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Inspirational TUF 26 run staved off thoughts of ‘possibly’ retiring for Roxanne Modafferi

Even an eternal optimist like Roxanne Modafferi couldn’t have predicted that she would be competing for a UFC title in 2017. But that’s exactly the position she found herself in this month at The Ultimate Fighter 26 Finale in Las Vegas, Nev.

“The Happy Warrior” was asked to step in on less than 48 hours notice to fight Nicco Montano for the chance to become the UFC’s first women’s flyweight champion. Both women had competed on the 26th TUF season for the opportunity, though Modafferi actually lost a unanimous decision in the semifinals to Sijara Eubanks.

When Eubanks suffered complications from a brutal weight cut that left her hospitalized with kidney failure the day before weigh-ins, Modafferi was asked to replace her.

On Monday, Modafferi appeared on The MMA Hour to talk about the championship bout that she thought had eluded her and how close she came to retiring before entering the TUF house a second time.

“It is super surreal,” Modafferi said. “When I realized that I was fighting for the title, it felt weird like I didn’t really feel anything new, I just — maybe also I didn’t have that buildup, it was probably better that I didn’t have that huge buildup leading up to it. I didn’t have the chance to be anxious or nervous about it.

“I’ve heard other fighters talk about how their training camps get interrupted by having to do interviews and fly places and all that stuff. I didn’t have that, luckily. I just was like, ‘Okay. It’s tomorrow. Have fun!’ So okay, let’s just fight. I could tell myself it was just another fight. It didn’t have that huge buildup, for better or for worse.”

Modafferi (21-14) would go on to lose a five-round unanimous decision to Montano, a relatively unknown fighter especially compared to someone with Modafferi’s accomplishments. The 35-year-old Las Vegas resident took her first pro fight in November 2003, when Montano would have still been in high school.

It wasn’t Modafferi’s first shot at a major title either. She fought Sarah Kaufman for the Strikeforce bantamweight championship in July 2010 and more recently dropped a split decision to current Invicta FC flyweight champion Jennifer Maia in September 2016. Once mired in a six-fight winless drought, Modafferi bounced back with six wins in eight contests before picking up two more victories in the TUF house as the tournament’s No. 1 seed.

Still, Modafferi had a goal in mind of getting back into the UFC — her lone Octagon appearance was a unanimous decision loss to Raquel Pennington at 135 pounds following their stint on TUF 18 and she admitted that retirement was a consideration if the TUF 26 run didn’t lead her back to the biggest stage in fighting.

“Possibly,” Modafferi said. “I don’t know, just logically I was considering my options.”

Asked if winning UFC gold was secondary to her mission of simply fighting for the promotion again, Modafferi replied that she was just being realistic about where she is in life.

“Kind of. At this point, I mean, I am 35 — I don’t feel 35 — but at this point I do want to start thinking about money and how I’m going to get by and not just doing this for fun anymore,” Modafferi said. “So I really was thinking strongly about my career. I really needed to get into the UFC. Love of the sport doesn’t pay the bills, right?”

As for why Modafferi chose to go through six weeks of TUF filming a second time after experiencing the rigors of the show four years ago, she didn’t exactly have a choice.

“I didn’t necessarily want to experience it all over again,” Modafferi said. “I wanted to get back to the UFC. I kind of tried to feel out, ‘Hey, what if I just get signed instead?’ But there was no guarantee of that and I wanted a chance to get the title. So those things made me do it again, out of necessity.”

Modafferi, even with her perpetually bright outlook on life, did express some regrets. She wondered how she’d have fared if the UFC had implemented a women’s flyweight division years ago, and how much more advanced she’d be as a fighter if she’d made the move to the Syndicate MMA gym in Las Vegas earlier. And there are a dozen things that could have gone differently in her fight with Montano, any of which could have tipped the scales in her favor and led to her adding “UFC champion” to her already impressive resume.

Technically 0-2 in the UFC now, “The Happy Warrior” is ready to fight again as soon as possible. She mentioned a rematch with Barb Honchak as a matchup that still interests her. Honchak defeated Modafferi by third-round submission back in 2011 and they were supposed to fight again at the TUF 26 Finale before Modafferi was promoted to the main event.

After 14 years as a professional fighter, Modafferi’s thirst for new challenges has yet to be quenched.

“I love it. And I know that I have more potential to grow and get better,” Modafferi said. “I still have people that I want to face. I still want to test myself in competition. I still have this fire burning inside me. Like, I can’t wait to get in the gym and train, I can’t wait to try my techniques, the excitement has not dimmed at all.

“I’m more excited, if that’s possible for me to be more excited about this. I want a black belt, I want to be the champion now, I want to get my first KO, I have goals. I just want to keep going and keep doing it.”

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