When a fighter debuts at a certain age – say, anything under 23 years old – it’s natural for the ears to perk up a little bit. Mixed martial arts, for as much growth as its had in the last two decades, is a sport which rewards physical and mental maturity as much as any. But every so often, a wunderkind of sorts comes through the fray and shines a light on the next generation of the sport. It’s commonplace to hear this prospect bring up Jon Jones’ record as the youngest to become UFC champion at 23 years old, but there’s a reason “Bones” is on the shortlist of the G.O.A.T. conversation. That fast track is a road few take and even fewer survive.
That’s all to say that while 21-year-old Kay Hansen is certainly confident in her abilities, she also isn’t calling her shot and naming that record as the goal in her sights. Rather, she is focused on the long haul and building a reputation as a much-watch fighter and doing the necessary work to create that for herself. That’s easier to say than to stay patient and execute, as anyone who has been confident and in their early-20s would attest, and yet that’s where Hansen’s particularly notable maturity comes through the most.
“I think you also have to be flexible with yourself,” Hansen told UFC.com. “There’s things that happen that are out of your control, and sometimes, you’re at fault. Sometimes, it’s things that other people are at fault of, and you can’t control those. I’m only 21. I have such a long career ahead of me, and it’s easy to sit here, and I’ll beat myself up about things, and that’s why I’ve learned to kind of be flexible and lenient with myself. People are wired different. Some people, it’s good for them to be like, ‘I need to beat this record,’ but other people like me, my thought process is if I do what I’m supposed to do, I’ll beat those records. I’m not going to put that pressure on myself because I’m in this for the long run. I want to be a champion, and I want to be a consistent champion.”
Hansen, who made her UFC debut in June 2020, credits her patient and go-with-the-flow demeanor in part to facing adversity early in her career. She admits that she was “overly confident” after earning a win in her professional debut in late 2017, and a TKO loss to Kal Schwartz left her bloodied and humbled.
She responded with a pair of TKO wins in her next two fights, and moreover, kept a busy schedule, competing six times in a little more than 14 months following that loss to Schwartz. Hoping to adopt the “anytime, anywhere, any place” mentality so many fighters preach but rarely practice, Hansen embraces the roller coaster that approach to the fight game can take an athlete.
“You’re going to get humbled every once in a while,” she said. “You’re not going to come up as the winner every time, so just going through those hardships in and out of the cage, I feel like that’s what’s brought me to this mindset of one day of a time, one fight at a time. It’s OK that you’re not the best right now, but you know what you’re capable of.”
Learning From The Best
Through two UFC fights, Hansen has shown that gamer attitude. Her debut win against Jinh Yu Frey was a tight affair before Hansen rolled into a beautiful armbar submission, which earned her a Performance Bonus and a complimentary tweet from Ronda Rousey.
A few months later, she and fellow youngster Cory McKenna put on a back-and-forth affair. Although the fight was close, she lost the bout via unanimous decision, stymieing her early momentum for now. Hansen believes she “did enough to win” but isn’t held up on the result, knowing she has plenty of fights to come.
“That’s why you don’t leave it to the judges, I guess,” she said. “I do think I could’ve won that fight, for sure, and a lot of other people have told me the same, but it’s just par for the course. It’s just how things go. You have good judges, you have bad judges, you have wins and losses, but at the end of the day, I think I put on a good performance, and I showed I was a promising prospect. I’m in the UFC, and I know records and wins and losses matter, but I want to put on a show, and I think that’s kind of what happened. I showcased my skill, and especially from the first fight, they saw the improvement there, and that’s all I’m trying to do is be a better me every time.”
While the result wasn’t what she wanted, the bout was important to Hansen for another reason. It was the first bout with the crew from Classic Fight Team in her corner. Hansen dubbed Tyler Wombles, Joe Murphy and Erica Rodriguez as a “perfect” squad to prepare her for her sophomore appearance although she admitted to some nerves about the situation before the fight.
Feeling at home with Classic Fight Team, Hansen went back to work and had her third fight booked against Cheyanne Buys, another young strawweight prospect. For medical reasons, though, Hansen pulled out of the fight but is working with the UFC Performance Institute and hopes to get back to competition later this year.
That leaves her time to hone her ever-improving skill set. She holds high-belief in her capacity for excellence, but she also knows she needs to test that in the fires of competition before she is able to hone those abilities when she needs to call upon them.
“It’s crazy to me because the Kay in the gym and the potential I know I have, I haven’t even shown a little bit of her when it comes to fighting,” she said. “I feel like I have so much more to learn. I have experienced a lot in the cage. I’ve been thrown around. I’ve won. I’ve lost close decisions, I’ve won close decisions. I’ve kind of experienced it all. I’ve been cut, bloodied, bruised. I think I’m a vet in that sense, but in the sense of peaking for myself and my performance, I think I’m way far off. That just comes with building my confidence and building my confidence in my newer skills in the gym.
“I could be a UFC champion right now, but it’s just transferring that to the cage, which now I think in my next fight and next fight and next fight, every fight, you’re going to see a better Kay.”
Helping her along that journey is rubbing elbows with one of the best in the game, TJ Dillashaw. The former bantamweight champion has been a regular presence as he prepares for his upcoming main event bout against Cory Sandhagen.
Having an up-close view of a championship-level fighter allows Hansen to observe what it might take for her to reach the same heights.
