeah, you’re given another tough fight.
“It’d be nice to be one of the Top 5 girls that can fight people and not lose their place if they lose,” she added, adopting a higher pitched voice as she offered her take on what her contemporaries in the upper tier of the rankings must be thinking. “It’s like, ‘I’m No. 3, I’m gonna fight No. 4’ and when you lose, it’s ‘Now I’m No. 4; oh no!’
“That’s a little less stressful.”
Like everyone else that earns their living inside the UFC Octagon, Hill would like to hold down a place in the upper tier of her division, but she’s also clear on what has been keeping her from reaching that point thus far.
Each time she’s put together a string of victories and delivered a dynamic performance that lands her a date with someone positioned ahead of her in the rankings, she has faltered; it happened with Dern in May, and a couple different times earlier in her career.
All of the fights have been competitive and gone the distance; Hill has never been finished in her career.
Several of those momentum-crushing losses have come by split decision, including a few where many believe “Overkill” did more than enough to merit the victory.
Stumbling again in May prompted the reflective, earnest veteran to make a meaningful investment in trying to address the mental blocks she feels have been contributing to her faltering in those spots.
“After the last fight, I got a sports psychologist and she is really good,” offered Hill, who explained that she would catch herself thinking too much about the stakes of each marquee pairing throughout training camp and then freeze in critical moments when things didn’t go as planned in those fights. “She’s been helping me actually do the work.
“I have all these homework assignments I have to do each week on top of training, which is cool because it allows me to organize my thoughts, and either put it down on paper or go over it in my head.
“It’s one of these things that people don’t talk about, but the woman that I’m working with has worked with Olympic athletes, she’s worked with professional athletes from other leagues, and you realize that MMA is just a little behind with a lot of that stuff when it comes to what everyone else is doing.”
The way Hill sees it, Saturday’s matchup with Gomes is the perfect opportunity to test the impact of the work she’s been doing with the latest addition to her team, as her Brazilian foe is still in the early stages of her professional career and hasn’t yet dealt with enough ups and downs to get lost in your own head prior to a fight.
“I’ve been feeling really good in training, and I think this is a good person to test that against because I feel skill-wise, I have everything over her,” she said, offering a summary assessment of Gomes, who earned a UFC contract with a victory on Season 6 of Dana White’s Contender Series and carries an 8-2 record into this weekend’s contest. “She has power, but she still seems really green, really raw energy; a young buck coming in, kind of like me when I was just breaking in.”
Though she doesn’t always feel comfortable acknowledging her veteran status, there is no mistaking that Hill is one of the more experienced fighters in the division, having logged 20 appearances in the last seven years following her one-year, four-fight secondment with Invicta FC after going 1-2 in her first three UFC appearances.
For much of that time, she’s been positioned in the Top 15; those sporadic setbacks against top tier talents never enough to bounce her from the rankings, and the skids almost never lasting more than two fights.
She has an average fight time of 14:30 — just 30 seconds shy of three full rounds — and with only having had a couple main event assignments during the course of her career, that tells you that Hill is getting the absolute most she can out of each and every trip into the Octagon.
“Every time you say ‘24’ I’m like, ‘Goddamn!’ because it’s crazy to me,” she said when asked about embracing or at least acknowledging her veteran standing within the division, citing my previous mentions that this will be her 24th appearance under the UFC banner. “I don’t think of it like that because I’m still in it.
“I’m still learning every day, getting better, becoming more confident every time I train, every time I get out there. I do think about it every now and then, but because I’m so focused on being in it, it’s hard to sum it up yet.
“I still feel like my best chapter hasn’t happened yet.”
And while some may scoff at that assessment — or the stated goal that follows — please remember: Hill started this adventure with just two professional MMA fights on her resume as a member of the pioneering cast on Season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter, and remains a Top 15 talent a decade later.
“My joke is that I’m going to be the oldest champion in UFC history,” she said with a smile and a laugh. “I got like three years until I’m older than Glover (Teixeira) when he won the belt, and I feel like I could do it.
“I hate saying it because I know people are gonna talk s*** and whatever, but I know that I was right there so many times. I know that I’ve beaten people where even if it didn’t happen on paper, I know it in the fight — I saw it on their face, and they’ve challenged for the belt.”
While a championship run would be the ultimate capstone to her career, Hill already knows that whenever the time comes for her to walk away, she’ll leave fully satisfied with everything she’s done.
But the belt really would be a nice bonus.
“Whether it happens or not, I know I’m going to hang the gloves up happy with what I’ve done because I’ve just stayed at it,” she added. “I’ve put my all into my career. I did everything I could to get those wins. I enjoyed the process and the people that I’ve met along the ride.
“Whatever happens, I’ll be able to walk off into the sunset proud of what I did, but I do want the belt.”
UFC Fight Night: Almeida vs Lewis took place live from Ibirapuera Arena in São Paulo, Brazil on November 4, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!