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Roxanne Modafferi reflects on pioneering MMA career, explains retirement decision: ‘My brain health is really important’

After 18 years, Roxanne Modafferi is finally hanging up her four-ounces gloves.

Modafferi announced last week that she plans to retire after her Feb. 12 matchup against Casey O’Neill at UFC 271. At 39 years old, with her status as an MMA pioneer forever secure, “The Happy Warrior” is ready to face the next chapter of her life.

“A few fights ago, I decided that I really, really wanted at least 50 fights,” Modafferi explained Wednesday on The MMA Hour. “So I was like, alright, I’m going to at least do that and see what happens. And then over the course of the last year or so, I felt like punches and blows to the head in training were affecting me more that they used to — like, when I tried to push through it, I’d get a headache afterwards. And I was like, ‘No, we can’t have that.’ My brain health is really important, so I started wearing headgear.

“I’m good [taking punches] in a fight. I just realized, alright, I’m getting up there with my mileage — now’s probably a good time [to stop]. I don’t want to start having any concussion symptoms. I want to stop before that starts happening, because I’ve heard of some people who, even before they turned pro, had to retire. So I just want to be super careful with my brain health, and reaching 50 [fights] seems like a really good achievement for me.”

Modafferi’s swan song against O’Neill will officially be the 45th fight of her professional run, however Modafferi also had five exhibitions bouts on her two stints on The Ultimate Fighter, which brings her final tally up to 50.

She’s won 28 of her combined 49 bouts heading into UFC 271, and her résumé essentially reads like a who’s who of women’s MMA history. From Smackgirl to HOOKnSHOOT to Invicta FC to the UFC, Modafferi has had a front-row ticket to watch women’s MMA rise from an afterthought into a marquee attraction on the world’s stage.

“I’ve totally exceeded my expectations,” Modafferi said. “When I first started, everyone was all broken by like [age] 32, so I figured my mid-30s, latest, I would be retiring — and now I just turned 39. Also I never expected to fight for the belt. My life goal was to fight in the UFC, so I’m fighting in the UFC — I think this is 11 times already. That’s so cool.

“So fighting for the belt was kind of a bonus. It sucks that I didn’t get it, but I had that experience, so that was awesome.”

Looking back, Modafferi cited two fights in particular as her favorite moments of her pioneering MMA career. The first came in 2013 when she faced Valerie Letourneau in the elimination round of TUF 18. With her octagon dreams finally within her grasp, Modafferi choked out the future UFC title challenger with a rear-naked choke midway through the first round to earn her way onto the show. She made her official UFC debut later that year.

“That changed my life,” Modafferi said.

The second memory she treasures most came five years later, when Modafferi rematched former Invicta FC flyweight champion Barb Honchak at the TUF 27 Finale. Modafferi had previously lost to Honchak in 2011, succumbing to a third-round submission at a regional show in North Carolina, and was determined to not let her second chance slip through her fingers. She ended up finishing Honchak with a second-round TKO.

“The loss, my former loss, had been hanging over me for seven years,” Modafferi said. “And [Honchak] was such a monster in my mind. That I was able to finish her, that was such a cool achievement for me.”

Modafferi won’t have the same history with O’Neill, of course.

She said Wednesday that she would’ve been up to fight anyone for her UFC sendoff — the undefeated 24-year-old was simply the name the matchmakers sent her. And with her final chance to perform on the sport’s biggest stage approaching, Modafferi joked that she’s going to throw everything but the kitchen sink at O’Neill for however long the fight lasts.

“She’s as good as anybody, and she better be careful because everything I’ve ever wanted to do in a fight and haven’t tried yet, I’m going to try on her,” Modafferi said, laughing.

“Flying, spinning, rolling, magic, kamehameha. I don’t know. You imagine.”

As for what’s next, Modafferi teased that she has a “tentative plan” for her post-retirement life, and though she declined to reveal what exactly that plan is, she said it’s one that gets her excited for what’s ahead. She also plans to compete often in jiu-jitsu and believes the ability to step away from MMA on a day-to-day basis will probably led to her following the sport more ardently as a fan than she does now as a fighter.

Most important of all, though, Modafferi is happy to walk away with her health largely intact.

“Most people, they wake up in pain everyday when they get old. Well, I’ve spent most of my youth waking up in pain and then I’m going to get old and wake up in pain, but I guess that’s the life that I chose,” Modafferi said.

“I think I’m going to escape without major brain injury, thanks to these decisions. I have several things that are torn that can’t grown back, so I’m sure I’m going to feel the consequences of those down the road, and just little things here and there. But I’m going to try to stick with my trainer Lorenzo at least once a week and try to stay strong, and maybe even more than once because all these jiu-jitsu guys are bulking up now. So who knows? I think I’ve got little stuff here and there, but for the most part I’ll be good with my brain.”

So after 18 years as a trailblazer of the game, what does “The Happy Warrior” want her legacy to be?

Her answer is a simple one, but also quintessentially hers.

“I would love for people to remember me as a martial artist,” Modafferi said. “Not like a brawler or a fighter. A martial artist who always does their best and is like a Power Ranger, fights the bad guys, just does their best and is a good martial artist. That’s what I’d like.”