Roxanne Modafferi may never have captured a UFC title, but she still had a career that many of her fellow MMA pioneers could envy.
“The Happy Warrior” competed 44 times over an 18-year run that began in an era of MMA’s infancy. Women’s MMA existed only on the fringes when she first laced up her four-ounce gloves in 2003, but Modafferi was determined to make a career out of her love of the martial arts and ended up fighting under virtually every big-name banner for women over her near two-decade run in the sport, from the early days of Smackgirl and HOOKnSHOOT to more modern promotions such as the UFC, Strikeforce, and Invicta FC.
Alas, that pioneering run is about to come to an end. At age 39, Modafferi recently announced that her Feb. 12 bout at UFC 271 will be her last.
And though she had many ups and downs, Modafferi leaves with just one real regret about her time in the sport — a regret that traces all the way back to 2012, when she faced off against a rival competitor and former training partner, Takayo Hashi, at a Jewels 18th Ring show in Japan. Modafferi ultimately lost a unanimous decision in the night’s co-main event.
“The match that I mentioned, Hashi, I hurt my knee,” Modafferi recently revealed on The MMA Hour, “and then that same day, I got the fight offer to fight her. And I’d been wanting that fight offer so badly, so I said yes, figuring that my knee would heal.
“But it didn’t. So I was, like, riding the bike for a month as my fight camp. And then I went in and I had a horrible fight, and I was afraid to step on my knee. So I regret taking the fight. I wish I had just — I was afraid I was never going to get another chance to fight her, so that’s the only regret I had. I was stupid. I shouldn’t have taken that fight. But other than that, I think I don’t really regret anything.”
For a competitor who’s been in the game as long as Modafferi has, retiring with only one regret is an enviable position to be in.
From the time she started, Modafferi’s primary goal was to one day fight in the UFC. It’s a goal that was shared by many of her peers of her era and appeared to be an impossibility throughout much of her career, however Modafferi was ultimately one of the few pioneers of women’s MMA who stuck around long enough to see it come true. Her swan song against O’Neill will be her 12th appearance inside the octagon, and Modafferi even had the chance to compete for the inaugural UFC women’s flyweight title in 2017.
But in terms of nerves, nothing beat the feeling Modafferi had in 2003 when she was thrown to the wolves as a foreigner in Japan for her professional MMA debut.
“I remember being nervous and surprised,” Modafferi said, “but I was ready because I had told my sensei, ‘Someday I would like to fight,’ and he’s like, ‘How about next month?’ And I was like, ‘Oh.’ Like, he didn’t even know me, he just was like, ‘Oh, foreigner who wants to fight, let’s throw her in there.’ So I got the fight and I was so nervous.
“I was like, ‘Am I going to become a monster? Like, is the fire going to build up inside of me and my soul?’ I didn’t know what to expect, so my walkout music was this heavy metal ... and then after I won I was like, ‘I think I’m me, I think I’m the same person.’ It was funny.”
Modafferi’s first-round armbar submission win over Hikaru Shinohara at Smackgirl: Third Season 7 in 2003 set the tone for what was to come for “The Happy Warrior.”
But it wasn’t until six months later, after she’d picked up another two wins in Japan, that Modafferi truly knew that being a professional fighter was her calling.
“I told myself, do three fights then commit yourself,” Modafferi said.
“Then I let [my parents] know after three fights.”
Until that point, Modafferi had been coy about what her family knew about her activities.
“Well, I told then I was competing, and they assumed jiu-jitsu,” Modafferi remembered, laughing. “I didn’t really specify.
“So then after the third fight, I was like, ‘OK, by the way, we’re hitting each other.’”
Altogether, Modafferi is set to leave MMA content with all that she accomplished in her time in the sport. She’s a trailblazer for women’s MMA and a perennial fan-favorite to boot.
She also owned one of the most fitting nicknames in combat sports history — even if she isn’t exactly sure all these years later who gave her the title of “The Happy Warrior.”
“Some guy on MySpace,” Modafferi said with another laugh. “And if anyone out there who actually gave me that name on MySpace is the guy, hit me up. I’m very [grateful] for who it is. I forgot who it is and my MySpace account no longer exists. I was going to look it up, but thank you fan on MySpace like two decades ago.”