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After UFC release and retirement thoughts, Pearl Gonzalez promises evolution in Invicta debut

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Pearl Gonzalez’s life was very much in flux late last year.

She and her husband were supposed to move from Chicago to Virginia as part of his U.S. Navy service. Instead, just as they were sorting out the move, he was told he’d actually be going somewhere else — to Japan for a year or more. And Gonzalez could not go with him.

While all this was going on, Gonzalez was trying to prepare for her fight with Poliano Botelho at UFC 216 in October. Gonzalez ended up losing by unanimous decision, her second straight loss in as many fights with the promotion.

“I don’t think that I was mentally prepared for that fight,” Gonzalez told MMA Fighting. “I had so much going on in my life personally with my husband moving, with us moving across the country that I took on too much at once.”

Gonzalez (6-3) was released by the UFC thereafter. And she doesn’t blame the organization for that decision one bit. It was, she admits, not a good fight, at all.

“It was probably the worst performance of my career,” Gonzalez said.

For a time after that, Gonzalez said she considered retirement. But a physical and spiritual journey to Thailand, and a conversation with her husband, made her change her mind. On Saturday, Gonzalez will make her debut with Invicta FC, taking on Kali Robbins at Invicta 28 in Salt Lake City.

“You would never be satisfied, you would regret this for the rest of your life if you walked away from the sport now,” Gonzalez said her husband told her before he left for Japan. “You have not shown your skills yet, you haven’t lived up to your ability.”

Gonzalez, 31, went to Thailand thereafter and said she trained with legendary coaches and fighters there. It was an awakening of sorts, she said.

“It was such an honor to go out there and train with the traditional Thai instructors and people, to learn their culture, to learn how they view fighting,” Gonzalez said. “It was just spiritually, physically, emotionally — every which way you could imagine — it was such a gift for me.”

With her husband overseas, Gonzalez has settled back in the states in San Diego, where she has spent a lot of time in the past. Gonzalez trained often with Team Hurricane Awesome — with the likes of Liz Carmouche and Ilima-Lei Macfarlane — previously, but never did a full camp there before. Now, she’s a full-fledged resident of San Diego and that is her full-time gym.

“This camp, I wasn’t so much worried about my fight. I was just worried about getting through my training every day,” Gonzalez said. “The classes that I took here were double compared to what I take typically in Chicago.”

Free of some of the mental and emotional baggage she dealt with last year and with the addition of some new physical tools, Gonzalez said she feels like a changed person heading into this Invicta run.

“I am feeling like a different fighter,” she said. “I have evolved in so many ways and grown so fast. … I am really looking forward to showcasing the true Pearl Gonzalez on Saturday.”

While a return to the UFC is the ultimate goal for her, Gonzalez said right now she wants to focus on the fight with Robbins, eventually challenging for the Invicta strawweight title and maybe even a pro boxing career.

“I’ve worked very hard for over a decade at getting to the UFC and fighting in the UFC and fighting at the highest level,” Gonzalez said. “And when I failed at that, it really did take me — I was heartbroken. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to compete in this sport anymore. I had to dig deeper within myself. I had to find that passion, that inner drive that kept me in the sport for half of my life.

“To do that, it brought out a different animal in me. It brought out layers that I was not reaching before.”

Gonzalez has been an MMA pro since 2012 and began her amateur career back in 2009. Yet, she still has fewer than 10 pro fights and feels like her prime is still ahead of her. With 2017, and all of its ups and downs in the background, Gonzalez is looking to make some waves this year and beyond.

“I’m not done with this sport,” she said. “I have so much more to prove and so much more to show the world. And that’s where I’m at today.”