For Aspen Ladd, fighting on the biggest stage in mixed martial arts doesn't unnerve her, but admittedly, the walk to get there does a little bit.
"For me, the walk has always felt the same," she said ahead of "UFC 273: Volkanovski vs The Korean Zombie." "It's the only time I've felt nerves. From when you walk out right until the referee says, 'Let's go.' It's just a hyper-emotional, hyper-focused feeling that's hard to describe."
The bantamweight said that while she still feels the nerves, and probably always will, her experience in her six previous walks over the course of five years has taught her how to control the adrenaline that builds up over the course of the camp, the fight week and the long walk to the octagon in front of a sold-out arena.
"As a baby fighter just starting out, not being able to manage the adrenaline dump can be the end of you," the 27-year-old explained. "Where you get into the octagon and you're like, ‘I'm so excited!' and then the next second you're exhausted. But you get better at dealing with that over time so that goes away, but the heightened emotions, that heightened feeling is still there."
The fourth-ranked bantamweight will meet a seventh-ranked Raquel Pennington (13-8 MMA, 10-5 UFC) this weekend at the end of her walk. It wasn't the opponent she was expecting, but the preparations were done and the only thing left for Ladd (9-2 MMA, 4-2 UFC) to do was to fight – and nothing would get in the way of that.
"We'd been preparing for the Irene Aldana fight for months on end," Ladd said. "But regardless, it's been five months of fairly constant, consistent work. We've been changing things up and I couldn't be happier with it."
While a last-second opponent change is never ideal, Ladd gets to test herself against a former title challenger in "Rocky," which seemed to just be a bonus on top of the opportunity to still fight.
"Mick (Maynard) called me and said, ‘I have good news and bad news, which do you want first?' and at that point, we were two weeks out, so I knew what the bad news was gonna be," Ladd said of the moment she learned third-ranked Aldana had pulled out of their fight. "But he already had a replacement lined up when he called and I was like, sweet, I don't care, as long as we have a fight."
While it's no longer a classic matchup of neighbors in the rankings looking to make a clear case for title contention, Ladd believes that going out on Saturday and simply doing her job will make the case for her.
"Raquel is still fairly highly ranked, so I think a statement win over either one is very important," Ladd said. "Yes, Aldana was ranked much higher, but it is what it is. The 135 division is very interesting right now. I think we have to wait a couple of months to see but I think I'm at the top of the heap in terms of what can happen after that."
With more than double the amount of octagon time and experience fighting some of the division's best, Ladd recognizes Pennington's veteran status, but is far from intimidated by it.
"I've fought veterans before," Ladd said. "They have a lot of experience but that's just it; it's just another fighter with the same two arms, two legs."
As Ladd makes the walk to the octagon for the seventh time in her career, this time in front of a sold-out Jacksonville crowd, she's ready to feel the nerves and manage her adrenaline, but above all else, put on a show.
"I think this has the potential to be a very exciting, grimy fight. (Pennington) doesn't run around too much, she likes to engage," Ladd said with a smile. "I think if you could've picked two chicks out of the division to put in the octagon to try to kill each other, we're the ones to get an exciting fight out of."
This story first published at UFC.com.