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Black History Month

Angela Hill's Ascension To UFC's Center Stage

From The Worlds Of Fine Art To Martial Arts, UFC Strawweight Angela Hill Has Found Her Place In The Spotlight, Making History Along The Way

Entering the biggest mixed martial arts promotion in the world with one professional fight under your belt can be daunting enough. Try doing it the way Angela Hill did, as a 1-0 pro who was the first African American woman to compete on The Ultimate Fighter and to fight in the UFC.

“It's been part of the pressure since I got into the UFC because when that happened, I was like, 'Aw man, I have to represent,'” recalled Hill, who represented just fine with a decision win over Emily Kagan on the TUF 20 Finale event on December 12, 2014.

“I think a lot of Black Americans, in general, feel that pressure whenever they venture out into something that's not necessarily thought of when you think of Black people. When I was in art school, I felt the same way, like I gotta represent, I gotta show people that I'm not just here as some kind of affirmative action thing; I have to show them that I deserve to be here. And I feel like I've had that pressure as well since I've been in the UFC. I have to show people that I'm not the diversity hire. I deserve to be here, I'm one of the best fighters in the division and I'm gonna be one of the best in the world.”

Angela Hill: Overkill, Overcome
Angela Hill: Overkill, Overcome

Some would say she’s already done that, despite a misleading record of 12-9. It’s misleading because the 36-year-old Maryland native basically grew up in public, learning her craft on the job. That led to a pair of losses to Tecia Torres and Rose Namajunas, which says enough in itself, and the loss of her UFC contract in 2015.

Undeterred, Hill roared back with a 4-0 run in Invicta FC that saw her win three Performance of the Night awards and the promotion’s strawweight title. By 2017, “Overkill” was back in the UFC, and while going six for thirteen isn’t something she’s happy with, several of those losses were controversial at best, and the fact that she’s in the top 15 right now proves that those in the fight game do know that Hill is more than her win-loss record.

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“It's taken a lot longer than I had initially thought it would,” Hill said of her quest to reach the top of the 115-pound weight class. “But I've stayed passionate and I've always improved, so I definitely feel like my time is coming. The last couple of years, you've seen a lot of the older athletes kind of run over the young guys and shine, so I definitely have a lot of hope for the future and I'm taking that pressure and turning it into diamonds.”

That’s not surprising, since pressure has been a part of her life for a lot longer than she’s been a professional fighter, with her first dose of it coming when she was a student The Cooper Union School of Art in New York City, a prestigious institution where she earned her BFA degree. One would assume that with artists used to doing things outside of the norm, anyone would be accepted in such circles. Hill doesn’t necessarily agree.

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 18:  (L-R) Team Melendez fighter Angela Hill kicks team Pettis fighter Carla Esparza during filming of season twenty of The Ultimate Fighter on July 18, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty
Team Melendez fighter Angela Hill kicks team Pettis fighter Carla Esparza during filming of season twenty of The Ultimate Fighter on July 18, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC)

“In New York as a city, it was very accepting,” she said. “But when it comes to art school, my school was very pretentious, so I felt like an outsider the entire time I was there. I think if I had gone to a school that focused more on graphic design or getting a job in an art field once you graduate, it would have been a little different. But because my school was so focused on the fine arts, you hear a lot of the same words when you show something. You'll hear didactic or outsider art, or folk art when they talk about my stuff. Technically, the draftsmanship of what I'm doing looks better than what these other kids are doing, but because it's coming from my perspective, it would be considered outsider art. That kind of stuff always made me a little sour on the art world.”

Hill did find her niche when she began working in animation, though, and surprisingly, the fighter who has a vibrant social media presence, a podcast with Karyn Bryant and has been on the commentary desk on fight night for the UFC, enjoyed it because she didn’t have to be the focal point of everything.

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“So going into animation was definitely accepting because you didn't really see the person. You're not judging the artist and the artwork. You're just judging the artwork. That was nice. It sounds funny now, but I've always enjoyed being behind the camera and not really being the person seen. It was a big step for me to start getting out there and fighting people in front of hundreds and then thousands and even more. If I was doing a video project, I hated acting in it and I hated taking photos of myself. I never wanted to be seen in my art; I always wanted to show other people or other things, so it's funny that I'm kind of a celebrity now.

“When I started getting into animation, I was getting into a field that was more focused on creating something to be digested by the mass community in America, as opposed to just this select group that I didn't really feel a part of, and I felt like that helped a lot in finding my creative passion again,” Hill said.

The Fight Life – Angela Hill
The Fight Life – Angela Hill

Hill’s art these days is displayed under the bright lights several times a year, and that’s the way she likes it, as she is one of the most active fighters on the roster, and one who would likely fight even more if given the chance. That old school attitude has made Hill a favorite of hardcore UFC fans who know that whenever someone in her division falls out of a bout for whatever reason, she will be looking to fill that vacancy ASAP. The way she sees it, you get better at fighting by fighting, and in her most recent bout last September, her tenacity and evolution was rewarded with a main event bout against Michelle Waterson that saw her become the first African American woman to headline a UFC show.

