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The Voice contestant Joei Fulco talks love of MMA, Paige VanZant fandom, and her plan to someday fight

Joei Fulco
Chris Haston, NBC

Joei Fulco had just wrapped up a soaring duet of Tina Turner’s The Best on The Voice when her coach for the season, Blake Shelton, brought up an interesting tidbit.

His powerhouse singer also knows a thing or two about power punching.

The country music superstar mentioned that Fulco trains in MMA and her singing partner Todd Michael Hall added in awe that Fulco regularly gets punched in the face. In reaction to that comment, in front of millions watching worldwide, the 22-year-old Tennessee native excitedly remarked, “It’s fun!”

That might make sense to your average MMA fan, but to your average reality singing show devotee that statement probably came as a bit of a shock given Fulco’s cheery disposition and the fact that her talents have her in the thick of a realty singing competition and not preparing to fight in a cage somewhere.

But make no mistake, Fulco has a genuine passion for the sport and alongside her boyfriend, Combate Americas bantamweight Jesse Strader (5-1), she was eager to talk to MMA Fighting about it and how MMA provides a boost as she competes on The Voice.

(Questions and answers edited for grammar and clarity.)

When did you first get involved in MMA, Joei?

Fulco: I fell in love with it when I was about 16 just from watching fights all the time, but also I had gotten a role in a small movie where I had to look like I could fight so I decided that the best answer for that would be to go and actually learn some fighting so I would look credible and I fell in love with it when I started. But I kind of fell out of it for a little bit and then I had been performing at an MMA/muay Thai fight (according to Fulco, she performed the national anthem and sang between bouts) and I fell in love again.

I saw a knockout where a guy landed right in front of me and I was like, “I want to do this.”

Who were some of your favorite fighters?

F: I’m more into the girl fighters actually. My favorite fighter is Paige VanZant, I love her and she’s just my No. 1 right now. Even though she’s out for a while because of her broken arm.

Given that you’ve been in music your whole life and that job requires you to make public appearances and be presentable, did anyone have concerns about you training in MMA?

F: It’s actually funny, the feedback, because the only person I really wanted to run that by was my dad. I told him about it and he was like, “Alright, just watch your face.” He was all about it, he thinks it’s the coolest thing.

And then when I started dating Jesse, he thought that was even cooler. He’s like, “You guys could be a power couple with the MMA and this and that.” He’s all about it.

What did Blake Shelton think about your MMA background?

F: He loves it, he thought it was super cool. Like you saw in the episode, he mentioned it, and it was kind of a funny little moment given the play on words of the “Battle” rounds and now going into the “Knockout” rounds. … It’s just really, really funny, it’s definitely made for some fun banter between the coaches and between all the contestants.

How do you explain to the average viewer of The Voice why “it’s fun” to get punched in the face?

F: I never thought about it that way, that people wouldn’t understand “it’s fun.” It’s just, I don’t know, it’s exhilarating.

It’s an interesting feeling when you get hit and you’re like, “Oh!” Either, that wasn’t as bad as I thought and it makes you want to push harder or, “Wow, that kind of hurt,” and it makes you reevaluate.

Strader: I think for me getting hit in the face isn’t necessarily the fun part. I think the fun part is the strategy and it’s really a game of chess. There’s a strategy, he wants to hit me, I don’t want to get hit, so the strategic part and the skill part, that’s more of the fun part. I don’t think anyone enjoys getting punched in the face, but it’s exhilarating knowing that the stakes are a little bit higher.

Regular readers of Missed Fists may remember Strader being featured last August for his incredible knockout of Isaiah Batin-Gonzalez that landed Strader a spot in the SportsCenter Top-10 on ESPN.

Did Joei take to MMA right away?

S: Definitely. I remember one of the very first encounters we had, I was in there training and she was doing some bag work. I specifically remember I was watching her throw her right hand and I was like, “She’s got a really good right hand.” I’ve seen a lot of people that couldn’t throw a right hand like that.

So I immediately went up to her and I complimented her on her right hand and I think things kind of went from there. It started with her right hand on that bag and she definitely is a natural.

Do you find that MMA training has helped you with this competition?

F: I 100 percent think that it definitely helps you. I think anytime that you’re in a sport, you learn from that, because there’s a discipline that comes along with it where you don’t get that from just performing or just singing. There’s people who have it in them, but it’s rare to find unless you have a background where you have to be disciplined and you have to put in the work because you’re not going to get better if you don’t.

I think going into that competition there is that competitive side that does have to come into play and I think that there’s also that work ethic that you get from doing sports, doing music, going out and performing, putting in the work, moving the equipment, and then also being in the gym and putting in the work of doing whatever you have to do to act so that you get the most capability out of your movements and also your workouts. They both come hand in hand. One helps the other and vice-a-versa.

Would you consider taking a fight in the future after this experience on The Voice is over?

F: Yeah, it’s definitely in the back of my mind. I’ve always wanted to do an amateur fight.

Right now my focus is 100 percent on the show and singing so I’ve got to put all my energy into that, so I’m leaving the fighting to Jesse right now. He can do all the fights, I’ll be his little cheerleader on the side, but it’s definitely a goal of mine to do a fight. But it’s not something I want to do until I get the okay from Jesse or he feels that I’m ready, because he’s definitely more well-versed in this world and I want both of us to feel confident that that’s something I can take on.

S: She’s being really modest. She always does this, she tries to downplay how good she is, but she’s really good and I think a lot of people would be surprised. The fact that she’ll pick up stuff really fast and if she doesn’t she’ll continue to work on it until she has it. It’s an obsession to work, work, work until she has it.

Honestly, amateur, she’s already ready. She’s focused on The Voice, but she’s being modest, we train all the time, that’s all we do for workouts to stay in shape. She’s definitely ready for an amateur fight, but she’s focused right now on The Voice.

What would be your walkout music?

F: I never thought about that, that’s a good one, but I think—Oh, you know what it would be? It’s a song that my dad said would be perfect for Jesse, but I think that I would want to do it is Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers by ZZ Top. I think that would be a really cool song to walk out to.

S: We’ve talked so much about ideas because we have ideas that I kind of want her to do for a walkout song specifically and I think they’re super cool and hopefully eventually we do get to do that. For me, that would be the sickest thing ever.

F: We were talking about maybe writing a song together and making that like a walkout thing for him.

Combate Americas CEO Campbell McLaren is always coming up with unique ideas, have you mentioned the possibility of having a contestant from The Voice fight for him?

S: Campbell’s definitely a great, great dude, always looking to find new, cool ways to promote, so I think he would go for it. He’d go for something like that for sure.

Demi Lovato is one of the biggest pop stars who also happens to regularly train in MMA, could you take her in a fight?

F: I don’t know about that one. I haven’t seen a lot of her stuff. I’ve seen her jiu-jitsu, she’s actually pretty good at jiu-jitsu, so I don’t know, it would be fun to try. Maybe we could do a fun sparring session one day, that would be awesome.

S: She’s being modest. I 100 percent think she would definitely take Demi Lovato.

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I got to run with the big dogs today ❤️

A post shared by Joei Fulco (@joeifulco) on

You can follow Joei Fulco’s journey on Season 18 of The Voice every Monday at 8 p.m. on NBC.

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