This is number ninety-one in Jack’s series of interviews with MMA fighters and personalities, and for this particular interview, we’re pleased to feature TUF 18 competitor, the UFC’s Jessamyn Duke. Though Duke has had only three MMA fights as a pro, she was experienced as an amateur, and she is a veteran of the WMMA promotion, Invicta FC. We are only a few episodes into TUF 18’s airing, but Jessamyn has already won her fight to get into the house and become one of the eight female bantamweight competitors. She was picked by Coach Ronda Rousey to be on her team and face Team Tate. Who knows how far Jessamyn will go? Please enjoy the conversation below.
Jack Brown: What was your first experience with martial arts/combat sports, and how did it become more than just a hobby for you?
Jessamyn Duke: I first started martial arts when I was nineteen years old. I had just moved to a new city for school and I was looking for a hobby that would get me out of the house and be good exercise. I had always played sports in school and I wanted to be a part of something like that again. However, after beginning my training, I quickly became obsessed with what I was doing. I was showing up to classes early and staying late almost every night. The idea of competing came after only about three months, and I signed up for a local grappling tournament. I was the only female to show up and they let me grapple in the men’s division in a lighter weight class that only had two guys in it. The first guy tapped me out with a RNC in about twenty seconds. The second guy refused to grapple with me because I was a female. I got second place by default and I thought it was ridiculous. I told myself I was going to come back and win the next time. I couldn't wait for the next tournament.
I went back after three more months of training and won gold in the women's white belt division. I also won gold in the absolute division by submitting a blue belt. I was totally hooked. I've always been competitive, but something about competing in combat sports was far more addictive. The challenge was what motivated me. I knew this wouldn't be easy to be good at, but I pretty much decided then that I wanted to pursue it as a profession. It took four years of grappling tournaments and amateur kickboxing fights before I finally made my amateur MMA debut. I didn’t want to wait that long, but opportunities for competition were few and far between. Women's MMA barely existed for amateurs when I first started training. I spent a lot of time trying to find other combat sports to get experience in. I started training in late 2005, my first kickboxing fight was in 2008, my first amateur MMA fight was in 2010, and I made my pro MMA debut in 2012. So it was kind of a slow process, but I've considered myself "serious" about it for a long time.
JB: Though you went into TUF 18 with only three pro MMA fights, you spent a year and a half fighting as an amateur and went 5-2 over seven amateur fights. What do you recall about your very first amateur fight back in 2010 and how did it compare to your first pro fight in 2012?
JD: In my very first amateur MMA fight, I recall a slight moment of panic when I heard the cage door lock and the fight was about to start. I realized that I had none of my normal padded protection on and that we were wearing tiny gloves that are solely there to protect our hands and not our opponents’ faces. I also realized that the girl standing across from me now had permission to try and beat the s--- out of me almost any way she possibly could. Being pinned down and having my face smashed was a real possibility, and I had the biggest adrenaline dump of my life. I just remember thinking that I just had to do it to her before she did it to me, and I went straight for her right out of the gate. I ended up TKO'ing her about a minute into the fight.
By the time I had my first professional fight, my fear of getting "beaten up" no longer existed. I had been beaten up a couple times as an amateur, and I realized that it wasn’t that bad. All but one of my ammy fights were at 145lbs., and I had been roughed up by some big strong ladies. Injuries heal, and you walk away from every fight an improved fighter. I was calm, confident, and relaxed in my first pro fight, and I am in most of my fights now. The only anxiety I ever get is about performing well. I really do always want to be an exciting fighter and give people something to talk about.
JB: Four of your amateur fights were in your native Kentucky's Absolute Action MMA fight promotion. What is the MMA scene like for Women in AAMMA and Kentucky in general?
JD: I was lucky that several local promotions had started to really push and promote women's fighting when I first started competing. My first amateur MMA fight was on the very first all-female fight card in Kentucky. It had reached such a point of popularity in the state that a show like that actually did quite well and had a good draw. It brought a lot of attention to the female fight scene. I've always thought Kentucky has done a good job of being active with female fighters, and it is one of the more proactive states. I always tell people that MMA is far more popular in Kentucky than they might realize. It doesn't surprise me that we were one of the first states to put on an all-female fight card.
JB: You are undefeated in your three pro fights and all three have taken place in the all-female Invicta FC. What was it like being part of Invicta for those three fights?
JD: Invicta FC is like a dream come true for female fighters. It's an elite promotion, with some of the best talent in the world, and it provides a way for women to actually have a true career in fighting. When women realized that it was possible to fight full-time as a professional and be able to make money through an organization like Invicta, the level of training and skill for all female fighters increased everywhere. It’s tough to dedicate your life to something that provides no security or stability, but Invicta really does make that possible. I absolutely loved fighting for Invicta, and it was a huge honor to not only make my pro debut for them, but to also be brought back again for more. They treat their athletes so well and really care about them. I walked away from every Invicta card feeling like I truly was a part of something great.
JB: This past April at Invicta FC5 your fight with Miriam Nakomoto initially resulted in a KO loss for you. The loss was later overturned and ruled to be a no contest when you successfully appealed the ruling. The Missouri Commission ruled that Nakomoto hit you with an illegal knee while you were down. How difficult was the appeal process and what did you take away from that fight and what followed?
