With 'oath of poverty' Bellator 94's Jessica Aguilar making the most of her time


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jessica-aguilar-2.jpgIf you work in the MMA media, you probably know well in advance when a Jessica Aguilar fight is coming up.

You know because she tells you, personally, in an email pitch that makes a compelling case for why you should write a story about her. There may or may not be suggestions for potential interview talking points included. There definitely will be an infectious enthusiasm that comes leaping out of your inbox.

In our business this is, to put it mildly, unusual. Fighters don’t often ask to be interviewed. Most fighters won’t even admit that they want to be written about. They let their publicist or agent set these things up, and then they act like they can hardly be bothered to answer their cell phones at the agreed upon time. The way the math typically works is, the higher a fighter is ranked, the more palpable his or her disdain for pre-fight media obligations.

That’s part of what makes Aguilar unique. She’s the top-ranked women’s 115-pounder, No. 2 or 3 pound-for-pound (depending on where you get your rankings), and yet she still spends the weeks before her fights sending out email queries to reporters because, as she put it, “I don’t have the luxury of having someone do it for me.”

“I do it all the time,” Aguilar told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com). “I do it to get my story out before my fights, to promote and market myself, because these are the times when I have kind of a platform.”

In other words, these are the times when her pitch emails might actually yield a response. And lately Aguilar has come around to the idea that she might not have too many of these opportunities left.

It’s been almost a year since the last time Aguilar fought after earning a decision win over Japanese women’s MMA legend Megumi Fujii in a Bellator event this past May. She wasn’t exactly pulling in huge paychecks even when she was fighting several times a year, she said, and going so long between fights left her so financially strapped that she had to take on a sales job in addition to her full-time training duties.

“But I was waking up at 5:30 a.m. to train, working from 8 (a.m.) to 5:30 (p.m.), then from 6 to 9 or 10, I was training,” Aguilar said. “My body was so tired, and I was just barely making it, just paying the bills.”

So Aguilar (14-4 MMA, 4-1 BFC) quit. Now she’s back to being a full-time fighter, and she has a rematch with Patricia Vidonic (7-4 MMA, 0-1 BFC) lined up for Thursday’s Bellator 94 event in Tampa, Fla.

The main card airs on Spike TV (10 p.m. ET), though Aguilar competes on the Spike.com-streamed prelims (8 p.m. ET). Despite Aguilar’s success in Bellator and her position atop the strawweight ranks, her prelim positioning makes it tough to get sponsors, which in turn makes it even harder to scratch out a living as one of the top female fighters in the sport.

“She’s basically taking an oath of poverty to become No. 1; it’s insane,” said longtime friend Tom Hill, who first met Aguilar when he and his wife put their son in martial arts classes at American Top Team in Florida, where Aguilar trains and works as an instructor.

At the time, Hill said, he didn’t know Aguilar was a professional fighter. She seemed to him like “the perfect stereotype of the preschool teacher,” at least until he put his talents as a professional photographer to work at one of her fights. Backstage, he said, he watched her undergo a complete transformation.

“Trying to decipher how this person could be that person, that took a while to adjust to,” Hill said. “It’s like another person. I’ve watched a lot of the guys, and you know, they get intense. But she’s a different animal. It’s like split personalities.”

One thing that Aguilar’s fighter and preschool teacher personalities have in common is an ongoing financial struggle, according to Hill.

“There’s times where she doesn’t have food money, gas money, whatever,” he said.

Part of the problem is a lack of opportunities to fight. Aguilar hasn’t competed more than twice in one calendar year since 2010. Lately, she said, “It’s been really, really hard to fight, to keep busy, and just to pay the bills.”

The rise of the all-female MMA organization Invicta FC means more of the fighters in her weight class are unavailable for bouts in Bellator, where Aguilar still has a contract for another year. But if her five-fight win streak and No. 1 ranking isn’t enough to get her on the Spike TV portion of a Bellator fight card this time, what’s it going to take?

When it comes to Bellator, Aguilar admitted that she doesn’t always “understand why they do what they do … but I just appreciate that I have work.” The ability to cash in on her standing within the division, or within women’s MMA as a whole, that’s still a work in progress, Aguilar said.

“I think with the sport growing more, it’s going to come,” she said. “That’s what I’m waiting for.”

But what if it comes too late for the 30-year-old Aguilar? What if it doesn’t come at all? That’s something she’s considered, and it’s why she estimates that she has no more than a few years left in her pro fighting career. While top male fighters might be making the money and the name they plan to live off when their fighting days are over, for Aguilar it’s just the opposite. She’s putting the rest of her life on hold just to continue to pursue fighting, she said, which is getting her no closer to financial stability.

“That’s why I say two, three more years and that’s it,” Aguilar said. “I have to think about my health, my family, and I have to think about my career. What am I going to do after I fight? That’s the hard thing because we put in so many years focusing on training and fighting. If I was a guy ranked No. 1 in my weight class and No. 2 or 3 pound-for-pound, I wouldn’t have to say this because I’d probably have my future set. I’d have investments and the money to do this or that, but I don’t. That’s why I say two or three more years of giving it all I got and hoping for the best. Then I have to see what the next chapter of my life holds.”

For Aguilar, that’ll mean leaving her fighting dreams behind and getting a job, even if she “can’t really see [herself] working for someone else.”

For the rest of us, it’ll mean losing both of her split personalities. No more preschool teacher transforming into a holy terror on fight night. No more email pitches complete with suggested interview questions. Then we just might wish we’d paid a little more attention to her when we had the chance.

For more on Bellator 94, stay tuned to the MMA Rumors section of the site.

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