For someone who has been training for 13 years not to—whose natural inclination once you get into her backstory might seem primed to the opposite—Jessica Eye lets her guard down quickly.
She’s warm and matter-of-fact but still watchful. Intent on honing her answers to questions in the same way she would in the ring, coming at them decisively, giving some room before regrouping and circling back when needed to deliver a point.
There’s a quality of joy in the way she speaks about her career — a number one ranked UFC flyweight — and the work it took to get her there. “Ten years ago, when I started this journey, people didn’t want to hear it. People weren’t in a sharing space,” says Eye, with an ease in her voice as she talks about her past, an arduous and at times dark history, “especially when I started MMA, people didn’t want to know your backstory. They didn’t want to know why, they just wanted to live in the current moment and not really see the journey.”
For Eye, that journey has untapped a deep well of self-awareness, one she has spent the last few years digging.
Her upbringing has been something Eye has become more candid about in the past few years. In a frank and unflinching Player’s Tribune piece from 2019, Eye opened up about an adolescence riddled with physical abuse at the hands of her late father, Randy Eye, pointing to the time he beat her in a public parking lot at only 14. These were violent instances, more than one, that left her close to death. A brief period of respite came in the aftermath of a jarring accident that saw Eye and her father hit by a drunk driver in 2003.
Coming home from soccer practice when she was 16, Eye’s car broke down on a desolate stretch of country highway in her hometown of Rootstown, Ohio. She walked to a friend’s place and called her father, who met her at her car. Eye recalled seeing a flash and then being “up in the air”. She was rocketed into the nearby woods, her back and ankle broken, while her father was crushed in his truck with injuries that would require reconstructive leg surgery.
In their slow recovery, Eye and her father found a shaky stalemate, passing the days by playing solitaire. As soon as Eye was well enough, she was out of the house, playing sports, looking for an outlet, but the violence would return.
The final breaking point would come when Eye was 18 and her father found out she had a boyfriend, he smashed out all the windows in her car and kicked her out. She graduated highschool, got an apartment and enrolled in college — until her money ran out. It wasn’t until she got a job as a waitress at a strip club that she would meet some trainers from Ohio’s Strong Style gym and take the first steps in her fighting career.
“It took a long time,” Eye says over the phone from Las Vegas, where she’s recently relocated, “There were times in the early years of me fighting and me starting this journey, and I didn’t want people to look at me as if I was damaged. Or that I was only doing this because of my upbringing. I don’t do things because of certain things, things have pushed me in certain directions, so they’re reflections of me.”
A big part of keeping that reflection clear is the people Eye surrounds herself with. In MMA, where every discipline requires a different coach, an athlete’s camp can be large. If the people around a fighter — their corner — are not intrinsically attuned to their needs or focused on improvement, in a sport where every single advantage and added skill counts, it drastically shortens an already limited runway in the career of a professional fighter.
“It’s really sad that in this sport, as well as MMA, it can be the difference between what makes you or breaks you,” Eye says.
After a few disappointing losses, and coming off of major surgery, Eye gave her corner a shakeup in 2019, “I’m very spiritual that way, when it comes to the people around me. I almost called it a divorce because I left my long time team that I’d spent 13 years with.”
Fighters like Eye, who approach their autonomy as paramount not just to their careers but to their mental wellness, are starting to shift that perception. “I like the person it’s bringing out in me,” Eye says of rebuilding her MMA team in Las Vegas. But even with a specialized team, MMA fighters exist in a kind of professional solitude, a performative confinement. There is no team with them on the mat. Knocks, literally, are taken alone and good or bad, the athlete is responsible for the outcome.
“No team takes my loss,” Eye says of that isolation, “Nobody takes any type of the repercussions, good or bad, more than me. And I do think because of that, it teaches you to be strong for yourself..It’s taught me that over the years. I’ve experienced so many new things. So many moments where I was alone, and not alone inside my heart, but alone in the moment.”
There’s a blur post fight, when fighters fresh from the ring, bleeding and bruised, are put in a room with officials and media, and have their bodies checked over as they are asked to sign papers while responding to questions from reporters. She describes an almost meditative state that fighters need to go into to “sort through” emotions in order to speak for themself. “I think fighting has allowed me to sort through my emotions as well as teach me how to be more mature,” Eye says. Still, tough losses can feel less crushing knowing they have been absorbed by your teammates.
