When Alexa Grasso signed with the UFC in 2016, the expectations were enormous, and rightfully so.
Seen as Mexico’s best hope to not just do well in the Octagon, but to become a champion and superstar on the international scene while paving the way for a new generation of women to take up mixed martial arts, Guadalajara’s Grasso was 8-0 with four knockouts, a standout in the Invicta FC promotion where she garnered four wins and two post-fight bonuses, and about to take on the UFC’s strawweight division.
And everything started well enough, as she defeated Heather Jo Clark in Mexico City in November 2016. But then, issues with the scale and with injuries left her with a 1-2 record in her next three bouts. More injuries would follow, and Grasso was already at a pivotal point in her career.
But as 2019 hit its midway point, Grasso looked like Grasso again. She scored the most impressive win of her UFC career over Karolina Kowalkiewicz in June of last year and followed it up with a hard-fought loss to Carla Esparza that earned the pair Fight of the Night honors. Things were seemingly back on track until 2020 rolled around and another miss on the scales forced the cancellation of her bout with Claudia Gadelha in January. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Panic time? Not for Grasso, who used the time to re-evaluate her place in the sport, stay sharp, and get back to her roots. On Saturday, she faces Ji Yeon Kim.
“When I started my career, I was a flyweight,” she said. “But when we chose to fight in Invicta and the UFC, we took the hard decision to drop to 115. I had knockouts when I was a flyweight, so I feel a lot different. I feel much healthier and my mood is a lot better. I feel stronger and I''m still fast like a strawweight, but with harder punches.”
In other words, the Alexa Grasso we saw earlier in her career is back. She’s shown flashes of that fighter during her six-fight UFC run, but now she wants that version of herself on consistent display.
“I feel so happy right now because this camp I had no injuries,” Grasso said. “I'm a very, very disciplined athlete, and before it was very tough to keep the focus on my camps and making weight, and I think that was the main reason that I was getting hurt all the time. Now, I feel so much happier, so much healthier, and of course I have to make weight and I know at some point you have to suffer in that aspect, but this camp was amazing. I’m focusing on performing.”
When she’s on, the 27-year-old Grasso is a special fighter. It’s why there was so much hype around her to begin with. She knows being the fighter with all eyes on her isn’t easy, but she accepts it as part of the gig while promising that people will really be talking once she makes her UFC flyweight debut this weekend.
“It's a lot of pressure, but it's also a good motivation for me because of course I can achieve it,” she said of the expectations on her. “There are always hard challenges, but the harder the challenge is, the greater the victory. So it's been a good journey. I've been up and down and up and down, but I never give up. If everybody thought that I was good at 115, 125 is gonna be like, 'Oh my God, what happened to her?'”
She laughs, sounding as confident and content as anyone has with a fight and a weight cut coming up. Maybe she just assumes that after making things work at home with gyms still shut down, nothing can slow her down now.
“This is a crazy time for all the world,” she said. “Here in Mexico we are dealing with that situation, too, but we are doing the best we can. Fortunately, I have a team and coach that are able to train with me. I've heard that God gives the hardest work to the hardest warriors, so I think he knows that I'm a good warrior.”
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She is, but she’s chasing great warrior status at the moment, even if she’s walking into a whole new world in the 125-pound weight class.
“There's always new challenges,” Grasso said. “I know that the girls at flyweight are taller and bigger compared to 115. I also have to adapt to this new weight class, but being honest, I feel I have a lot less stress about making weight and I'm just focused on performing and hitting harder and kicking faster and making my takedowns. Also on the floor, I feel more stable, and my partners say they don't move me so easy. When I was at strawweight, they said 'We felt like we were going to break you.' (Laughs) Now it's different because I feel very, very strong.”
There’s another feeling she has leading into fight week, too, and it may be the most important one she’s had in a long time.
“I have no injuries,” she laughs. “This is magic. I feel like magic. This is amazing.”