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Roxanne Modafferi: A career retrospective of the happiest MMA warrior

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roxanne modafferi

Sep 24, 2021; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Roxanne Modafferi during weigh-ins for UFC 266 at Park Theater. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Imagine you’ve trained a year or two at a fight gym, developed some skills, and are sparring. Suddenly you get hit in the face, and you're knocked to the ground. In the following second, you have three thoughts: 1. AAAAAAAAA!!?! 2. Am I injured??!? 3. Bafflement, with a garnish of shame. Then you try to remember your own name.

Being knocked down in training is a signature moment in a fighter’s career or lack of one. Maybe half the people quit not long after, typically without realizing why. It’s a big deal, getting knocked down, and bigger still to stand up. That’s why the Japanese proverb “Nana korobi, ya oki” (“Fall down seven times, stand up eight”) holds so much meaning in mixed martial arts.

No fighter personifies that resilience, optimism, and self-belief as Roxanne Modafferi, who has her final fight Saturday on the preliminary portion of UFC 271. It will be her 50th fight, breaking the record for most fights by a female competitor in MMA history. I’ll be part of her corner. “The Happy Warrior” is the last active fighter from a time when female athletes in cage fighting were almost an oddity. The fact that her "Happy Warrior" nickname was a suggestion from a fan on MySpace gives some indication of how long she has been in the game.

The origin story of "The Happy Warrior"

roxanne modafferi

January 18, 2020; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Roxanne Modafferi lands hits against Maycee Barber on the mat during UFC 246 at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In 2001, Modafferi walked into my fight gym as a college freshman. She was not a gifted athlete and was kinder than a hippie, I didn’t bother to ask if she had aspirations to fight. I’m wasn't even certain at the time if she could catch a frisbee. I’d be more inclined to believe a sighting of a yeti wearing a Pats jersey, than what was to follow.

However, Modafferi possessed a relentless curiosity, focus, and aptitude for the sport, unhampered by the ego that so typically gets in the way until it is beaten out. Despite a lack of natural athletic ability, she stood out from the beginning. The only time she cried in training was once, from frustration, when I wouldn’t hit her hard enough.

Brazilian Jiu-jitsu at its most fundamental level is a method of reducing the opponent’s options from countless to just three: tap, nap, or snap. Before long, Modafferi was training at several gyms and adjusting the attitude of newcomer frat boys who went too hard, by reducing their choices to just two, or in practice just one. Without the fortitude to go to sleep, they always tapped.

Long enthralled by Japanese culture, she did a junior year abroad in Japan. Already so stalwart a submission wrestler that she was a "Competitor of the Year" for the then regional grappling organization NAGA, the transition to MMA was natural. Roxy went 3-0 in Japanese women’s events, under rules that prohibited face-punching on the ground.

When Roxy returned to the US for her senior year of college, women’s mixed martial arts was barely acknowledged, and when it was, the typical reaction was disparaging remarks about a fighter’s sexual orientation or sexual attractiveness. A normal person would not enter the sport. But she stood up.

Roxanne Modafferi rises through the ranks in WMMA's dark ages

The sterling exception to WMMA’s poor reception was the most underappreciated figure in the history of the sport, Jeff Osborne. His HOOK 'n SHOOT promotion showcased WMMA to the world with admiration and polish. Jen Howe, the then most dominant female fighter on the planet, was 12-0 with eleven stoppages. When Howe’s opponent for a title fight dropped out -- another pioneer -- Tara LaRosa, who knew Roxanne from Northeast grappling events and recently lost to Howe under MMA rules, told Osborne that the utterly unheralded Modafferi would win. 

Howe made the title offer, Modafferi asked me, I said no with a warm guffaw, and she flew to Evanstown, Indiana anyway, without my even knowing. And she won. It was impossible. 

Then she entered a one-night, open-weight eight-woman tournament in Japan. In the first fight, Modafferi beat an over 200-pound BJJ black belt in Ana Carolina by decision. I sat in her corner, in awe. In the second fight, she lost by decision to Megumi Yabushita, who had just won her initial fight by breaking Shannon Hooper’s arm with a front roll. Yabushita would go on to win the event when the great Erin Toughill was disqualified for an illegal elbow, that audibly broke ribs.

