A pattern emerges for those of us who cover local mixed martial arts events. You know the focus of the story before you write it, as the material will generally follow a certain order: main event first, co-headliner next and so on. However, there are exceptions to any rule, and Jessica Eye is the exception for this one.
The first time I saw Eye compete was at Ring of Combat 34, where she fought Ashley Nee in Atlantic City, N.J. Eye ran through Nee, but it was not her performance that caught my attention. The Parma, Ohio, native enjoyed the most boisterous fan support of the night, bringing with her about 100 loyal followers. It was an unusual sight at a regional MMA show.
Seven months later, I watched Eye take on Casey Noland in her Bellator Fighting Championships debut. On a night that featured Alexis Vila’s violent knockout on Joe Warren, much of the Canton, Ohio, crowd showed up to back her. Posters plastered across the arena professed admiration for the Strong Style Fight Team representative.
“I have a fanbase that’s unreal,” Eye said at the post-fight press conference. “I think that no matter where I go you’re going to see signs, and you’re going to see people follow me [even] if it was to Mars.”
Watching Eye fight, one cannot help but be taken aback. From her 6-1 mark inside the cage to her cult-like following, she has become more than just another fighter. The 25-year-old will look to make another strong impression when she meets Anita Rodriguez at Bellator 66 on Friday at the I-X Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
“I feel like I’m the rose coming from the concrete bush,” Eye told Sherdog.com. “I feel like I’m trying to sprout into something that’s so hard to walk in. I’m walking into a man’s world, and everything I do has to, in some way and shape, be meaningful. It has to strike interest. Every time I try, I have to try that much harder. It’s hard to be a female.”
A self-professed tomboy raised by her father and brother, Eye was attending college and working as a waitress when she stumbled across MMA. She served a table that belonged to Bellator middleweight Brian Rogers and Marcus Marinelli, the head coach at the Strong Style Martial Arts & Fitness Center. Events transpired -- it “just all kind of happened,” she said -- and Eye started training at the gym at age 19. She has been there ever since.
“Jessica is one of the most committed fighters we have on the team,” Marinelli said. “She’s the only woman we have on the team that fights on a regular basis. She never misses a day. Her goal is pretty simple; it’s to be the best. She doesn’t train just to compete. She trains to be the best. That’s why she’s been to where she’s been to.”
Her dedication to excellence finds her waging a battle with which her male counterparts are mostly unfamiliar. According to Eye, her fighting “has to speak wonders,” otherwise she will “just [be] considered another pretty face in MMA.” She feels strongly about her situation, as teammate and UFC veteran Forrest Petz can attest.
“We were sitting there on the mats, and he goes, ‘I always cheered for the ugly girl.’ I took such offense to that,” Eye said. “Are you kidding me? Pretty girls have it made? I didn’t have an easy life. I don’t claim to have led a hard life. I led a life that was my own and that was hard in my own way. I don’t compare it to anyone else, and I don’t talk about it because it was my world. It made me who I am today. My looks didn’t make me who I am today. It was what I went through.
“I will shave my head absolutely bald and donate every inch of my hair just to prove to people that I’m a fighter and that I’m a warrior,” she added. “That’s what means most to me. I’ll go straight Sinead O’Connor on everybody.”
That passion provides some insight into how Eye has developed such a strong following. She carries herself with a pay-it-forward attitude.
“I’m a very open person,” Eye said. “When I first started, I remember a feeling I had when I wanted to learn something and everyone was very open with me. Everyone at Strong Style was very open to me and taught me everything that they know. When I came into contact with my first set of fans, I wanted them to know that I was always going to be there for them; I was never better than them.”
Eye went 5-0 as an amateur and won her first three professional bouts. Then came here encounter with the highly regarded Aisling Daly under the North American Allied Fight Series banner in June. Eye compares it to the Anderson Silva-Chael Sonnen fight at UFC 117, with her in the Sonnen role. She “lost focus” and suffered the first loss of her career, submitting to a second-round rear-naked choke.
“It took so much out of me emotionally and physically that I couldn’t even cry,” Eye said. “I didn’t lose that fight because I wasn’t prepared -- because I was. I didn’t lose that fight because I didn’t make weight -- because I did. Everything was in line, except for my mental psyche wasn’t completely there. That’s what made me lose it.”
Leading into the loss, Eye had plenty of other factors with which to deal. She had gone through an emotional breakup, suffered a concussion and had a Bellator contract offered and later pulled off the table.
“This particular fight there was a lot more [on my plate],” she said. “Your dharma creates your karma. I almost feel like I was doing too much for people. I was giving too much of a piece of me to everyone, thinking it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t. I was doing too much. I’ve got a great management team right now, and they’re doing a great job.”
After the loss, Eye admits she struggled emotionally. However, at the post-fight press conference for Bellator 51, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney made it clear his confidence in her never wavered.
“I was in Cleveland about four months ago to see this very talented woman fight Aisling Daly,” he said. “It was still early in her career and she faced her and she lost the fight. I said to her, ‘Come back. Get back into training. Refocus, rededicate yourself to training. We’ll bring you back and we’ll restart this process and develop you.’ I think we can expect very big things from Jessica Eye.”
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