When the casting call for The Ultimate Fighter 26 was first announced, it went out with an interesting caveat. Not only would the season usher in the UFC women’s flyweight division and crown an inaugural UFC 125-pound champion, but tryouts would also be open to any female already active on the promotion’s roster, regardless of whether they fought at featherweight, bantamweight, or strawweight.
As it turns out, only one active UFC fighter took the show up on its offer: Lauren Murphy, a veteran UFC bantamweight who wound up slotted at No. 3 for this season’s 16-fighter tournament. And that low turnout wasn’t a shock to No. 1 seed Roxanne Modafferi. An O.G. of women’s MMA, Modafferi competed on The Ultimate Fighter once before in 2013 — on The Ultimate Fighter 18, the first season to feature female contestants — and the 35-year-old admitted that she wouldn’t have jumped at the opportunity to do so again if she already had a UFC contract in her hands.
“I’m actually not surprised (more women didn’t try out), because it’s really hard,” Modafferi said at a recent media breakfast, laughing. “Having done this twice, if you’re already signed to the UFC, great. Then you get a number of fights, then you can fight for the belt, as opposed to taking a chance. I mean, of course you do want a title shot, and this is kinda like a — not a speed course, but you get a faster opportunity.
“(But) if I were already signed, I might not have done it again. But I really wanted the opportunity to fight for the UFC again, so there was no question in my mind. I had to do it.”
TUF 26 is still underway, so Modafferi hasn’t been able to discuss much of the specifics from her second experience. But already, from day one, she noticed a major departure from her first run on the show, which starred a cast of both men and women and featured a coaching matchup between Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate.
On TUF 18, the explosive rivalry between Rousey and Tate became the predominant narrative for the show. By contrast, the relationship between TUF 26’s coaches Eddie Alvarez and Justin Gaethje has been far more amenable, which Modafferi says led to a more productive environment for all of the athletes involved in the tournament.
“It was so nice to not have the coaches fight each other, or bickering at each other,” Modafferi said. “Honestly, it was way less stressful for us. I was actually kinda worried that maybe it wouldn’t be as popular on TV because of that, because I know people like drama in that way. They were very competitive, Justin and (Eddie), but still they weren’t as heated as the former coaches, my former coaches, so that was really nice.
“I think the way [TUF 26] was put together was the same, just the cast was different and that made a big difference,” Modafferi added. “I feel like I made friends with everybody on the season, and I wasn’t constantly injured on this season like I was on my past season. That didn’t really get any coverage. But yeah, I liked this season better.”
The expectations placed on Modafferi for TUF 26 were almost immediately night-and-day different from her experience on TUF 18 as well.
On TUF 18, Modafferi was the last fighter picked to Team Tate, despite the fact that she carried a fighting résumé that far outclassed many of her fellow competitors — a résumé that dates all the way back to the glory days of Smackgirl and HOOKnSHOOT in the early aughts. On TUF 26, however, Modafferi was instantly installed as the top seed of the tournament, and she defended that seeding in the very first episode of the season with a successful first-round TKO over Shana Dobson.
But despite riding into TUF 26 as one of the tournament’s favorites, Modafferi says she made a conscious effort not to treat the season any differently.
“I tried not to put pressure on myself,” Modafferi said. “I tried not to think so much about the big picture, I just tried to think fight by fight, and I respect anybody who gets in the cage. I believe everybody has a chance to win at any time. Everyone has skills, everyone is strong, so I looked at the fight with [Dobson] just (the same as) a fight for the championship of Invicta or UFC title or whatever. Just do my best, everything I have, see what techniques I can use in the fight, and may the best person on that night win, you know?
“Sometimes all of your best doesn’t come out in one night. Sometimes you’re not your best and the other person gets lucky, or vice versa, or whatever. There are many things that happen in the fight itself, leading up to the fight, physically, mentally. You wake up, you feel crappy, you didn’t sleep, whatever. So all you can do is go do your best.”
Modafferi also admitted that the opportunity to rejoin the UFC is one she never knew for sure would come.
After her first TUF run, Modafferi only got a chance to compete once inside the Octagon, losing a unanimous decision against Raquel Pennington in Nov. 2013. Afterward, she and the UFC parted ways, and “The Happy Warrior” returned to her natural weight class of 125 pounds, cutting a wide swathe across the Invicta FC ranks as she compiled an impressive 6-2 record.
Modafferi knows she would still be in Invicta FC if the UFC hadn’t reversed course and abruptly introduced its own 125-pound division. So as someone who’s basically lived through the entirety of the rise of women’s MMA — from zero mainstream presence to the unexpected breakout of Rousey to the UFC carrying four legitimate women’s divisions — Modafferi is simply happy all of this has happened before she already had one foot out the door.
“It’s so cool,” Modafferi said. “Dude, I just turned 35 last week. That’s like the UFC age limit to sign a new fighter. So I was like, ‘Yes! I just made it in.’ There’s older fighters (in the UFC), but that’s for The Ultimate Fighter.
“The whole time, I’ve been worried about it (happening after I retired), but just, until I either got too hurt to fight or they — I mean, I knew it was going to happen, I just hoped that I’d be young and well enough to participate.
“Once one division opened up, I knew that someday there would be more. I just didn’t know when, and I hoped that would be in my fighting career time.”