Hill would get disappointed by the judges once more as she lost a five-round split decision, but the bout won Fight of the Night honors and her stock didn’t drop a bit as she awaits her next assignment. As a competitor, though, there are no moral victories for Hill, who feels like she’s letting down those who are looking for her to open the door for more Black women to make it to the UFC.

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“It's something that I've battled, but I think everyone has a different weight that they're carrying, like being the first person in your family to go to college,” she said. “And it kind of feels like the same thing - everyone's looking at you to succeed so they can brag about you, like 'Look at my girl Angela Hill, she's doing this, this and that.' But a lot of times in my career, my fights haven't gone the way that I wanted them to. And it always hurts a little bit more just because I did want to show out and I did want to show how hard I've been working and how many extra hours I've been putting in compared to my peers.

"And unfortunately, with MMA, it's so hard to just go out there and show what you've been working on. It's very unpredictable, sometimes you're fighting people who are just better at certain things and have been doing them longer and it shows in the fight. So I think my entire career has just been working on becoming more well-rounded and trying to get those big emphatic wins to really prove to people that we have a place here in the UFC."

Angela Hill hits Ariane Carnelossi of Brazil in their women's strawweight bout during UFC Fight Night event at Arena Ciudad de Mexico on September 21, 2019 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Zuffa LLC)
Angela Hill hits Ariane Carnelossi of Brazil in their women's strawweight bout during UFC Fight Night event at Arena Ciudad de Mexico on September 21, 2019 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Zuffa LLC)

“And it's funny because I always get that question, 'Why do you think that there aren't more Black women in the UFC? There's Black women dominating in all other sports, but why don't you think that they're rarely seen in MMA?'” Hill continues. “And I know it's not me, but I feel like if I were more successful, then maybe you would see more faces there. So I've just been trying to be that role model that I would want to look up to as a young athlete, as well, and use that pressure, use that weight as a way to get out of bed in the morning when I don't feel like training or a way to push past some mental block that I'm having with a certain move. I know I can do this; I just have to focus more and use it. Because the pressure's never gonna go away. I'm never gonna stop caring about Black people, so I want to be a positive influence and be someone that people can look up to.”

She already is. And while she would have liked some of those close decisions to have gone in her direction, her work as an ambassador of the sport in and out of the Octagon isn’t determined by a win-loss record. And as hard as it can sometimes be to feel that way after a tough defeat, Hill has received plenty of messages that let her know she’s made an impact and is opening the doors she wants to.

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“I get most people saying that to me online,” Hill said. “They'll go, 'You got my daughter into MMA,' or 'You got my wife into MMA. She hated it before, then she watched a couple of your fights, and she's like, 'Oh my God!'' It's funny, I think a lot of times when people are represented in most things, then you forget what it feels like not to be represented. So that's why you have a lot of people who love hip-hop flocking to Eminem because they're like, 'Oh, this guy looks like me.' And imagine if that was every other thing in the world, where it was dominated by people who don't look like you.

"So it's really funny when you see a TV show and the main character is a Black woman, you're like, 'Oh s**t, I'm gonna watch that,' because you feel like you can put yourself in that character even easier than when you're watching something where there are no Black people. It's pretty cool to inspire people like that and open that door for them, like, 'Hey, you can be an athlete,' 'Hey, you can be an MMA fighter,' or you can do something you might have thought wouldn't be welcoming to you because you don't see people who look like you doing it.”

ORLANDO, FL - FEBRUARY 24:  Angela Hill reacts after the conclusion of her women's strawweight bout against Maryna Moroz of Ukraine during the UFC Fight Night event at Amway Center on February 24, 2018 in Orlando, Florida.  (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LL
Angela Hill reacts after the conclusion of her women's strawweight bout against Maryna Moroz of Ukraine during the UFC Fight Night event at Amway Center on February 24, 2018 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

That’s leaving a mark that will last a lot longer than a particular fight on a particular night. Hill can be happy with that, but knowing her, she’ll just smile about it for a minute before getting back to the gym or on the phone to ask the UFC matchmakers for a fight. And that’s okay, because she is all-in on this fighting business. 

“I feel like so many people get trapped in careers that they hate, or they never find that thing that can take them away, that hobby that they're super passionate about,” she said. “And being able to have an outlet, even if you're stuck doing this boring job that you hate, if you find an outlet that you end up loving, it just improves your quality of life so much and improves your mental health. And If you're doing something physical, it improves your physical health, so it's all positives, and I think it makes the world a better place when people have something to do.”

UFC is proud to celebrate Black History Month by acknowledging the achievements of African American and Black UFC athletes throughout our history. During February, UFC will highlight the personal stories of these athletes, past and present, while celebrating their significance in promoting and growing UFC and the sport of mixed martial arts.