Mixed martial arts is a cruel sport for a multitude of reasons, including, but not limited to, how months of hard work and build-up can come crashing down in an instant, and sometimes, that instant is completely out of a fighter’s hands, as it was when Maycee Barber’s knee buckled in the second round of her fight against Roxanne Modafferi at UFC 246.
While the fight itself was a close affair, Barber’s injury turned out to be a torn ACL, one Barber would say occurred in the first round of the January 2020 bout. Although she hung in for the rest of the fight, Modafferi ended the night with her hand raised to the tune of a unanimous decision, and Barber was left to limp back to the locker room with the first loss of her career. The doubters came for “The Future,” but now, fully recovered and ready for her return at UFC 258, the 22-year-old is out to remind everyone that a loss does not mean her chase for the title concluded.
“I was on a fast track,” Barber told UFC.com. “I was the girl that was all success, and everything was good, and I was chasing the title and the whole thing, but the reason why that was because I hadn’t run into a roadblock. I hadn’t run into something where I had to take a detour, and I feel like that was my detour. I feel like I took it really well because, yes, we ran into it, but we’re still on that track. We’re still strong, we’re still coming for the title, we’re still chasing our dream, and I’m still that strong fighter that’s coming for what I want.
A long rehab process followed, one that the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted momentarily. It forced Barber to do some of the recovery on her own, guided via Facetime, but just a few days away from her return fight against Alexa Grasso, Barber looks back on the comeback trail fondly.
For one, it allowed her body to recover as a whole, especially from when she was regularly making hard cuts to make the strawweight limit. The time away also forced the rising star to sit back and wait, something anybody in their early-20s understands as an incredibly tedious task.
“A lot of things that I’ve learned mentally was just patience,” Barber said. “Being a fighter that has come onto the scene really fast, I came on and it was like, ‘Go, go, go, go, go.’ No one ever told me, ‘Hey, let’s focus on making sure that your body is healthy. Make sure that your mentality is ready to go.’ I think it really helped my body to neutralize. There’s a life after fighting, and I want to be able to have a family someday. I want to be able to have a future career later on, so I need my body to be healthy out there, too.
"For me, this whole year was like a, ‘All right, let’s make sure not only are you the best fighter you can possibly be; let’s just be the healthiest person and the healthiest version of yourself mentally, physically and just overall.’ I think that that’s the biggest thing that I was able to take away.”
MMA fans have notoriously short memories, and Grasso does hold wins over the likes of Randa Markos and Karolina Kowalkiewicz, so it isn’t necessarily surprising Barber finds herself as a slight underdog against the Mexican.
Barber doesn’t take the status as a slight, necessarily. She’s keen on the nature of the business as well as the perception behind her circumstances right now. That said, she is very much still the incredibly confident person that made her a fast-rising star in the promotion (and in fairness, at just 22, a star that is still rising). For now, though, she is enjoying the opportunity to prove some doubters wrong and help out those who haven’t left her bandwagon after her first professional stumble.
“I think that for me to be the underdog, one, it’s going to make a lot of people that are betting on me a lot of money,” she laughs. “But two, is I can see how it would happen. From an outsider, it’s like, I got injured, I lost, and nobody knows how someone comes back after a year layoff. Nobody knows how someone comes back from an injury quite like that. It’s a serious injury, so for a lot of people that are making the odds and making the statistics, I can see how it would be looked at, but they have a very big misconception of the growth I’ve had and the person that I am and how strong-willed I am and how much I’m going to come for that win.”
Confidence hasn’t left the Colorado native and the kind she has doesn’t just evaporate after a single loss, but she is young in her MMA career, and so one couldn’t fault her if she decided to throw everything against a wall and reprioritize. She went back to the drawing board, sure, but only to find the right tools that needed sharpening to set her back on the path to UFC gold sooner rather than later.
“A detour is not something that takes you to a different destination,” she said. “A detour is something that takes you to the same destination, just a different path, and I feel like we’re on the same path – our end goal is the same. It’s just that the path is going to change a little bit. It was, ‘OK, now we have to learn how to evolve and how to grow in a different way instead of just physically. Instead of in front of people, now we’re growing and we’re learning behind the scenes,’ and now I get to show that.”
Even though the rehab process was lengthy, she jokes that it also feels like fight week carries a little bit of déjà vu. She’s back in Las Vegas, ready to put a show on during a pay-per-view card against another proven ranked opponent.
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She notes it kind of feels like a debut in terms of the question marks surrounding her fight, as well as the opportunity to show people how much she has evolved in her time away. Her intention is to always show tangible growth each time she steps in the Octagon, and on February 13, she has the chance to remind everyone what The Future is all about.
“The statement that I want to make is that I’m back,” Barber said. “The Future is back, and The Future is ready to continue towards the title and taking these girls out.”