The woman then known as Montana Stewart had an inkling Mark De La Rosa was going to be The One when she noticed how he interacted with her young daughter, Zaylyn Marie.
The duo had progressed from gym-mates at Genesis BJJ in Fort Worth, Texas, to friendship to dating in fairly short order, and much of that development had to do with Zaylyn and Mark hitting it off.
“I had my daughter when I was 15, and I was basically raising her by myself,” she recalls. “Mark took an active interest in her development and she really took to him, too. That made me really start to think about our future.”
Mark De La Rosa, for his part, says that his relationship with Zaylyn, who is a Texas state wrestling champion competing against boys in her age bracket, helped ground him as a person and start to see life in the bigger picture.
“I was such a butthead sometimes when I was a kid,” says the 24-year-old De La Rosa. “Then I saw Montana raising this beautiful little girl who didn’t have a father figure in her life and it just clicked in my head that life isn’t all just about you. She helped me mature into a man.”
While the duo figured out at an early date that their futures would be intertwined, they couldn’t have possibly known that within a few short years, they would make UFC history.
There have been boyfriend-girlfriend combos on the UFC roster since women’s competition was added five years ago and there are married lesbian couples.
But when Mark De La Rosa meets Tim Elliott on Saturday as a short-notice replacement in a bantamweight fight at UFC 219, just a month after Montana appeared on The Ultimate Fighter 26, they’ll become the first husband-and-wife combo ever to compete in the UFC.
“It’s been a really wild ride just to get to this point,” Montana De La Rosa says. “This is something we’ve been dreaming of for years, so to have it here in our grasp is pretty exciting.”
Montana was the first to make it to the UFC, but Mark figured out she was going to make it after she came up short in her early efforts. Montana was thrown into her first professional fight at just 19 years old, without an amateur bout on her record. She lost both her debut fight and her next one. But it was the way she responded that impressed her future husband.
“She never lost her positive attitude,” Mark says. “She never lost her drive. She wasn’t like some people, whether man or woman, who give up when you realize how much you really need to give of yourself to make it in this game. She never let adversity hold her back and it started coming together.”
Montana won six fights in a row before hitting another blip, dropping bouts to highly touted prospect Mackenzie Dern and current UFC strawweight standout Cynthia Calvillo.
“Again, she never lost focus,” Mark says. “That only made her more determined. She just kept working on her game and vowing she was going to make it into the UFC one day.”
That opportunity came knocking when The Ultimate Fighter 26 was announced, with a tournament to crown the first UFC women’s flyweight champion.
Montana, who has six of her eight official wins via submission, defeated Ariel Beck via first-round armbar in the opening round of the tourney. In the quarterfinals, De La Rosa went the distance before losing to eventual champion Nicco Montano, but earned plaudits for her toughness after absorbing a brutal knee to the head in the first round that opened a wicked cut.
“All in all, it was a worthwhile experience,” says Montana of TUF 26. “The thing that I didn’t like about the house was being away from the family. That was super tough. But there’s also no doubt the flip side of this: Being in that house all the time, you focus completely on your fighting career. You’re consumed with being a better fighter, physically, mentally, and spiritually. I’m so much more of a complete fighter than I was before I went into the house. It was tough, but it was a good life experience.”
Things were a little different on the outside for Mark while Montana competed on the show.
“Montana’s the organized one, not me,” he says with a laugh. “Let’s just say while she was gone, the laundry might have piled up and the dishes maybe didn’t get done and things like that. I went a little crazy.”
By the time Montana returned to action, she did so for the first time as Montana De La Rosa. The couple got hitched in the time between leaving the TUF house and her first-round armbar submission victory over Christina Marks at TUF 26 Finale.
“We didn’t make a big deal out of it,” Montana says. “We didn’t have a big wedding or anything. It was kind of a spontaneous thing.
“Mark had proposed about a year ago and when I got out of The Ultimate Fighter house and got back home, it just seemed like the time was right. We have a friend who’s a judge who made it official.”
The next apparent step in what turned into a whirlwind second half of 2017 appeared to be Mark’s turn on TUF. In mid-December, he answered a casting call for the 27th season and flew out to Las Vegas to try out.
He appeared to be a lock for the show. Not only would the storyline of a husband and wife appearing on consecutive seasons have been easy to push, but the 9-0 fighter impressed on the mats as well and got through several rounds of cuts.
But then fate intervened, and De La Rosa ended up in the UFC faster than he could have imagined when he made the trek to Nevada.
The UFC wanted to re-book veteran Elliott onto Saturday’s UFC 219 card after opponent Pietro Menga badly missed weight, and when asked, De La Rosa pronounced himself ready and willing.
“It just all come together like that,” Mark says. “They saw me at the tryouts, they saw what I can do, they saw that I was already in shape. Why would I go through that TUF house when I have this opportunity right in front of me? My management talked to Sean Shelby, we accepted the fight and I signed a four-fight contract with the UFC, without having to do the whole TUF thing. I couldn’t be happier.”
Of course, Elliott is the type of opponent who can bring a feel-good story to an abrupt halt. He very nearly derailed UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson when few took him seriously going into a title fight just last year.
But Mark, a jiu-jitsu black belt who has five of his nine pro victories by way of submission, isn’t concerned with the idea of facing his high-energy foe on short notice.
“I saw that fight with Mighty Mouse, too,” Mark says. “I know what Tim Elliott can do, and honestly that just makes me more excited about this fight. I don’t want easy fights. I want to challenge myself. They could have said T.J. Dillashaw, or Dominick Cruz, or Cody Garbrandt, and I wouldn’t have said no to fighting any of them. I can’t wait for this moment.”
Perhaps after UFC 219, the De La Rosas will have an opportunity to take a deep breath and take stock of just how far they’ve come in a short period of time. Mark started 2017 under contract to Combate Americas. Montana’s year began with the loss to Calvillo in LFA.
And yet, while things came together in short order, they also know that simply making the UFC wasn’t the end goal. They’re not looking to become a footnote in history.
Montana, for her part, went the distance with the fighter who turned out to be the inaugural UFC flyweight champion and rebounded with a win to close the year. That tells her she’s got a future in the UFC’s new 125-pound weight class and she’s eager to get back to action as soon as she heals from a surgical procedure to correct an ongoing nasal issue.
“I know I’m still young and still growing as a fighter,” she says. “I want to continue to build on what I’ve achieved. I know how I match up against the other girls in the division and, credit to Nicco for her win over me, but I know if I avoid that knee, that’s a fight I can win. I want to be busy and I want to fight and I want to be back in there as soon as possible.”
Mark’s 2018 path will be determined in part by what goes down on Saturday night. But even in the midst of a hectic run up to his first UFC fight, he’s been able to take a moment to appreciate what it all means.
“We’re not here just to get here,” he said. “Montana can defeat anyone in her division, and I plan on making my mark in my division. But yeah, when things finally settle down and we get time to think about things, I’m sure we’ll appreciate how far we’ve come.”