The official date of Jessica Eye’s return to the Octagon is Jan. 14, when she faces Kalindra Faria in a UFC Fight Night bout in St. Louis. But for all intents and purposes, Cleveland’s “Evil” Eye was back last summer, when a canceled fight with Aspen Ladd turned into a clean slate at flyweight that she had been waiting for.
But don’t say “New Year, New Me” around the former bantamweight contender.
“It’s New Year, Old Me,” she laughs. “We’re just going back. I don’t want to be cliché and say, ‘Yeah, this is a fresh start,’ in that way, but it does finally feel like that for once. It’s not a cliché, it’s actually the real thing. It’s a true fresh start in the weight class I should have been at all those years ago.”
Her performances at 125 pounds were what caught the eye (pardon the pun) of the UFC back in 2013, prompting the promotion to sign the rising star. The only problem for Eye was that there was no flyweight division for her to compete in. But like any fighter worth their salt, Eye saw the extra ten pounds as just another obstacle to deal with. It turned into more than that, and after nearly three years at 135 pounds, her 10-1 record turned into a 11-6, 1 NC slate, and after four consecutive defeats, she decided she needed a break.
“People were like, ‘What are you holding back?’” Eye said of her time in the bantamweight division. “It’s no different than me saying, ‘We’re going to run up this hill. You carry a 10-pound weight, I’m not going to carry anything.’ If I carry that 10-pound weight, it’s gonna be harder for me to run because I’m gonna have more weight to carry to get up there. I was almost carrying this extra weight that was keeping me from being me, keeping me from performing the way that I fully could, and it kept me reserved in some of my fights.”
When Eye did fight opponents closer to her size, like Leslie Smith and Sarah Kaufman, she showed what she could do. But against bigger foes, it was a rough go. And while she asked UFC President Dana White and matchmaker Sean Shelby for a fight at 125 pounds, the promotion didn’t bring the weight class in until last year, and when Eye’s fight with Ladd was called off in July, she got the news she had been waiting for.
“Could it be any more perfect for me?” she asks. “I didn’t believe that it was ever gonna happen, but now that it’s here, I’m so overly prepared, I can’t believe it’s actually, finally, happening. And I’m glad that they’re finally doing this and I’m glad I didn’t go into The Ultimate Fighter house and go that route. That was an option for me, but I’m 31 and I can’t do that with some of those young girls. (Laughs) I’d probably end up catching a case for beating up somebody just because I’d end up spanking somebody for doing something stupid like not rinsing their dishes out.”
Eye laughs, and it’s a reaction heard far too infrequently during her UFC run thus far. And though she said all the right things as she got ready for her fights against a former world champion (Miesha Tate), a TUF winner (Julianna Pena), and three former world title challengers (Alexis Davis, Sara McMann and Bethe Correia), it wasn’t clear until she got her first flyweight assignment in the UFC that something was missing back then.
“I think so,” she said. “At the time, I would have told you no, I would have told you I was prepared, and I was for what prepared could have been, but at the same time, in hindsight and being off 17 months, maybe things were a bit cloudier. The last 16 months have been amazing. I’m walking around the lightest I’ve ever walked around and training the hardest I ever have. It’s crazy how things happen the way they do, but I have to trust that there’s a reason that all these things have happened the way they have.”
And even with her first 125-pound opponent being Brazil’s Faria and not Paige VanZant, who she expected to square off with twice before that matchup was ultimately scrapped, Eye is now of the opinion that it doesn’t matter who she fights, as long as she shows up and proves just who she was before the letters U-F-C were on her gloves.
“I didn’t get to showcase all the things I’m good at,” she said. “And it’s just driven me to make myself more of the true ‘Evil’ fighter and show why I was the best flyweight before I even came to the UFC and why they wanted me to begin with.”