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UFC's Marion Reneau started MMA at age 32 to save money for son's college fund

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Marion Reneau was already into her 30s the first time she put on a pair of boxing gloves. A few months older when she started training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

An athlete her entire life, Reneau was struggling financially as a teacher. She needed something else to not only feed herself and her son, but also put money away for his college tuition.

"I was living paycheck to paycheck," Reneau told MMAFighting.com. "Even though I was a teacher, I was struggling as a teacher. And it's kind of hard when you're just barely making it to the end of the month, not knowing if you're going to have enough by the end of the month, trying not to overeat at the beginning of the month because you need to have food at the end of the month. And I hated that. I hated that lifestyle. It sucks. I wanted something better for my son."

That was six years ago. Now 38 years old, Reneau is on the cusp of UFC prominence -- and maybe closing in on a potential title shot. Reneau will meet Holly Holm at UFC Fight Night: Mir vs. Duffee on Wednesday night in San Diego. Holm is ranked No. 10 in a women's bantamweight division filled with fighters who have already lost to champion Ronda Rousey.

Reneau would put herself into the mix with a win, especially since Holm has been hyped as a potential challenger to Rousey for years now.

"I think it's one step closer to my goals," Reneau said. "Any personally that's in the UFC, if their goal is to not try to be No. 1, then I don't know why they're in the UFC."

On paper, Reneau is the second-best pure athlete in the division behind Rousey. She was the 1999 Big West Conference track and field athlete of the year at Long Beach State, winning both the long jump and heptathlon that season. Reneau, at the time, was an Olympic hopeful, but it didn't pan out.

She had her son, Xavier, soon after her college career ended and began work to become a teacher. Reneau, though, has always had an appreciation for combat sports. She used to watch boxing with her dad growing up. When she watched Gina Carano fight and beat Kelly Kobold in 2008, she was sold on trying to make MMA a second career.

"You can get paid for doing this?" Reneau said she told her friends at the time "What? I was all excited. I was like, I'm all in."

Before that, the thought of women fighting never really entered her mind, in part because of her father's beliefs.

"I love my dad, but there's no place for women inside the ring was his motto growing up," Reneay said. "I know he's changed that tune since then. I never really took interest, because I had never seen a woman inside the ring, so I assumed it never happened."

Reneau, a California native, started training in boxing and then she found a gym for Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Now she's a brown belt in BJJ fighting out of Elite Team in Visalia, Calif., with the likes of Doug Marshall and Cody Gibson.

Reneau started out 2-1 as a pro and tried out for The Ultimate Fighter 18. She was spurned mostly because of her age (36 at the time) and angry when UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby told her the news.

"That was pretty much the gist of it," Reneau said about it being due to age. "I just kind of looked at him like, 'Do you see these other girls?' I mean, half of them with a belly. They're over at In N Out right now eating, while I'm working out. Are you sure you want those girls over me?

"You let men in there who are 30 and you don't gripe about it. You let men in there who are 40 and you don't gripe about it. I was 36 at the time and they were making a big deal about it. I was like, 'Are you kidding me? I am in my prime right now.'"

Reneau has proven that after being given a chance in the UFC. She was supposed to fight for Invicta FC last year after winning a bout in RFA, but was signed by the UFC to fight Alexis Dufresne as a fill-in back in January at UFC 182. She destroyed Dufresne in a unanimous decision and one month later finished contender Jessica Andrade with a triangle choke in the first round.

UFC president Dana White has since apologized to Reneau for keeping her out of TUF due to her age. "The Belizean Bruiser" is now ranked No. 11 among UFC women's bantamweight contenders and has a chance to crack the top 10 against Holm.

"It's a rollercoaster ride," Reneau said. "It's one of those new rollercoaster rides where you take a loop and you're like, 'Whoa, I wasn't ready for that.' And then you come out of the loop and you're exhilarated. So, I would describe it as a rollercoaster ride, full of ups down, twists, turns and you know what, I'm just going along for the ride for as long as I can."

She doesn't know how long her body will let her fight, but with her work ethic and natural athletic abilities, it could be a long time. Part of her wishes she had discovered MMA when she was younger, but at that time there wasn't much money to be made, especially for women.

"I always think about that," Reneau said. "I look at these young girls right now, they're 7, 8 doing jiu-jitsu. If I was your age, do you know what kind of a beast I would be right now? I always say that. Then again, I'm starting in the bantamweight division at the perfect time. It is fairly young and it is new and so, we've kind of like paved the way for the girls who are going to come up into it. And I'm OK with that."

From the Vault: Marion Reneau on the MMA Hour