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Pearl Gonzalez details troubled upbringing in gangs, homelessness, jail stint

UFC 210 photos
Pearl Gonzalez has battled back from quite a bit of early adversity in her life.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Pearl Gonzalez’s choice to step inside a caged enclosure is her choice and her choice alone now. That wasn’t always the case.

The UFC strawweight fighter spent nine days in jail when she was 18 years old, Gonzalez told Ariel Helwani on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour. It was a culmination of a rough upbringing on the streets around Chicago with parents who were drug addicts.

Gonzalez, now 30 years old, said her husband at the time was a heroin addict. He committed a robbery and she was with him. When the police came for her, Gonzalez said, she wouldn’t give up her boyfriend.

“They wanted me to tell on him and I wouldn’t,” Gonzalez said. “I was that ride-or-die girl at that time. You can't snitch — no snitches in the hood. Snitches get stitches is what I grew up knowing.”

Gonzalez said she cried every single day she was in jail. Those, she said, were the worst days of her life and she vowed to turn things around in that cell.

“That was probably the lowest point of my life, I think, for me,” Gonzalez said. “Because I had so much ambition. I knew that I was meant to do something great. I didn’t know what at that time, but I felt like I was a complete failure. It was a very low spot. But that low place actually brought me back to the gym, brought me back to MMA.”

Gonzalez said she started in MMA at a very young age, around 11 years old. But the streets pulled her away from the sport. The short county jail stint brought her back and she’s been there ever since. Gonzalez made her UFC debut at UFC 210 earlier this month, a loss to Cynthia Calvillo.

Like many kids who grow up in the inner city, joining a gang was a means for survival. Gonzalez said her parents were homeless when she was young. So she turned to the streets.

“I was [running with gangs], unfortunately, at 12 years old,” she said. “That was the only lifestyle I had knew.”

Gonzalez and her younger sister were taken away from their mom, who was addicted to drugs at the time, and her father raised them as a single parent for a time, she said. When she was 17, Gonzalez said she moved out. A year later, she noticed her then-15-year-old sister making the same mistakes she did, running with gangs, doing drugs and dropping out of high school. Gonzalez said she took her sister in, worked three jobs to support them and helped get her sister get her diploma.

“I could not allow my sister to do that,” Gonzalez said.

She has overcome a difficult situation, but her mother has come even further, Gonzalez said. Her mom is now completely clean and has earned her Master’s degree in telecommunications. She is a constant inspiration and measure of “true perseverance,” Gonzalez said. Gonzalez said she also remains close with her father.

What could have been a tragic story has turned for the better. Gonzalez now splits time between Chicago and San Diego, where her current husband is stationed in the U.S. Navy. The couple is planning on a move to Virginia soon, she said.

Gonzalez (6-2) now does her fighting in the cage. A six-fight winning streak earned her a spot in the UFC this year.

Her debut didn’t go the way she wanted. The fight got pulled a day before the event due to the commission taking issue with her breast implants, but then it was re-booked hours later after officials spoke to her doctor. Gonzalez admitted she wasn’t fully focused on Calvillo and paid for it in the Octagon.

But this is hardly any kind of setback compared to what she has been through in the past. And if history is any indication, Gonzalez will be having her hand raised in the UFC fairly soon.

“I needed to go through that, unfortunately, to be the woman I am today,” Gonzalez said. … “You just have to work hard and believe in yourself and you can be anything you want to be.”

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