When Jinh Yu Frey got the call to make her first UFC appearance, she was on vacation with her family, but she said “yes” to the offer to face Kay Hansen without hesitation.
“I was in the mountains with family,” recalled Frey, who makes her second walk to the Octagon to battle Loma Lookboonmee on the UFC Fight Night preliminary card this Saturday. “I was sitting around the campfire eating s’mores and polishing off bottles of wine, so the situation wasn’t the most ideal, but I felt like it was a calculated risk for us.
“If I turn down the fight, would I get the opportunity to do it again?” she said, explaining the thought process that went into accepting the short-notice bout with Hansen at the end of June. “So we moved forward knowing that it wasn’t the most ideal situation, I wasn’t in the best shape to be fighting on the largest stage of my career, but sometimes you have to roll the dice and take these risks.”
After a strong opening round, the 35-year-old former Invicta FC atomweight champion started to fade, and midway through the third, Hansen looked up an armbar and forced Frey to tap. While it certainly wasn’t the result Frey was hoping for, it was a foot in the door on the biggest stage in the sport and a starting point for the next chapter on her unique mixed martial arts journey.
In a sport where countless athletes will tell you that fighting is “all they have” and the only thing they ever envisioned themselves doing from a very young age, Frey’s path to the UFC is quite the opposite.
She has three degrees — an Associates degree in Nuclear Medicine, a Bachelor of Science in Radiologic Science, and a Masters in Business Administration — and career options that don’t involve getting punched in the face on a regular basis. Even when she began competing, first as an amateur and then after turning pro, Frey never intended to put her non-pugilistic pursuits aside in favor of a career as a professional fighter.
“You never heard me say, ‘I’m going to be a world champion; all I want to do when I grow up is fight,’” she said, reflecting on her unconventional path to the UFC cage. “Even when I started fighting, it wasn’t ‘I want to do this as a career’ — it’s just something that has taken on its own life and evolved as it has gone on.”
Enjoyment turned into a competitive drive, which produced improvements and positive results. Things just kept building from there.
In her seventh professional bout, Frey fought for the Invicta FC atomweight title, losing to Japanese standout Ayaka Hamasaki as a result of a cut. Two years later, she claimed the title with a unanimous decision win over Minna Grusander, retaining the belt in an rematch between the two less than five months later.
Now she’s in the UFC, readying to make the walk to the Octagon for the second time, and she does so with a very different mindset and approach than most UFC sophomores.
“At this point, I’ve won a world title, I’ve defended it, I’ve made it to the UFC — I feel like I am content with everything that I have accomplished thus far and, at this point, I’m beyond even what I could have imagined,” admitted Frey. “I’m in a place that I never thought (I would reach) when I was starting out or even halfway along the road, so at this point, it is kind of one fight at a time.”
But don’t misconstrue her “take them as they come” attitude as a sign of complacency.
“I’m content with what I’ve done, but I’m still extremely competitive,” she continued. “I’m extremely passionate about what I do. I feel incredibly fortunate and I’m incredibly proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish, but I still feel like I have some new summits to reach.”
What differentiates Frey from many of her contemporaries is that she’s a little older, which means there is a little less “I’m going to take over the world!” and a little more “I’m going to focus on something a little more reasonable” when it comes to setting goals and establishing targets for herself.
Some would say it’s a greater sense of self-awareness, while others would argue she’s simply more honest about her place in the divisional hierarchy, but for the 35-year-old, it’s all about finding the right balance between attainability and accountability.
“For me to go out there and say, ‘I’m going to be the next UFC champion at 115 pounds,’ that’s a bit of a stretch goal and I believe in breaking things down into small, measurable milestones that are close enough to keep you accountable and motivated, but they’re not so far out of reach that you lose your motivation.
“For me, the next step is registering my first win in the UFC,” she added. “After that, maybe the next goal is winning one of those bonuses; just small, measurable steps, one fight at a time.”
After going from hanging out in the mountains crushing s’mores and wine with the family to fighting six days later for her first foray into the UFC cage, the build to Frey’s second journey in to the Octagon has been far more typical this time around.
Although gyms are still not at capacity and finding suitable training partners has remained challenging at times, the Arlington resident jumped on Interstate 30 and made the trek into Dallas to train with the Fortis MMA crew, getting in numerous rounds with recent Contender Series grad Cheyanne Buys.
“She and I have been working together and she’s someone who is at the same point in their life,” she said of Buys, who earned a UFC contract with a unanimous decision win over Hilarie Rose at the start of August. “I can go to a gym and train with people, but some people are just doing it as a hobby, some people aren’t looking to win world titles, but Cheyanne is young and she’s hungry and she’s in the UFC now and we’re at that same point where we both want to train hard and with intensity and make each other better.”
In addition to getting in quality rounds with the talented 25-year-old prospect, this weekend’s bout with Lookboonmee also marks a couple key “seconds” for Frey, as it will be her second time competing in the 115-pound weight class and her second time through the UFC Fight Week experience, both of which bring her a little more comfort.
“I know I’m not going to be the biggest strawweight and I’m used to being the larger one in the weight class, but I will say, it’s a lot more enjoyable trying to gain weight and being stressed about trying to gain weight than being stressed about not being able to lose weight,” she joked. “That’s a new thing for me.
“It feels great to train hard and then be able to go home, eat your fill, and have a nice, full, satisfied belly, and then go to bed versus fighting off hunger most of the time.”
As for navigating her new surrounds, Frey was quick to point out that some athletes make a seamless transition when they arrive on the UFC stage, but that she’s someone who only truly feels comfortable after having experienced things a time or two.
“Some people, it doesn’t bother them; it’s water off a duck’s back,” she said. “Some people, myself being one of them, the more times I do something, the more I’m comfortable.
“Once I start learning everybody’s name and how we do things and I learn ‘when I get to Fight Week, it’s going to be this, this, and this’ and I don’t have to think about it — it’s business as usual.”
While this week brings an entirely different set of protocols on Fight Island, many of the process and requirements throughout the week will be the same as her first experience in Las Vegas. Combined with significantly more prep time and a quality training camp, Frey feels much better heading into the Octagon this weekend as she looks to chase down that first UFC victory.
Having never set out looking to carve a path to championship success with Invicta FC or a spot on the UFC roster, Frey struggled to find the words to express what it would feel like to be the one standing in the center of the UFC cage, having her hand raised in victory this weekend.
“I’ve watched from home on the other side of the TV, watched so many people make that walk to the Octagon, so many people compete, so many people get their hand raised, and for it to be me, it’s just — I don’t even know if I have words.
“It’s one of those things that I never could have imagined. I never expected it to happen, so it would be so incredibly surreal,” she added. “When I first started competing, I was fighting in Eastern New Mexico outside of bars, in cages, so to see how far the journey has taken me and imagine myself as one of those people with my hand raised inside the Octagon is pretty incredible.”
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