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Title shot? Aspen Ladd doesn’t see anything beyond Saturday’s rematch with Sijara Eubanks

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Aspen Ladd rematches Sijara Eubanks at UFC Rochester.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Of all the buzz names in the industry ringing in people’s ears, California’s undefeated prospect Aspen Ladd is a particularly loud one. At just 24 years old, she’s already built a head of steam after coming over from Invicta FC in 2017, winning both of her UFC fights to date. Her last fight in the Octagon was an onslaught at UFC 229 against Tonya Evinger, a fight she won via TKO midway through the first.

Her last fight with Invicta came against Sijara Eubanks, who just happens to be her opponent Saturday night in Rochester, New York. Though Ladd won the first meeting, Eubanks is a special case. She’s the only fighter who’s forced Ladd to stick around long enough to hear the judge’s scorecards. Everyone else that has crossed Ladd has fallen well inside the allotted 15 minutes.

“I feel like I’m getting better every fight, because I never leave the gym,” Ladd told MMA Fighting this week from upstate New York. “I’m always there. I’m always training regardless of opponent, regardless if I have a fight. So I have improved quite a bit over time, and getting older and learning more. I’m improved.”

Nothing illustrated just how far Ladd has come in short time quite like her last bout with Evinger. Coming off a featherweight title shot against Cris Cyborg, Evinger was the more seasoned fighter, and was considered by some to be the hungrier of the two. It was either going to be an education for Ladd, or a coming out party.

It turned out to be the latter.

“It was exactly how we planned it going in,” Ladd says. “As far as her being hungry, I think everybody — or not necessarily everybody — but we’re all [hungry] and we all want the same thing. We all want to win, we all want to go in and beat the opponent. That night I just did, and she didn’t.”

What stood out was the ferocity in which Ladd took control. Once she was able to get the 37-year-old Evinger on her back early in the first round, she began to unleash a series of increasingly more menacing punches and elbows. With each blow that she rained down, she screamed out, making it one of the more primal ending sequences of the year.

Usually a mild-mannered, almost shy fighter, it was as if a switch went off that activated the beast.

“It’s not a switch necessarily, it’s just an extreme focus,” she says. “You feel nerves up until you’re actually fighting, then there’s nothing. But I have one goal when I’m in there and that’s to get the opponent out as fast as I possibly can.”

In Eubanks, she’ll be facing a big bantamweight who has been on a bit of a warpath herself. “Sarj” has won both her fights in the UFC after losing the decision to Ladd, her most recent victory coming against Roxanne Modafferi at UFC 230. Had Eubanks made weight, she was among the forerunners to face Valentina Shevchenko for the women’s flyweight title.

Ladd says that seeing Eubanks again some two-and-a-half years removed from the last bout — back when she was just 21 years old — helps out a little bit. But, other than perhaps seeing some improvements in Eubanks’ striking, there’s really not a lot of parallels to draw from the first fight.

“There’s a little bit more familiarity with this opponent,” she says. “I’ve seen her, I’ve faced off with her, all that, but it doesn’t help in the extent of the fight, per se. Just because it’s been so long — it’s been a couple of years — and we’ve both changed as far as how we fight and with who we are as a fighter. It doesn’t help as much as people think.”

If there’s been anything more impressive about Ladd than her total dominance thus far in the cage, it’s her attitude. She is a tireless worker who obsesses over getting better. She knows she has tremendous upside, but she’s okay letting herself realize her own potential in an organic way. She doesn’t want to be expedited towards a title shot.

In fact, she’d rather stay active than contemplate hypotheticals.

“I’ve only fought a few of the women in the bantamweight division,” she says. “I’m just here for the experience, and to fight as many people as I possibly can.”

Asked where she would like to be at the end of 2019, if she’s able to look at the big picture and make such a projection, she shuts down that line of thinking automatically. Even at 24 years old, she has already learned to take nothing for granted — and to never look past an opponent.

“As far as I consider everything, my world ends on Saturday night,” she says. “That’s it. I don’t see anything beyond that, nothing beyond that goal. Afterwards, we’ll see.”