Roxanne Modafferi laughs when I compliment her on being an adult. That has nothing to do with her age, though she does point out that, “I’m one of the oldest fighters in the gym. I’m looking around I’m like, ‘He’s 25, he’s 20, he’s 23.’”
Maybe, but it has everything to do with being a professional in a world where that doesn’t carry as much weight as it used to. So she might be 36 years old, but her focus on her craft and everything that goes along with it keeps her relevant in the UFC flyweight division as she heads into a Saturday rematch with Jennifer Maia.
Back in September 2016, Maia won a five-round split decision over Modafferi in an Invicta FC title bout that earned Fight of the Night honors. A year later, “The Happy Warrior” was going through her second stint on The Ultimate Fighter, one which got her into a title fight, into the Octagon win column for the first time, and into the number five spot at 125 pounds.
Things weren’t always so sunny, and she recalls the roughest stretch of her career from 2010 to 2013, when she lost six straight.
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“I felt like I hit a plateau, like I didn’t have direction or guidance, and it showed on my record because that’s when I went on a losing streak,” said Modafferi, who was living in Japan for a good chunk of that time. “And then when I came to Syndicate (in Las Vegas), I trained under John Wood and he became my head coach and I felt like he really guided at me as to what I should do to get better. He also told me to do strength and conditioning, so I started working with Lorenzo Pavlica and John just keeps up with the times and he’s an excellent trainer.”
More importantly, Modafferi is an excellent student, and while the wins and losses are what most pay attention to, the Delaware native is after something different.
“My ultimate goal is to become a master,” she said. “For example, if Ronda Rousey gets you to the ground, she’s gonna armbar you. If Keita Nakamura or Demian Maia get their hands on you, they’re gonna take your back. I want that mastery of martial arts and some technique where the announcer is gonna say, ‘When Roxy takes the mount, the fight is over.’
“My ultimate goal is perfection, so every day when I go to the gym, when I have the opportunity to compete, I just hold that in my mind, that I can’t wait to try to get better and show that I’ve gotten better,” Modafferi continues. “That doesn’t change throughout the course of time. I’m just so excited to always chase that goal of perfection and growth.”
Will she know when she gets there, though?
“I don’t know. I haven’t gotten there yet.”
She laughs, and if there is a more positive person in mixed martial arts, I haven’t seen them yet. That doesn’t mean life in this sport is perfect. Jennifer Maia is going to want to punch Modafferi in the face and twist her limbs in ways they weren’t designed to go on Saturday. This, on top of constantly trying to learn new things after nearly 16 years as a professional.
It’s not easy.
“Even I need encouragement from my teammates sometimes if I have a rough week,” Modafferi admits. “It’s usually about me being frustrated at not understanding a technique. I tell myself, okay, you might not have gotten it today, but you failed and now you know that method number one failed so you’re just gonna look forward to the next day. You’re gonna try it again and maybe get closer to achieving it. I just try to make it positive somehow. But I have my down moments.”
Luckily they’re just that, moments. Most of the time, Modafferi is the smiling “Happy Warrior” we’ve known for the years. That doesn’t mean she’s coming close to developing that technique that will have commentary teams singing her praises.
“Well, I’ve been stopping a lot of people with mounted elbows lately and I never thought that something brutal like that would be my signature move,” she laughs. “I really want a beautiful submission to be my thing, so I’m just gonna keep getting the wins where I can get them and then try to achieve that beautiful jiu-jitsu perfection.”
That kind of attitude could land her in another title fight soon if the stars continue to align. Think about it – she beats Maia and that’s two in a row, and the person she beat in April – Antonina Shevchenko – just happens to be the sister of current flyweight champ Valentina Shevchenko. See that storyline brewing? Modafferi is more practical. Remember, she’s an adult.
“Everyone’s asking me that (about a future title fight), but I’m only on a one-fight winning streak and usually fighters have to be on at least a three-fight winning streak to get a title shot,” she said. “So I don’t expect one, but I certainly wouldn’t mind one. If I achieve that, then that will be amazing and a dream come true. But what it means is the most important, and that would be that I achieved and accomplished and overcame all these obstacles and really improved my techniques, so at the end of the day I’m just trying to focus on what it means. I want to get stronger and I want to be a master, and if that leads to the title, great, I would love that.”