10 Jun - 
From fighter to athlete: The evolution of Roxy

Top-ranked UFC flyweight Roxanne Modafferi details her long journey from professional cage fighter to professional athlete, and just where the difference lies.

I’ve always considered myself a martial artist. But, I’m also a fighter. And I’ve only recently become an athlete. It turns out, these things aren’t the same at all.

Through the past few decades, the sport of mixed martial arts has evolved alongside its participants, driving home the differences between each of these identities. More than many fighters, I have the unique perspective of experiencing the change firsthand—since I’ve fought 43 times over the last fifteen years.

I became a martial artist when my mom signed me up for Tae Kwon Do at the age of thirteen. I embraced honor, respect, hard work, and courage. I learned how to defend myself and subdue an opponent. I started competing in Judo at sixteen.

Roxanne and high school friend Kate at The Dalton Judo Club in the year 1999.

I became a fighter when I stepped into the ring at “Smack Girl” in Japan, for my first professional MMA fight in 2003. I borrowed my Jiu Jitsu teammate’s rash guard and wore soccer shorts.

The rounds were five minutes, but there was a ‘30 second ground’ rule. If the fighters grappled and nobody was submitted after thirty seconds, they got stood back up. There was also no ground-and-pound to the face. Body GnP was acceptable.

Roxanne, after winning debut fight in 2003

I’m not exactly sure when I became an athlete, but I remember the moment I was first referred to as one: Shannon Knapp, president of Invicta Fighting Championships, gave an interview where she said, “I’d like my athletes to….” I forget what she said after that, but it struck me. Who, me? I thought at the time. An athlete? Hah! I’m not an athlete.

There’s a certain status that comes with that word. The physical therapists and trainers at the UFC Performance Institute refer to us as “the athletes.” But, my image of an ‘athlete’ is strong, powerful; has almost super-human physical characteristics. Maybe gets paid a lot? Doesn’t work a job, but focuses on training full-time. I guess? What exactly is an athlete anyway?


Training Evolution

I studied Japanese Language & Literature & Linguistics in college (2001-2005). During that time, I worked morning shifts at a bagel bakery, studied during the day, and trained grappling and kickboxing at night. I never really lifted weights. That’s what I knew of ‘physical training’—lifting weights. I tried, but didn’t find it effective. Gym owners and staff showed me how to do it, of course, but I didn’t see results. I even made sure to eat meat to build muscle, because that’s how muscle is built! I didn’t eat after MMA practice, though, so I could lose weight! Great ideas, right? Um... yeah, that’s completely wrong, Roxy.

When I first started fighting, I did bicep curls, chin-ups, push-ups, squats. I tried reading books, the internet, and listening to friends (or random internet people) telling me what to do, but got frustrated and gave up.

Trainer Lorenzo Pavlica supervising Roxy

At my first Japanese MMA gym, the head instructor had students regularly do 300 push ups at the end of class for conditioning. I thought it was dumb (mainly because I could only do about five). I told myself, It’s alright that I’m weak, cuz my technique is good. And technique beats strength. Oss! Well actually... when two people are equally skilled, the stronger one tends to win.

My theory worked for me for many years, though. I won my fights with crappy kickboxing, average strength, and really good grappling. That is, until evolution caught up with me—my opponents started improving faster than I could keep up with. I went on a massive five-fight losing streak, which I broke by moving back to America—to Syndicate MMA.

The science and efficiency of physical training for MMA is incredible nowadays! I meet with my trainer Lorenzo Pavlica twice a week. I do cardio, jogging, burpees, and stair sprints outside of our sessions, as well.

He knows exactly what I need for my sport. Footwork drills on ladders build agility. Deadlifts and flipping tires build power. Burpees, sprints, picking up and slamming a heavy bag or medicine ball, jump squats, riding an aerodyne bike, all build stamina. He also knows what I need for my specific opponent. If I’m going to be tackling them, I’ll need power and drive in my legs. For comparison’s sake, here are my “before and after Lorenzo” pictures.

I have a nutritionist, Lacy Puttuck, who has helped me adjust my diet for optimum results depending on if I want to gain weight, lose it, or maintain.

I’m now able to balance my training: light technical sessions hitting mitts or drilling jiujitsu, harder sparring sessions, and physical training. In this day and age, you can’t do one MMA class a day and expect to win your fights against someone doing multiple sessions and getting good recovery.

I also now take private lessons in striking, jiujitsu, and wrestling with coaches who know how those arts fit into MMA as a whole. Not just generalized MMA classes.

 Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Recovery is also drastically different now compared to fifteen years ago. Miesha Tate dunked me in an ice bath for the first time on TUF 18, and I realized it helped my body recover from soreness and inflammation. Sports massage therapists, chiropractors, hot yoga, and supplements help me recover now as well.


Work/Fight Balance

After I graduated in 2005, I moved to Japan and got a full-time job teaching English at a private business school called Berlitz Japan. I had a shift schedule, with various morning or evening lessons. I worked around 40 hours a week, sometimes more, and trained six times a week. That means I went to the gym six times and participated in classes. I sprinted up stairs for cardio. I didn’t have a trainer or coach that was grooming me to be a fighter. I asked the instructor questions like every other student, and hoped I could understand the answers—which came back in Japanese.

Sometimes I didn’t know how to word my question in Japanese, but I tried my best because I was a martial artist and I worked myself to exhaustion! Train till you collapse, I guess? (Yeah, that was hard. Thankfully I was in my twenties and didn’t need to sleep back then.)

I didn’t have time to lay down and properly recover.

Sponsors were good in those days, but only around fight time—and mostly for big names (not me) in big organizations. I got a few hundred bucks from various MMA clothing companies to wear their clothes or gear in my fight. My manager found those for me. I was thrilled to get $500 from Sprawl for their shorts! It was so much! Monthly sponsorships were unheard of back then.

My shorts from Strikeforce in 2009, with sponsors printed on them

The sponsorship scene has changed; the market is saturated with fighters looking for sponsors. So, a company is less likely to drop a lot of money on single fighter. There’s always someone else lined up after him or her. Big cash for one fight is less likely, but free gear, like gloves, shin guards, mouth pieces, and bags are common. Monthly meal preps are popular among fighters at the moment.

Balancing work and training is a bit of a ‘Catch 22’ for fighters. Newer fighters need to train the hardest of all because they’re up-and-coming, need skills and strength. However, they aren’t getting paid much for their work (amateurs make nothing at all). The only fighters who are making enough money to put away for retirement are those who fight in the big leagues like the UFC, Bellator, etc.

It’s just the way it is.

That said, back in the day, it was impossible for almost anybody to survive on fight money alone. Today, that’s not the case. And the promise of money attracts athletes who looking for respect and fame.


A Career in Fighting

When I started fighting in 2003, it worked like this: the promoter called my sensei with the offer. My sensei turned to me and said, “Do you want to fight Shinohara Hikaru on November 3rd in Smack Girl at 135 pounds?” I said, “Yes, of course.” It could’ve been anybody. If you wanna fight, you say “yes.” And you make weight. If you didn’t make weight, they cancelled the fight. End of story.

Now, people need an amateur career before turning pro. My first fights looked pretty sloppy and horrible on the feet, but there were no amateur options back then.

Roxy vs Jennifer Howe 1 in Hook’n’Shoot, 2005

Standards are higher now for pros, so fighters get used to competition working under amateur rules (shorter rounds of two or three minutes, no knees, no elbows to the head, etc). When they are offered pro fights, their manager or trainer has more drive to protect their fighters. Someone with a 1-0 record shouldn’t be set up to fight someone with a record of 10-0. But if you give the option to the fighter, true martial artists will always want to say “yes” to any challenge.

I accepted an offer on one week’s notice in Strikeforce against Marloes Coenen at 145 pounds. Doing that got me a coveted contract with the biggest organization hosting women’s fights in the world at the time! I had to super-hydrate and eat donuts to make weight so the commission would let me fight—I was so light compared to her.

If I had beaten her, I would’ve moved on to fight Chris Cyborg. (It was probably better that I ended up losing.)

2009 Strikeforce donuts with the lady who picked Roxy up at the airport

Despite my evolution over the years, I still consider myself a martial artist first, before athlete or fighter—due to my burning flame of desire for knowledge and personal improvement. However, all the advances in technology, information, and training methods for an athlete really excite me!

The best advice I can give for people who want to be successful mixed martial artists, is that they had better start young. The market has become so competitive, that fighters have to not only be skilled, but they have to have the physical strength of an athlete, and the heart of a martial artist to push through the hard times. They’d better learn the best recovery methods, get good sponsorships, find a talented trainer and coach, and a supportive team to give them moral support and comradery. The sport of mixed martial arts has gone from backyard brawlers stepping in the cage to fight anyone, to young men and women with athletic training and high level coaching.