They exist in an ever evolving sport, which is why Aspen Ladd and her coaches compare her skills to a Lego Ferrari with a never-ending amount of pieces.
Ladd has been adding to her tool kit since she started her formal training at age 14. The undefeated women’s bantamweight prospect first walked into an MMA gym in hopes of finding a way to stay in shape. Little did she know that she would be hooked soon after.
“Within a week, I fell in love with the sport; the competition is what got me hooked to it,” Ladd told Sherdog.com. “You always have something new to learn, and it always keeps you on your toes.”
Ladd has enjoyed the luxury of training at the same gym since she started her MMA journey: MMA Gold in El Dorado Hills, California. She stood out from her peers from the beginning.
“The first time I saw Aspen in there, she was not training MMA,” said longtime coach Jim West. “She was in there with her brother, and they were just rolling around on the mats.” He remembers turning to one of his colleagues and saying, “That girl is going to make it.” West saw the drive. “She has the one thing that not everyone has, that something you cannot teach, and that is the will to win. She would show up and get beat up, then wash the blood off her face and come back.”
Ladd kicked off her amateur career at age 17 and compiled an 8-1 record across some 18 months of competition. By then, she had run out of options and outgrown her surroundings.
“They couldn’t really find me anymore opponents as an amateur,” Ladd said. “It is hard to find opponents once you get established.”
The upstart prospect and her coaches decided it was time to turn pro. Ladd signed with Invicta Fighting Championships and joined the roster as one of the promotion’s youngest fighters. Although lacking in experience, she believed she had the tools necessary to excel.
“I have the most confidence in my team and in my coaches,” Ladd said. “I knew I was able to perform at the highest level, and if they had confidence in me moving to this next step, I was totally comfortable with that.”
She won her professional debut by first-round technical knockout on Feb. 27, 2015 and then submitted Amanda Bobby Cooper with a second-round armbar to improve to 2-0. Cooper went on to become a finalist on “The Ultimate Fighter.” Ladd’s first two pro bouts came at 125 pounds, but the weight cut proved problematic, prompting a move to bantamweight. She finished her next two opponents with ground-and-pound. Ladd’s quick success did not surprise those closest to her.
“Aspen is an extremely humble person, but she takes herself and her team very seriously,” West said. “She has a lot of expectations that she holds for herself and her coaches, too, and it’s our job to reach her high expectations. That’s why she is continuing to progress and is able to keep adding those Lego blocks. You have to keep building in a sport like MMA.”
In her most recent appearance at Invicta 21 on Jan. 14, Ladd went the distance in securing a unanimous decision over Sijara Eubanks. She found value in the experience.
“I was having fun out there,” said Ladd, her perfect record now sitting at 5-0. “I was able to showcase my boxing skills, which I have been working hard on.”
Ladd’s primary goal -- to be a better fighter each time she competes -- never changes. She does not adhere to the concept of training camps.
“There is no such thing as a camp; it is not even in her vocabulary,” West said. “She trains year-round, and since she is constantly doing that, we are always adding pieces to her game. We are always able to add a wrinkle into her foundation and something new to her never-ending product.”
Ladd sees herself as part of the newest wave of mixed martial artists, finely tuned fighters who are not chained to one particular discipline.
“In the beginning of my career, people thought I was just a grappler, but I love boxing now and I am getting better every day,” she said. “I am a well-rounded martial artist.”
By sharpening her skills daily and leaning on the wisdom of her coaches and teammates, Ladd has progressed from top-ranked amateur to Invicta bantamweight contender in a blink. Soon, the 21-year-old hopes to add the newest piece to the Ferrari.
“The next thing for me is the UFC,” Ladd said. “I am just waiting for the phone call.”