Aguilar looks to graduate from crowd-pleaser to contender
There's a lot going on behind Jessica's Aguilar's girl-next-door smile.
For starters, Aguilar's a little worried that her mother won't attend the biggest fight of her career: a non-title bout against the world's No. 1 female strawweight, Megumi Fujii, this Friday at Bellator 69 in Lake Charles, La. (8 p.m. ET, MTV2.)
Aguilar's mom, an immigrant from Mexico with traditional values, has never attended any of her daughter's MMA bouts. "[It's] my mother's belief that girls and competitive sports don't mix," Aguilar politely explains on her web site.
Her mother's hesitancy to support Aguilar's athletic endeavors was one challenge she had to overcome growing up in Houston, but Aguilar understands the motivations and holds no bitterness toward the woman she calls her hero. When Aguilar was 6, her father was murdered, leaving Aguilar's non English-speaking, stay-at-home mother alone to raise Jessica and her two older brothers on her own.
Jessica doesn't know much about her father's unsolved death -- the word "mafia" has come up around the topic -- but she knows not to bring it up at home. She saw how it affected her mother, who was scared into closing her husband's case with authorities and even years later, is still looking over her shoulder.
When you know this, it's understandable why Jessica's mother enrolled her in private Catholic school and never allowed her over friends' houses. It also explains why Jessica kept certain secrets from her mother, including her joining Our Lady of Fatima's boys' basketball team at age 12, when there was no girls' squad to play on.
"She wanted to protect me," said Aguilar of her stringent upbringing. "She wanted me to have strict manners and a good education. She worked hard to put us through private school."
As an adult, Aguilar has an immense amount of gratitude for her sheltered childhood, not only because it instilled good habits like discipline and respect for her elders, but because it's allowed her to embrace life when she was finally able to live hers on her own.
"Seeing what my mom went through and how it changed her, I didn't want to be that way," said Aguilar. "I wanted to see the world."
At 23, seven years after her family lost one of her brothers in a horrific car accident, Aguilar spread her wings and left the nest. She quit the University of Houston just 12 credits shy of a biology degree and began to travel. In the early going, Aguilar tried out a variety of occupations; she was a blood lab technician in Southern California, a correctional officer for an Oregon juvenile facility, and even a telenovela actress in Miami.
It's the last stop that steered Aguilar to mixed martial arts in 2006. One day, she arrived at her boxing gym too late to take her usual classes, so she tried a Brazilian jiu-jitsu class instead. "It was competitive and it pushed me," said Aguilar. "I liked that."
The always-athletic Aguilar showed potential, enough for her coach to suggest she enter a grappling tournament after only a month of instruction. Aguilar won first place in her gi and no-gi divisions by heeding her instructor's advice to "stay on top and keep moving."
Her second grappling tournament was hosted by American Top Team, which boasts the country's largest MMA training facility in Coconut Creek, Fla.
"There were no females for me to compete against, so I asked to go against the guys," said Aguilar. Instead, an ATT matchmaker approached the fearless 5-foot-4 grappler with a last-minute pro MMA fight in Absolute Fighting Championships that next weekend.
"I was used to paying these grappling tournament fees, so I asked him how much it would cost me," said Aguilar. "He said, 'No, I'll pay you.'"
Green, but determined, Aguilar lasted nearly six minutes (the duration of the two-round bout) before Lisa Ward-Ellis submitted her with a rear-naked choke.
"I didn't know what I was doing, but I knew I wasn't going to let it happen to me again," said Aguilar, who became one of ATT's first female fighters shortly after.
In six years, Aguilar has found her identity in fighting, earning a reputation as a fierce competitor with a slick ground game, buoyant striking technique and a room-warming toothy grin.
She's also reached some comfort in sharing her bisexual orientation, which she kept hidden in high school to avoid being singled out. Jessica came out to her ATT teammates with little fanfare ("When they found out, they treated me just the same," she said) and for the last year, has lived with her girlfriend, who wholeheartedly supports her fight career.
"I don't put it in any titles," said Aguilar, "but I'd say when I've found the right person -- whether it's a man or a woman -- I'd be happy."
Like fighting, Jessica's bisexuality is something her mother doesn't quite grasp. Mother and daughter haven't talked about it since Jessica first told her a few years ago.
"She asked me where I learned it or saw it," Jessica said. "I told her you didn't see or learn it; you felt it. She told me it would pass."
In the past, Jessica has been cautious not to reveal details like this one about her private life. She wasn't sure how it would affect her ability to get sponsorships or how the fans might react to it.
However, she's realizing that her chosen occupation comes with some expectation of openness if she wants fans to connect with her journey.
"It's always been something I had to be very conservative about and it's something I've had to get more comfortable talking about," she said. "If somebody doesn't agree with my choices, with all due respect, I just don't feed into it because that's negative energy. I'm sorry -- this is who I am."
In Bellator Fighting Championships, fans like what they've seen so far. Jessica's energetic striking style has helped her bank three consecutive decision victories to boost her to a respectable 14-3 record and a crack at Fujii (25-1), a Japanese star who went undefeated for six years before falling to Bellator 115-pound champion Zoila Gurgel almost two years ago.
A win over Fujii, who Aguilar considers an idol, would show a maturation in Aguilar from crowd-pleaser to contender. The fight has no title ramifications -- Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney said a fighter can only earn a title shot by winning the tournament -- but it could set up a compelling showdown (Aguilar has also lost to champion Gurgel) in the tentatively planned 125-pound tourney the promotion has hinted at for 2013.
Rebney has already expressed interest in Aguilar entering the tournament, she said, which could give the women's side of the sport even more exposure when the promotion moves to Spike TV, cable TV's MMA hub, next January. Aguilar, who walks around at about 126 pounds, said she'll likely face women who cut down from 140 pounds in the proposed tourney, but there are too few prospects and opportunities at strawweight to pass up on any offer.
Entering the prime of her fight career, the 30-year-old Aguilar plans to squeeze the life out of any chance that comes her way. Her mother raised her rigidly, but she indirectly taught Jessica not to squander moments when they do come around.
Jessica Aguilar's biggest moment happens Friday, and she'll be in the cage, squinting through the bright lights to see if her mother has come to share it with her.