When Tracy Cortez walked through the doors of the UFC APEX — a place she didn’t really expect to return to after earning her UFC contract on Dana White’s Contender Series — she “immediately got goosebumps.”
“Just being in here and just talking about it, I get the chills,” Cortez explained. “This is where my life changed. So being back in here, it’s hard not to get a little emotional.”
It’s difficult to determine whether or not the 27-year-old that sat down with UFC.com for her fight week interview is a completely different version of the person who first graced the Octagon nearly two years ago.
For the Phoenix, Arizona native who carries with her a revitalized aura of determination and maturity, while a lot has changed over the past two years, the most important things have remained the same.
Her driving force for fighting and the team she’s built around her hasn’t changed too much, with the biggest tangible development in Cortez’s career being the move back down to her home at flyweight.
MORE UFC VEGAS 24: Fight By Fight Preview | Whittaker Top Finishes | Gastelum Bonus Resume | Free Fight: Kelvin Gastelum vs Ian Heinisch | Free Fight: Robert Whittaker vs Jared Cannonier | Significant Stats
“My UFC debut and my last fight were at bantamweight. That was due to some health issues, and I didn’t want to have a long layoff, so bantamweight was the smartest choice for me to do at the time,” Cortez said. “But now that I’m feeling healthy again and things are back to normal, we’re going back down to flyweight to give these girls a run for their money.”
Heading into her third fight in the UFC with eight consecutive professional wins behind her, the Mexican-American said she’s both intrigued and excited by the opponent that lies ahead this weekend, citing that Justine Kish is one of the few fighters that Cortez believes can match her pace and intensity.
“She’s a very active fighter. A lot of my opponents haven’t been as active as she is. If anything, the pace that she keeps kind of reminds me of my own,” Cortez said. “She’s a tough opponent, I just don’t think she’ll be able to handle my pressure.”
It’s a pressure that’s backed by an innate desire to live out the dream of her late brother Jose — a fighter who died of cancer before he was able to reach the pinnacle of the sport in the UFC — combined with her own intrinsic vision of becoming the best in the world, something she’s never been overawed by.
“Every time I want to quit, I hear my mom’s voice in my head, encouraging me,” Cortez explained of her late mother in an interview ahead of her UFC debut in November 2019. “And then I think of my brother, who never quit, and he was battling cancer.”
The flyweight had to put herself through the wringer for more than a decade to get to where she is today, battling not only the immense grief of losing two family members, but also the stereotypes of what a fighter should be and what they should look like.
“People see me and they don’t think I can fight or they don’t think I’m ‘tough’ but I’m not here to prove anything to anyone,” Cortez said. “I’m doing what I love, I’m doing this for my family and I’m pursuing a dream.”
It’s a complete 180 from her original dream of becoming an interior designer, but nearly four years after her professional debut, it’s clear that Cortez is at home inside the Octagon -- even if there are no fans.
“Personally, I thrive off the crowd’s energy. Whether they’re booing or they’re cheering, you get this adrenaline rush,” Cortez explained. “But we’re entertainers, that’s why we do this. I don’t mind it [an empty APEX]. At the end of the day, I’m going to do my job and I’m going to perform.”
In addition to fighting sans fans, another adjustment Cortez will have to make is not having her brother Junior in her corner, something she calls a tough “business decision” that had to be made.
“It breaks my heart, my brother has been in my corner for every fight. So not having him here is different for me,” Cortez said. “I decided this fight camp that I need to bring the tools that I need to win this fight. I’m trying to make a statement, this is work, and I’m gonna get the job done.”
A decision that speaks volumes to the amount of personal and professional growth she has exuded over the past two years, Cortez said that she now knows the tools she needs to tailor to her camps for each win.
A mainstay in her corner is Angel Cejudo, a longtime coach widely respected in the wrestling community for his ability to consistently produce elite-level athletes, and the older brother of the retired flyweight and bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo.
Also the best friend of the late Jose Cortez, Cejudo believes that the adversity Cortez has had to overcome in life primes her for her journey to becoming the best in the world; a journey that starts Saturday.
“I know this is my third fight in the UFC, but I feel that this is just the beginning,” Cortez said. “This is my opportunity to showcase me at my best at 125 pounds, and let these girls know that I’m here now.”
A fresh start in the division she feels home in could be just what Cortez needs to continue her undefeated run on her way to the top.
“I want to be top five this year. Going into next year, if everything’s done right, I’m ready for that title shot,” Cortez said.
First, she has to get through Kish, a five-year UFC veteran and Muay Thai world champion in a preliminary card finale that is sure to bring the fireworks inside the familiar UFC APEX.