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Still under UFC contract, Jessamyn Duke heads back to Invicta to gain cage experience

Esther Lin, Invicta FC

Jessamyn Duke might be competing for Invicta this weekend. But she's still a UFC fighter.

Not wanting to wait any longer for a fight booking, Duke called UFC president Dana White and told him she wanted to head back to Invicta FC for experience and more frequent bouts.

"I finally went to Dana," Duke explained, "and I was like, 'I want to fight for Invicta. Let me go fight for them. Let me get a fight. You know better than anyone -- you were there watching the fight -- that what I need more than anything is time in the ring.'"

Duke will return to Invicta, where she had her first three pro bouts, on Friday night against Irene Aldana at Trinidad Pavilion inside the Tropicana Las Vegas. UFC officials confirmed the arrangement with Invicta to have Duke fight there while still under UFC contract.

"The Gun," an alum of The Ultimate Fighter 18, has lost three in a row in the UFC, most recently a unanimous decision defeat against Elizabeth Phillips at UFC on FOX 16 in July.

As soon as that fight was over, Duke (3-3, 1 NC) said she wanted to get back in the cage immediately. It didn't come together, though. "The Gun" admits that she has been playing "catch up" in the MMA world all this time and that's why she thought it was best to get some more experience under her belt in Invicta.

"It's the frequency of fights that I want," Duke said. "It doesn't do me any good to fight once a year. I've always in my career been lacking in the experience area. I've just never had that much time in the ring. I went pro before I was really ready and then I was on a reality show before I was really ready. I was in the bantamweight division of the UFC before I was really ready. And I've been trying to play catch up, so I just need fights. I know Invicta is the place to be. I don't consider it a step down at all. I just see it as one big women's division with a bunch of 135ers and I'm looking at all of them."

Of course, this will be no showcase fight for Duke, no easy path back to potential UFC glory. Aldana is a serious prospect at women's bantamweight, an athletic boxer from Mexico with significant knockout power. Aldana (5-2) is coveted by the UFC and arguably better than some of the opponents Duke fought in the big show.

"I think a victory over her really puts me in a good position," Duke said. "It says a lot and makes a big statement and that's what I want to do."

Duke, 29, believes she has evolved as a fighter in the last year. This was her second training camp working at Combat Submission Wrestling in Fullerton, Calif., with Josh Barnett and Erik Paulson. Barnett has also put her on an Olympic weight-training program, with notable results, and set her up with the wrestling team at nearby Brea Olinda High School and coach Feargus McTeggart, who is also one of Barnett's coaches.

"It really has changed me just being part of a team like that and training like that," Duke said. "I'm so jealous that I never had anything like that in high school, but I'm so thankful that I get to do it now. It really makes a difference."

There was a time when Duke, who is 5-foot-11 and boasts a 73-inch reach, was focused on boxing and keeping opponents at range. While traditionally that is a good strategy for someone with her physical attributes, Duke doesn't truly believe that is her best asset. In the past, when she has been at her best, Duke has been an in-your-face grinder with big knees, elbows and a solid ground game.

"The truth is, that's just not me," Duke said of being a rangy boxer. "I've always done well in fights when I go out and fight and get in their face and I turn it into an ugly scrap."

Barnett said that Duke has become "enamored" with wrestling now, whereas before she really didn't enjoy it and it wasn't a part of her game.

"She's really coming into her own," Barnett said. "She's developing. I feel like Jessamyn has had to move farther ahead in her career than maybe she should have to begin with. But opportunity doesn't wait for anyone, so you've gotta go through those doors. Trial by fire is often the case with any of us in these kinds of sports, or just being in entertainment alone. The unfortunate part about trial by fire in fighting is that people punch you in the face."

Duke has gotten heat from MMA fans over the years, mostly likely due to her friendship with polarizing star Ronda Rousey and her part in the Four Horsewomen group. The Kentucky native is OK with that. The criticism has not gotten to her.

"It definitely feels unfair sometimes, but people are entitled to their opinions," Duke said. "The fans of the sport are entitled to feel however they want to feel. Even if they're assholes, they're allowed to be assholes. I can't do anything about that.

"I'm not fighting for the fans. I'm not doing it for them. I'm not doing it for their approval. I'm not doing it to prove anything to them. I'm doing this for me -- my goals, my life, my dreams and the things that I want to accomplish. That's why I'm doing it."

Which is why she decided to buck the trend, leave the UFC temporarily and head back to Invicta, where she can get consistent fights and more cage time.

"I want to fight and I don't really care what letters behind the promotion there are," Duke said. "I just want to fight. I want to get good wins and then who knows? The UFC may call me up and be like, 'Oh, we're ready' and want me back in there and that's fine. If not, I'm perfectly content in fighting the best here as well."

Through the ups and downs, Duke's goals have not wavered. She's committed to the sport.

"I want to be great at this," Duke said. "I'm not just content being average or below average or above average. I need to be exceptional at this and I'm not gonna be happy until I am."

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