Outside the Octagon is a weekly column from UFC.com editorial director Thomas Gerbasi, who has covered the sport since 2000 and has authored the official UFC encyclopedia.
Elizabeth Phillips won’t go as far as to call 2014 horrific, but it hasn’t been the easiest year of the UFC bantamweight prospect’s life, at least professionally.
Strangely enough, on paper, you could say it’s been the best year yet for the 28-year-old, but behind wins in two of three fights, a call-up to the UFC, and work trips to Canada and China, there were a few rough patches.
First there was the cut to 125 pounds from her usual 135 to fight – and beat – Katie Howard on May 30. Two weeks later, she was back in action, this time in Vancouver against Valerie Letourneau on the UFC 174 card, and when the 15-minute bout was over, she lost a split decision many observers felt she won. A month later, she got her next fight, a scrap with Milana Dudieva this Saturday that will take her to Macao.
You want crazy, that’s crazy. But that’s also an outsider’s view. In the eye of the storm, Phillips takes it all in stride because that’s what fighters do. And if you want to describe Elizabeth Phillips, fighter is probably the first word that comes to mind, and that wouldn’t insult her in the slightest.
“There are athletes out there that come into MMA but I truly don’t believe that everybody is a fighter,” she said. “It (being a fighter) comes with instinct and heart and your attitude. Even when you’re losing and you’re tired and you’re hurt, it’s how you handle it. You can’t teach that, and I don’t think everybody has it. Some people have it and some people don’t.”
Phillips has it, so when you ask her about her horrific (my word, not hers) spell over the last couple months, all she’ll say is “I didn’t get to prove myself as much as I wanted to.”
Maybe not in her eyes, but in the eyes of the world, her bout with Letourneau showed her to be someone who will do some damage in the bantamweight division with a full training camp behind her, and with teammates and UFC vets like Julianna Pena, Michael Chiesa, and Sam Sicilia endorsing her, the June loss was just a blip on the radar of what promises to be a successful UFC career.
That’s good news for Phillips, who does admit that when it does get like it has in the past, you wonder why you got tied up in this game.
“I think that goes through every fighter’s mind when it gets tough,” she said. “It’s not all cupcakes and sunshine all the time. It gets stressful and you second guess yourself sometimes and you wonder why the hell am I even doing this. But at the end of the day and after you get that victory there are moments where it’s definitely worth it, and it reminds you of why you do it.”
Phillips’ other reminder? That the fists that once got her into trouble can now be the ticket to something greater.
Growing up in Omak, Washington, population 4,792, Phillips spent her formative years on the Colville reservation, the daughter of an African-American father and a mother who was white and Native-American.
“I’m not a tribal member of the Colville tribe, but I am Blackfeet and also Choctaw, and so is my older sister, and we were raised over on the Colville rez,” Phillips said. “I’ve grown up in that culture my whole life.”
Phillips was always an athlete, but as she got older, she learned that she liked to scrap as well.
“If you went to a party on the rez or something like that, you knew that you were going to get into a fight,” she said. “Someone was going to talk s**t and someone was going to get their head knocked off their shoulders. It was crazy. I was getting in fights all the time when I was younger. I used to be this small, quiet person, and then all of a sudden everything changed and I was rowdy because that was just how it was. If you had a problem with somebody, you threw fists at each other and you handled it that way. That was definitely the lifestyle of Omak and where I grew up.”
Most of us would steer away from those parties.
“That’s where the excitement was.”
So was the trouble, and Phillips saw her share.
“I was getting in trouble at one point and things weren’t working out and there’s a lot of regrets I have because of certain choices that I made, so it did get to the point where I was like ‘I need to stay busy with myself and start doing something positive that I like to do,’ and I’m just thankful that I had people that pointed me in that direction of mixed martial arts.”
At 24, Phillips walked into the Sik Jitsu gym in her current hometown of Spokane, Washington. The first practice was what you would expect, but with a twist.
“I kinda got whupped on as far as grappling and ground stuff goes,” she said. “And I was like ‘This really is the real deal.’ But I fell in love with it. I never stopped going after that. I never took a break. I just kept training and training and training.”
Notice she didn’t say she got whupped while standing.
“I like to get punched in the face, it doesn’t bother me,” Phillips laughs. “I love to sock people up, but at the same time, I can take a punch and I’m not gonna curl up in a ball either. That’s me having a few screws loose.”
On a break from the gym at the time was Pena, but when she returned, Phillips found a kindred spirit in the future Ultimate Fighter 18 winner, albeit one who granted her wish of getting punched in the face.
“I kind of became a punching bag when she came along,” Phillips said, but the two quickly formed a bond, and after a series of amateur fights, the former rowdy teenager became a professional mixed martial artist, debuting in 2012. Less than two years later, she’s in the UFC.
“I’ve only been training three years in combative sports, so I feel pretty fortunate to be here this soon,” Phillips said. As for her wild side, “I think fighting for three years non-stop probably mellowed me out a little bit.”
Not on fight night though, and her tenacity has garnered her fans not only in the MMA community, but back home in Omak as well.
“The support is crazy,” she said. “I’m getting sponsorships from back home in Omak from the Colville tribe and car dealerships and small businesses and things like that, so it’s pretty cool. I have a little, small town backing me up because they’re stoked to have one of their own come out and do something with themselves. So it’s a pretty good feeling.”
Not as good as fighting though. That’s never left Elizabeth Phillips.
“I definitely love to fight, and when it’s time to put my game face on, I’m ready to go and it’s all business.”
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