It’s not what Emily Whitmire did to essentially kick off her MMA career. It’s what she did next.
One Wednesday night in Vancouver, Washington, Whitmire was like a lot of people who think they can fight. Most never do. But when the emcee of a grappling event called for someone to hit the mat with future UFC fighter Lisa Ellis, she became one of the few willing to put their money where their mouth is.
“Lisa Ellis was there as a guest judge and I think the announcer was trying to play a joke on her and asked if any girls wanted to grapple her. And my hand was the only hand that shot up in the air.”
She laughs at the memory, which brought several responses of ‘Are you sure?’ She said she did.
“I didn’t realize it was absolutely insane, and so I got down there and I took out my pink hoop earrings and put my hair in a ponytail, and almost got my arm broke and choked out, and decided that, ‘Hey, this is what I want to do.’”
Eight years later, the 26-year-old is in the world’s living room every Wednesday night as a member of The Ultimate Fighter 26 cast and four wins away from being crowned the UFC’s first female flyweight champion should she survive unscathed through the toughest tournament in sports.
And though her pro record reads just 2-1, there’s a lot more experience behind that slate thanks to her amateur career on the tough Pacific Northwest circuit, proving that she was ready for the show. But what kept her here after her impromptu clash with Ellis?
“I think it was the fact that I didn’t do so well and I knew that I wanted to do well,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh no, I can do this, and I’m gonna try.’”
It was a gutsy move for someone with no experience to compete in a sport that was still a few years from exploding onto the mainstream scene after the UFC arrival of Ronda Rousey. But that didn’t matter to Whitmire. She was in the sport for reasons other than fame and fortune.
“It’s the only thing I’ve ever found that captured me and made me feel something inside,” she said. “It’s really hard to do, so the feeling of accomplishment after a hard fight or a hard camp is always an indescribable feeling.”
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So nothing has come along to replace that?
“I think it would be really hard to,” she said. “I haven’t found anything yet.”
What she has found is a career, one that can now provide fame and fortune if she can make it to the UFC, and especially if she can become a champion in the promotion. That part of the whole journey is still a trip to her.
“It was weird,” Whitmire said. “I got into it back in 2010, before it was really all that big of a deal, so when it did start to take off, it was really exciting that you knew you weren’t going to be fighting for pennies in the future. You knew there was actually going to be some payoff for all your hard work.”
There was no shortage of hard work, as she took a veteran’s journey to the TUF house. But she’s the first one to admit that she’s not alone in the dues paying business, and that in a switch of the usual scenario, sometimes the ladies will be able to punch their way into the big show before the men do.
A post shared by Emily Whitmire (@emwhitmire115) on Oct 13, 2017 at 2:53pm PDT
“I had a lot of amateur fights and did the whole ‘take crazy, short notice fights, cut a ton of weight or don’t cut any weight and fight people bigger than me’ thing,” she said. “My pro career has been a little bit shorter and sweeter. I do know a lot of guys who are 10-2 and not in the big show and they’re fighting for 500 and 500, and they’re twice the fighter I am now. That’s one of the unfortunate things that differentiate the women and men. It’s heartbreaking for a lot of the guys I know but, at the same time, all I can do is take my opportunity and make sure I make the most of it.”
That opportunity came in the form of a move to Las Vegas, a trip those close to her supported, but that folks at her day job weren’t so excited about.
“I think the people I got the most s**t from were managers I had worked for and customers I waited on,” she said. “They were all like, ‘See ya in six months.’ That was a little annoying, but as far as people that are close to me, everybody was always very supportive.”
That six months is long gone. Emily Whitmire isn’t going home. She’s found a new one.