Roxanne Modafferi: 'We're not women MMA fighters. We're MMA fighters'

Roxanne Modafferi will look to rebound from a loss against Sijara Eubanks last November in New York. Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Roxanne Modafferi is a mixed martial arts pioneer. After learning taekwondo as a teenager, moving to judo and then jiu-jitsu, Modafferi left the United States for Japan and turned professional in 2003 -- long before it was a popular career choice for women.

"I was always trying to get a fight and always felt like I was standing on an island waving my arms," Modafferi told ESPN. "'Hey! Somebody get me a fight!'"

On Saturday, the 36-year-old will compete for the 38th time when she takes on Antonina Shevchenko at UFC Fight Night in St. Petersburg, Russia, on ESPN +. Modafferi, in her own words, describes preparation for the matchup, the highs and lows of her career and what life could look like after MMA.

My debut fight was when I was 21 and in college. There was really no career for females back then. It was 2003, so it was pretty much just a hobby. I did it because I loved it. It was only in the past five or six years that females really had an opportunity to make money. That's when I quit my job and focused on fighting.

My parents liked me doing martial arts, and jiu-jitsu competitions were OK, but they didn't want me to get hit, so I knew they weren't going to approve of MMA. That's why I waited three fights [to tell them] to make sure that I wanted to do it.

Now, they grudgingly cheer me on because they want me to be happy. But they are going to be super happy when I retire. I know it. My mom will watch [my fights] after the fact. My dad -- once I got to the UFC -- he started watching on TV. But neither of them have come to any of my fights. I've invited them and they were like, "No, I can't."

I did fight in Japan, but it was hard to find opponents because of my weight. I was large for a female in Japan. I just wanted to fight as much as I could. I would fight three fights a year and say "yes" to whomever was offered to me. We couldn't pick our fights. I was so excited to fight that I just said yes to everybody. I never turned a fight down.

It was my debut fight [that I got hit for the first time]. I told myself, "I'm good at kickboxing. I'm going to stand and trade with her." She hit me twice and then I just ducked under and took her down. Punches don't really hurt. For me, it just sort of shakes me. If a punch lands, it's like, "Oh crap, I just got hit." I've got to do something about that.

"My dream was to be the first female in the UFC. Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche got that. I cried, but I was happy that it happened. I wished it was me." Roxanne Modafferi

I was in weight classes before they had names. I have a belt that says lightweight, I have a belt that says middleweight and I have a belt that says flyweight. I was in 135, and then 125, and then I actually fought Marloes Coenen at 145 but didn't win.

It was hard to hear [Dana White say women would not fight in the UFC]. I knew I had to just keep plugging along. I thought someday it would happen and I just prayed it would happen during my career. My dream was to be the first female in the UFC. Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche got that. I cried, but I was happy that it happened. I wished it was me.

I think I watched it pirated on the internet somewhere in Japan. It was very bittersweet. I'm happy because it happened, but sad because it happened, you know? It was my dream for 10 years.

My most memorable fight was against Barb Honchak, the second time. I fought her more than seven years ago, and she had beaten me. I was like, "I want to fight her again. She has this win over me." I fought so hard, prepared so hard and I finished her. I took her down. Her wrestling is so strong and I managed to beat her at that. I took her down and grounded-and-pounded her and won. That was one of the happiest moments of my life.

My third fight against Tara LaRosa was my first in Invicta. That fight was significant because it was my first fight under coach John Wood. I had left Japan, moved to Syndicate, trained for a year with him and fought Tara. I just noticed such improvement in my skill. If I had not won that fight, I might have retired. I was on a long losing streak. I was older and needed money, and if I'm not making money and not on a good career path, so what's the point? I was realistic. But I won, and it was awesome.

I will admit that a number of years ago, female fighters were not on the same level as men. We were struggling to have everybody believe in us. We're not "women MMA fighters." We're MMA fighters! I hate the term WMMA. It's female fighters. We're all MMA fighters. That term is starting to die, and I'm happy about that.

I feel like there are more athletes. Not just brawlers who do martial arts and want to fight. Athletes who want to make money are going into MMA. That's one of the biggest things I've noticed lately. People are bigger, stronger and more athletic.

My "Happy Warrior" nickname came from a fan. My mom always taught me to never end a sentence with a negative. Always find something positive. I wrote journal entries on Myspace back in the day. I finished a rant with a positive sentence. Someone wrote in the comments, "You are the Happy Warrior!" I liked that and then went with it as my nickname.

I got a lot of my inspiration from Japanese animation. Naruto, honestly. How hard they train, their courage and their never-give-up attitude carried me in training. That samurai spirit really inspired me.

I've seen fighters retiring left and right due to concussions and brain trauma. If I ever, heaven forbid, start having any issues with my brain, then I'll probably retire. I don't want to be a vegetable.

I've had a bulging disk in my lower back, a bulging disk in my neck, tendinitis in my rotator cuffs, I broke my left elbow, I've had a couple of concussions. I feel better now. I've done a lot of strength training and don't feel any pain in my back or neck anymore. I've recovered a lot from all of that.

I'm super passionate about teaching both adults and kids. I'm imagining that teaching will be in my future. I have a Bachelor's degree, so I suppose I could go to academics. I taught English as a second language for eight years in Japan. I'm teaching jiu-jitsu at Syndicate MMA. I intend to keep teaching in some capacity.

My worst fear is getting cut after a loss in the UFC. I'm optimistic. I feel like I'm only getting better and stronger, so I'm going to think positively and keep winning and try to get back on the road to a title shot.