JD: The appeal process isn't a difficult one. It's a slow one. But like I always say about my fights, I still learned a lot. Being involved in something controversial like that taught me a lot about the fans and the way this business works. And as a fighter it was a good learning experience. I took a very hard shot that put me in a really dangerous position, more dangerous than any I'd ever been in my whole career, and I knew it was time to find out what I was really made of. But that opportunity was tainted by the fact that an illegal technique was used to "finish" the fight at that point. It still brings up a lot of mixed emotions for me, but I still took a lot of positives away from the experience.
JB: For now, I just have one question regarding TUF 18. I'm trying to be very careful since at this time only the first two episodes have aired. When and how did you first hear that there would be a co-ed season of TUF and what sacrifices did you have to make in order to fit the TUF commitment into your life?
JD: I don't remember what UFC it was, but I was out with my team at a restaurant watching the fights, and the first I heard of women being on TUF was when Dana White announced it during the show. My phone immediately started blowing up with people asking me if I was going to go to the tryouts. Even thought the tryouts were going to be only barely a week after my fight with Invicta, I bought myself a plane ticket to Vegas and committed to going no matter what happened. It was a little nerve-wracking to know that I was going to be fighting an extremely tough opponent only a week before my biggest career opportunity to date, but I just tried to prepare myself the best I possibly could and trust that it was all going to work out.
JB: Who are the other MMA fighters that you respect or admire the most, and who are the fighters that you would most like to fight?
JD: I respect and admire so many fighters in this sport. I fell in love with MMA and was a fan long before I was an actual fighter. So being able to fight on the same card with a lot of the same women I looked up to when I first started training is incredibly surreal to me. Shayna Baszler, Tara LaRosa, and Roxanne Modafferi, who were also on TUF, were huge inspirations to me as a fighter. They were doing what I wanted to do, and I thought that if they could do it, why couldn't I? Kaitlin Young is another fighter I have an incredible amount of respect for as well. And especially after my experience on TUF, Ronda Rousey has earned my respect and admiration on a level that a lot of people probably will never understand. She's an incredible leader, friend, and athlete, and no matter what opinions people form of her based on what they see on the show, my feelings about her aren't going to change. I know how she treated me and everyone else on our team, and I saw a level of trust, respect, and caring that you don't come across often.
As far as who I would most like to fight, I just want to fight great opponents who pose great challenges and will make for exciting fights that the fans want to see. My goal is to be the best in the world, and I see every fight in front of me as one step closer to achieving that goal. I take it that seriously. And in case anyone asks, no, I don't have a problem fighting my friends. You can respect the s--- out of someone and still try to beat them in the most brutal and exciting way possible in the cage. The respect will still be there afterward, regardless of the outcome of the fight.
JB: How much time do you spend on The UG and other social networking during an average day and what appeals to you about it?
JD: During any downtime I have between training, meals, traveling, or naps, I'm always thumbing through different forms of social media and forums. The UG and Twitter are my favorites. I love being able to see what the fans are thinking and what interests them, and I am striving to make them happy and build my fan base. I also think it’s super-fun to interact with fans and build that connection. I know what it meant to me as a fan when some of my favorite fighters responded to me and gave me a few moments of their time. So I try to do the same as much as possible.
JB: What else do you enjoy outside of training and fighting, and who are the individuals who have supported you most in life?
JD: I really enjoy traveling and seeing new places and meeting new people. I love to get out and just enjoy life and try new things. I love the outdoors. I love eating good food. I also love playing video games.
I've had so much support throughout my life and my fighting career from so many people. My family has always been incredibly supportive. Even when the thought of me fighting terrified my mom, she still showed up and bought a cage-side ticket to my first MMA fight and cheered like a crazy person when I won. When I lost, rather than trying to convince me to quit, my family encouraged me to train harder. My coach, Scott Elliott, has also supported me and helped me grow into the fighter I am today. The people I have surrounded myself with have been absolutely critical to my success and I couldn't have done it without them. I truly have a great team behind me.
JB: Last question, Jessamyn, and thanks for taking the time to do this. What does it mean to you to be a fighter and how much do you enjoy it?
JD: Being a fighter is truly what defines me. It's the most important thing in my life and the only thing I've ever had a true passion for. I found it during a time when I didn't know what was next for me and was struggling to find a purpose in my life. I found that purpose in pursuing excellence in this sport. It feeds the mind, body, and soul, and gives me a worthy pursuit to dedicate my life to.
Thank you so much for reading and please follow Jessamyn Duke and Jack Brown on Twitter.
Visit JackJohnBrownMMA on Facebook for links to all of Jack’s past interviews. Previous interviews include: Dan Hardy, Rose Namajunas, Joe Lauzon, War Machine, Tom Lawlor, Bas Rutten, Chris Leben, Phil Baroni, Julie Kedzie, Michael Bisping, Duane Ludwig, Sara McMann, Matt Lindland, Duke Roufus, Pat Miletich, Jens Pulver, Dan Severn, Nate Quarry, Ken Shamrock, Matt Serra, Jeremy Horn, Ray Longo, Kevin Randleman, Dennis Hallman, Daniel Cormier, Shonie Carter, and dozens more.
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