Next up was a rematch with Howe, and Modafferi won that too. When we went back to the locker room, I threw my sweatshirt over a mirror, as she was pretty banged up. Roxy found the mirror, looked at her face, and smiled. It took place in Utah, and at the airport the next day, everyone looked pissed off at me. After a few minutes, I realized an older guy standing next to a young woman with a black eye engendered some assumptions; the good men of Utah appeared ready to hang me.

I asked Roxy to take the championship belt out of its case and throw it over her shoulder. Never egotistical, she declined. Not wanting to learn that I can’t fly by being thrown off a balcony, I insisted, and she agreed. Thereafter it was all smiles and questions at SLC International. That was "The Happy Warrior’s" first great peak.

The fall to less happy times

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January 18, 2020; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Roxanne Modafferi reacts following her victory by unanimous decision against Maycee Barber during UFC 246 at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Then she went 1-3, losing to Laura D’August, LaRosa, and Shayna Baszler. The sole win was a rematch with Yabushita. Five years into the sport, with a 4-4 record under full MMA rules, on a two-fight losing streak, it would be a good time to retire and move onto other, more fruitful pursuits. But Modafferi stood up again. It was 2006.

Now graduated from college and living and training in Japan, she went 8-1, beating the likes of Vanessa Porto, the far larger Marloes Coenen, and winning a rematch with LaRosa. 

In the Porto fight, Modafferi's french braids got loose. I had everything in my cut kit but a hair tie, so I dashed to a ring card girl and got one. At one point Roxy suffered a monster slam. I was concerned about whether her confidence might have been shaken to some degree after being slammed so hard. But I didn’t want to even hint at mental weakness, so in the corner, I asked how she felt about the slam. “When she lifted me high up and I was heading down, I was thinking ‘weeeee,’” replied Modaferi earnestly.

That run earned her a shot at Strikeforce women’s bantamweight champion Sarah Kaufman. But Kaufman knocked out Roxy with a slam. 

Modafferi was released by Strikeforce and lost the next four. A five-fight losing streak, after a decade in the sport, nearing 30, is the definition of when it’s time to leave the gloves in the cage. But she stood up once again.

Her legacy was such that she was asked to be a cast member in The Ultimate Fighter 17. Picked dead last, Modafferi won her first TUF fight versus Valerie Letourneau by submission. She lost her second fight to Jessica Rakoczy, but was given a UFC opportunity in the TUF Finale against Raquel Pennington, and lost that too. Modafferi was now on a 1-7 run, in her 30s. That’s a far, far fall. But she stood up.

The evolution of Modafferi at Syndicate MMA

Modafferi loved the training in the US that she received during TUF and left her beloved Japan to move to Las Vegas to train with John Wood and his world-class team at Syndicate MMA. Then he signed with Invicta Fighting Championship. If Jeff Osborne’s HOOK 'n SHOOT was the slender thread that supported WMMA in the early years, Shannon Knapp’s Invicta FC was that in 2014 and remains so today.

The grappling-based Modafferi developed better striking at Syndicate and went 4-1 in the premiere WMMA organization. It was capped with a title shot versus then flyweight champion Jennifer Maia. The winner would be the best 125 women’s MMA fighter on Earth, the UFC having only a 135 division at that point. "The Happy Warrior" lost a split decision.

Modaffei won two more after the Invicta title fight loss and entered TUF a second time. This time she was picked first. That season was capped with a bout against Nicco Montano for the inaugural UFC women's flyweight championship. She lost by decision, but it was the "Fight of the Night." Earning her a $50,000 bonus, plus an extra $30,000 in Reebok Money. That was in 2017, and Modafferi fought on.

For nearly five years now, at the highest level of the sport, four times Roxanne alternated wins and losses. Her last fight broke the pattern, and she has now lost two in a row. At 39, engaged, with a productive post-fight career looming, win or lose, Saturday will be her last fight. Roxanne Modafferi leaves a lasting legacy.

In the 1940s, much was made of the great heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis being a remarkable African American athlete. Jimmy Cannon set that straight when he famously reminded, "he is a credit to his race, the human race." 

Modafferi is a pivotal figure in the history of WMMA, the final fighter from the sport’s early days. But that misses the larger point. She is the nicest person I have ever met and destroys stereotypes about what women fighters are. But that too misses the point.

Modafferi's message is larger than WMMA. It’s larger than MMA. It’s “Nana korobi, ya oki,” and from her very first day, she has lived it like no other.

The core UFC 271 prelims kick off at 8 pm ET on ESPN and ESPN+.