UFC bantamweight Jessamyn Duke wears her heart on her sleeve. She shows it in all of her fights, win or lose.
So when she faces Elizabeth Phillips once again at UFC on FOX on July 25 (Duke won their first bout via guillotine choke when the two were still fighting in the amateur ranks), she knows how much she has improved since that 2012 bout, but expects nothing less from Phillips. Plus, there’s likely a little something extra for her opponent this time around.
“Just speaking for myself, when I've lost a fight to someone and I got a rematch, I came back with a vengeance and with a whole new motivation,” Duke says. “And I think, just knowing that she's coming, not just with something to prove, but she's probably coming wanting to get some revenge for the loss and to make up for what happened before, that's something you can't underestimate or take lightly.”
It’s not that Duke needs any extra motivation. One of the members of the Four Horsewomen team led by bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, Duke feels like a win is Leslie Smith in their women's bantamweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event on July 16, 2014 in Atlantic City, NJ. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)" align="right" />more than imperative.
“There can be no other outcome,” she said. “I'm on a mission. I've got goals and I intend on achieving them. Winning this next fight is the first step in achieving those goals.”
Duke grew up somewhat shy in rural Letcher County, Kentucky. By seventh grade, the 5’11” fighter was already a foot taller than the rest of her classmates, and despite what many average-height people might think, being taller is not always better.
“I was always very self-conscious about it,” she said. “I didn't want to be that tall. I didn't want to be that much taller than everyone. I just kind of wanted to fit in and fly under the radar and not be singled out. It made me a bit shy and a bit introverted.”
That shyness bled into her early training in mixed martial arts. There were times when Duke found herself in situations that she didn’t really believe she could get out of, and in this game, self-doubt will beat you more often than any opponent.
For people who know Jessamyn today, that might come as a bit of a surprise, but like most professional athletes, a journey of self–discovery is always something that comes before greatness. And when we’re talking the fight game, one almost always has to go through hell before they can get to heaven.
“One thing I found out about myself was that I didn't realize that I had so much heart,” she said. “In my mind I thought I was afraid, but then after it was all said and done, I always had this determination to find a way to end up on top and to end up winning or always coming back and just never giving up. And that was something that gave me confidence. You know, realizing that about myself helped me work through my lack of confidence where I'm like, if I literally will not stop, no one can stop me. I will find a way. And that goes for my personal life as well.”
Duke is cerebral, both inside the Octagon and out. As a woman, reconciling life as a fighter is simultaneously clarifying and confusing. But she says there’s nothing more pivotal in her life than fighting, and there are so many things in her life that are “microcosms of fighting.”
Bethe Correia in their women's bantamweight bout during the UFC 172 event on April 26, 2014 in Baltimore, MD. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Zuffa LLC)" align="left" />“I can relate pretty much everything that happens to me to being in a fight; the emotions that I feel and things that happen to my body and my brain,” she says. “That's why I love fighting more than anything because it's the core of all of those things, whether it be sex, or enjoying something amazing like good food – or it could be anything that gets reactions from me – it almost all goes back to fighting.”
After suffering a first round TKO at the hands of Leslie Smith in her last fight, Duke underwent hand surgery. She’s been itching to get back in the ring ever since.
“I was so anxious for this fight for so long that I really was like, ‘I need it now,’” she said. “But the surgery gave me time to settle into my groove out here in Los Angeles, to kind of establish myself a bit more, to kind of get settled a bit more and really become a part of a team and get the right group of people around me and just really get all the things that I need as an athlete. It took time.”
Duke says Los Angeles has taken a bit of getting used to, but she’s found her sweet spot in more “microcosms.” She finds comfort in the little things, the time on the beach alone, even stuck in traffic with her thoughts, but she makes sure to keep away from the crowds when she can.
“I avoid downtown but we have to train down there so I’m getting used to it,” she said. “I moved across the country. I left pretty much everyone I know, came out here and just tried to start fighting. But I wasn't in a groove with anyone, you know, and that stuff just takes time. So I really think it was a blessing in disguise that I had this long layoff in between fights because, really, just physically, mentally, emotionally, I'm in such a better place than I was a year ago that it's amazing.”
Two years removed from The Ultimate Fighter, where Duke won Fight of the Series after a war of a fight that she dropped to Raquel “Rocky” Pennington, she sounds light years away from the tall, shy girl in middle school, and in fact, she is. Anyone can see the self-assured woman that has emerged from the little girl who kept to herself because she was embarrassed of her height.
She is comfortable in her own skin. Finally. Her fans have helped in that regard.
“I relish the opportunity to inspire,” she says. “When a little girl walks up to me with her father and asks for an autograph, or they’re dressing up like me for Halloween, it makes me feel really good, and it makes me realize that I have a responsibility to perform on this huge platform called the UFC.”
Duke says it’s impossible to know if children of her own are in her future, but if they are, they will come long after her fighting days are over.
The youngest of three, Jessamyn can’t help but to feel competitive with her brother and sister, and they have children.
“I can’t let them show me up,” she said. “But I have three nieces (and a nephew on the way) and I love them like my own. But having kids is not something I think about currently.”
Duke sounds happy, and for good reason. She says she’s happy with everything that’s going on in her life right now, and she feels like she’s firing on all cylinders.
“I'm so excited to show everyone the new – not necessarily the new version of me – but this version of me that is here now because I am just so in love with what's happening in my life,” she says. “I wake up every morning and I'm so motivated to train and it's not like, ‘Oh, I've got to kill this girl. I need to go and train.’ It's like I just love my life and I'm learning so much every single day. I'm getting better every single day.”
But there are still microcosms of hurt that Duke selectively reveals.
I ask her if she remembers her first, real heartbreak. She laughs, but it’s clear the chuckle is as defensive as a counter punch.
“Yea, I remember it distinctly,” she says.
How did you get over it?
“I moved to Los Angeles,” she said.
And she left it at that.