Lessons From Loss
The kind of losses Eye has felt — debuting in the UFC with a near-perfect amateur record and having her first win overturned due to a positive drug test (“To fight my very first UFC fight and to fail for a cannabinoid in my system, it was just so embarrassing”), losing four straight fights in a row in what she anticipated to be her prime as a professional competitor — have been gutting, momentum-sniping disappointments, that she’s felt all on her own.
“It’s crazy, it’s hard,” she laughs honestly, recalling the weight of those defeats, “You think of NFL teams, if they take four losses in a row, you know the GM’s mad, the coach is mad, and then they go back to the drawing board.”
But Eye is adamant she would not be where she was without them, or the uncertainty they forced on her, “I think that’s why people like myself, just foundational, are so much stronger and can handle defeat in so many ways. I think it’s allowed me to be a better, calmer person because of that. I took those losses hard. I think that in this world there’s a certain level of us who endure things and need to come out strong because we need to be a better example for the world and for others. I think sometimes that’s just a part of who I’m supposed to be and I feel ok with that. I’ve embraced it more in my older years than in my early twenties, when I was just mad at everything. Now I’m not. I see the lessons and I’m glad I learned it all.”
Defeat and its lessons have given Eye a framework for her anger, one she’s been able to use to become a better, smarter competitor. It’s been helpful, too, in silencing a lot of the background noise from the sport’s detractors or from the fans who take the women’s game less seriously.
Following the March 2019 UFC Championship fight between Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Jedrzejczyk’s badly swollen, post-fight face went rampant online. Internet trolls meme-ified it, while others used it as visual teargas, proof women had no place in the ring. “We’re never going to be able to beat the internet’s immature trolls. They’re gonna take our worst moment. We can’t stop that,” Eye says of the internet fallout after that fight, “Believe me, I had a million memes when I got knocked out, it’s just a part of society. I just had to learn it was going to be there no matter what.”
Women On The Rise
For Eye, she doesn’t pay the doubters any mind. “Some men, throughout the world, happen to say ‘I don’t think it should be a woman’s sport’…I’m not going to argue with that, that’s almost like spitting into the wind,” she says. “It still doesn’t change the fact that women are fighting in the UFC and they’re getting these jobs.”
Out of 626 listed professional athletes in UFC, 106 of them are women, and the number of women competing in other levels of MMA fighting continues to grow globally. Women’s cards are some of the highest draws in ratings, consistently drawing over 3 million viewers. And while a pay gap does exist between male and female fighters — the recent title fight between Weili Jedrzejczyk had them both walking away with a 100k guarantee plus a 100k bonus for the winner, while the men’s title fight winner that same night walked away with 500k — it is shrinking thanks to efforts of vocal women’s fighters, like Eye.
“Women and men I think are being created more equally, and I think that when people are like no, we’re not, [me] being in the UFC and me knowing I make more money than some of the guys in the top twenty in the UFC?” She pauses, the slight edge of a smirk in her voice, “To me I’m like, “Oh, wow, I’m not doing too bad.”
It’s Eye’s sincerity that is disarming. She makes you want to lean forward into what she’s telling you, which would of course get you in a lot of trouble in the ring. When asked how she guards against physical harm to her body, she laughs.
“Oh, you can’t. I slipped the other day in the rain,” then adds an honest jab with, “We joke that I don’t want my face to get completely mangled, so I try to keep my head movement as good as I can. But I chose this life. And I chose to use my body as my way of making my foundation and making my money.” On prioritizing her mental health, protecting it, she admits she “struggles with balance” but that she’s no longer bluffing when it comes to the person she’s putting forward.
“At first you kind of put on a facade, ‘the show you’. And then you go through all these stages of, how do you be you in front of the public? Now people know that I don’t come from a good family, that I don’t talk to my mom, that my dad is dead now. I have a bad relationship with my oldest brother, my little brother’s my best friend.”
Admittedly, it took her years to figure out. “It wasn’t until probably the last year that I just,” she pauses, slowing down as if she’s settling into something, “started being me. I watched myself mature more and feel less anxious with social expectations…Maybe that was a fault of my own, or maybe I wasn’t ready, but I think that more people are just seeing me for me. It took a long time. It’s hard to be yourself in such a critical world.”
She says she came up with a tagline, something that’s evident as fingerprints across the whole of her life as she’s reshaped it: Self belief is better than social disapproval.