“His work ethic is just different,” she said. “It’s cool being around a champion. When you work with someone like him, you realize why he’s a champion. That work ethic and his fight IQ, and when you spar him, you just don’t know what he’s going to do. He’s always moving, always changing levels, feinting, changing stances. He’s really selfless when it comes to sharing his knowledge. I don’t even have to ask, and he’ll just come at me with stuff.”
She also noted Dillashaw is “obsessed” with mixed martial arts in the same way she is. It’s something she has noticed with other high-level fighters she has interacted with in her career, a comforting and reassuring examination to make early in her fighter life.
Although Hansen played a bevy of sports growing up and had particular success with softball, MMA impacted her in a different way she is still unsure how to articulate. All she knows is it drives her to put the work in every day and, at the very least, that motivation has her in the UFC.
“I can’t explain the obsession,” Hansen said. “There’s some days I wake up and I feel tired, and I feel sore, and everything is hurting, and something in me just says, ‘You gotta get up. You gotta go.’ I’ve played a lot of sports, I’ve done a lot of things in my life, and I’ve not been obsessed with anything like I’ve been with fighting. It’s almost like I didn’t pick fighting. Fighting kind of picked me. It’s kind of crazy because I’m not a confrontational person outside of fighting, but there’s just something about it. It’s the purest form of competition. Not only purest form against other people, but it’s the purest form against yourself.
Inspiring The Next Generation
Hansen laughs at how “corny” her MMA origin story might sound.
“It was when I saw Ronda walk out (against Bethe Correia),” she said. “I was like, ‘That woman has purpose. That woman has intent, and I have never felt that,’ but I felt it through her. I was like, ‘I have to do this. I wanna be a UFC champion. I wanna do that. I wanna feel that way. I wanna feel that confident.’ When I saw her walk out, that’s the moment that literally changed my whole life path. It’s crazy because it wasn’t even watching her fight or anything. It was the moment of her walking out, and that moment changed everything.”
I’m in this for the long run. I want to be a champion, and I want to be a consistent champion.
“I’ve noticed every time I do open up about something, I always get a couple messages or comments like, ‘Oh, this helped me,’ or, ‘This inspired me,’” Hansen said. “It’s those little things. When you have a platform – like for me, having a platform is weird. I don’t like attention, so for me, it’s kind of weird. It comes with bad things, but it comes with a lot of good things. I don’t know how many little girls messaged me, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I started training because of you,’ and it’s like, ‘Because of me? Because of me?’ That’s weird. When I see things like that, that’s what keeps me posting the more vulnerable stuff and the parts of me that, otherwise, I would keep to myself.”
The role isn’t an uncommon place for her, according to Hansen. She has three younger sisters that keep her mindful of her actions and habits, and she transferred that thought process to how she handles her online presence as well. That said, she admits she’s not an “angel” and will “clap back” at the many dissenters that live online.
Even though Hansen does feel the pressure of her growing reach, she also pulls motivation from it as well, articulating an awareness of balancing the different pros and cons of the social media age. She mostly avoids her direct messages folder, and she takes care in not sharing everything that comes to mind, but she hopes her genuine approach to things comes through it all while also guarding her private life as much as she can.
“I think it’s important to try to stay as vulnerable and genuinely you as possible, especially if you have a platform,” she said. “If you have a platform, I feel like it is important for the younger generation to be like, ‘Oh, OK. She can do that, and maybe I’m confident enough to do that too.’ It’s a weird balance, putting yourself out there and not sticking your neck out there too much. You gotta kind of play around with it.”
Focus No. 1, however, is fighting, and Hansen is keen on the kind of reputation she wants to cultivate. It’s that aforementioned “anyone, anytime, anywhere” mentality adopted and embraced by the likes of Donald Cerrone (who Hansen calls a “G”), Angela Hill and Kevin Holland.
Her run in Invicta and her pair of UFC fights indicated Hansen is true to her word. She is less focused on racking up “youngest ever” records and more so locked in on molding her career in the right ways to achieve success.
“As you’re doing something with full intent and full confidence and your full heart, that’s all you need. It might take longer for some people, but I feel like as long as you follow that and put that work in behind it and that passion behind it – I’m not saying you can just make reckless decisions 100 percent – but if you’re working hard, and you’re mentally in it, and you’re the best athlete you can be, and you’re making sure you’re checking all your boxes, as long as you make these decisions 100 percent, there’s going to be people that love to watch you fight. I think that’s important.”
While the last year has been good to Hansen, she admitted to having her share of “a lot of downs” in the past year. An unavoidable reality is that Hansen has had perhaps her most successful year during one of the strangest in history. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hansen has yet to experience the rush of the UFC crowd. She said seeing Bruce Buffer in the Octagon announcing her name was her “Welcome To The UFC” moment, and she is eager to walk out of the Octagon high-fiving fans after an epic fight sooner rather than later.
Hansen knows it is coming, though. She called herself “kind of a rookie and a vet at the same time,” which is fair considering she turned pro in 2017. It’s still early, and she is just 1-1 in the promotion thus far, but she projects a patience that belies her age and a game attitude regarding the sport that, at the very least, means UFC fans should take note whenever Hansen’s fights are announced.
Even so, the 21-year-old knows there’s a lot for her to learn, and she is willing to put in the time to absorb as much as she can as quickly as possible.
“Getting these moments is everything I work for,” Hansen said. “I’m a hard worker, and it’s just kind of cool seeing these moments come to life and getting to experience them. I’m still learning how to live in the moment and really take them in because I don’t really take them in until after the fact, but baby steps.”