Inside the 'ferocious' artistry of UFC strawweight Angela Hill

Angela Hill has persevered through ups and downs in MMA, and that resilience has put her in position to enter the title picture if she picks up her fourth straight win Saturday. Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

IN THE EARLY morning hours of March 31, UFC strawweight Angela Hill was looking for a challenge.

That's not unusual for someone vying to become the UFC's most active fighter since the start of 2019.

But this challenge was different.

"I'm gonna draw a caricature of a fighter, who should I draw?" she tweeted. "Keep your expectations low, I'm super rusty."

Low expectations for someone drawing a caricature during a pandemic-induced lockdown? No problem, right? Except Hill isn't just some doodler waiting for her next fight.

Before she was a mixed martial artist, Hill was simply an artist. The Maryland native graduated from New York's prestigious Cooper Union with dreams of becoming an animator.

She started training in Muay Thai while working at an animation studio, and her combat sports career evolved when the studio began laying employees off during the 2008 recession.

Her caricatures of Tony Ferguson and Jorge Masvidal and an unusual "family portrait" of Ben Askren, Sean O'Malley and Chase Hooper won't pay her bills, but that's where her other art form takes priority. Hill makes a living with her fists, elbows and knees in a cage, and those skills are sharp enough to have guided her to three consecutive wins. Hill will go for her fourth straight against ESPN No. 8-ranked Claudia Gadelha in Saturday's co-main event in Jacksonville, Florida. A victory could put Hill in UFC title contention for the first time in her career.

HILL WAS SIPPING on a glass of whiskey at her San Diego home with her husband, Adam Blair Pryde, on March 3, 2016, when her manager, Brian Butler, called. At the time, Hill had been cast out of the UFC after going 1-2 in her first three fights. She was competing for Invicta FC, the all-women's MMA promotion.

Butler was calling with an opportunity: A strawweight was needed to fight Stephanie Eggink at Invicta FC 16 after her opponent, Alexa Grasso, withdrew due to injury. The fight was in just eight days. Hill put down the glass and accepted the bout.

Two nights later, Hill watched Nate Diaz take on Conor McGregor in UFC 196. Hill had gotten to know Diaz when she was on "The Ultimate Fighter" in 2014 and Diaz was one of Gilbert Melendez's coaches.

And what she saw from Diaz that night inspired her to tears.

"I wish more people would have that mentality. They want to keep fighting."
Cowboy Cerrone on Angela Hill

Diaz took the fight on 11 days' notice. Hill would have even less time to prepare for Eggink, who was highly regarded, someone many felt was en route to the UFC. But "she's not Conor McGregor," Hill thought at the time

Like Diaz, Hill ended up stopping her opponent in the second round. She knocked out Eggink for the biggest win of her career at that point.

Hill always fancied herself as someone who would fight on short notice. She asked for those opportunities. Against Eggink, Hill proved to others -- and, most important, herself -- that she could make good on them.

"I was like, 'I can definitely do this more often,'" Hill said. "I'm going in there with a clearer head, I'm not overthinking things. I'm just letting my body do what it does, as opposed to dwelling on certain things that don't really matter and might not even happen in the fight."

That victory laid the foundation for the fighter Hill is now. In her next fight, Hill won the Invicta FC strawweight title. After one title defense, she was back in the UFC in February 2017. Since then, she is only 6-5, but she has earned the UFC's trust because she consistently puts on exciting fights. Two of her past three wins have come via finish.

"I think all you've really gotta do is be willing to show up and put on exciting fights," Blair Pryde said. "I think for the most part, Angela goes at it. That's what you want. You don't want a tepid, single-strike sparring match. You want somebody who is a little more action-orientated."

A WIN SATURDAY would be Hill's fifth since the start of 2019, the most for any UFC fighter during that time span. Her seven fights in 421 days will outpace the UFC's all-time leader in fights, Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone, whose shortest seven-fight stretch was 428 days. Sam Alvey holds the record at 414.

"It's cool," Cerrone said. "I wish more people would have that mentality. They want to keep fighting."

Hill definitely wants to keep fighting, and learning and interacting with her fans.

The BBC once did a piece on Hill's Invicta weigh-in cosplays, which included Dhalsim and Sagat from Street Fighter. She frequently engages with fans with humorous social media posts and co-hosts a podcast with Blair Pryde called the "Ceremonial Weigh-In."

"Even when she was doing animation and stuff like that she had a very applicable mindset," said Blair Pryde, who met Hill while both were studying art abroad in Japan. "She'd get hung up on these things, and even when it wasn't working, she tries to see it through to the end.

"She'd keep on something even when it wasn't practical. And try and get it figured out or come to a logical conclusion before giving up on it."

Mike Essl, one of Hill's art professors at Cooper Union, said initially he was "shocked" that Hill became a UFC fighter, because that's "not the trajectory our students normally take." But then he realized in some ways it added up.

"She put the time in," Essl said of Hill's schoolwork. "She really worked.

"My memory of her really jibes with what she's doing now. I had that moment of 'Wow.' And then I was like, 'No, OK.' She's really, really tough."

During her first run with the UFC six years ago, Hill wasn't sure of herself. She came into "The Ultimate Fighter" after just one pro MMA fight. Following losses to future champions Carla Esparza and Rose Namajunas and perennial contender Tecia Torres, Hill washed out of the UFC in less than a year.

"I didn't really have anything for them at that point, because I was so green and because I kept getting fights against grapplers," Hill said. "I couldn't mask that greenness by knocking out someone that didn't have decent wrestling or grappling. I just kind of came out flat.

"They said they liked me. Dana said, 'Hey, you're a badass striker. I really like your style.' But they let me go."

There were parallels between Hill's time at Cooper Union and her MMA career, according to Essl. Hill struggled at first, he said, but she didn't give up and earned her degree through sheer force of will.

"She's ferocious," Essl said. "... Some students, they kind of figure it out right in front of you, and that's really why I teach. She definitely figured it out right in front of me."

In MMA, it was with Invicta that she found herself -- from the short-notice wins to becoming a champion to critically acclaimed cosplay.

"I am an entertainer," Hill said. "I like to entertain.

"When I was in the UFC at first, I did feel a little stifled. Not as sure-footed as I do now. Going into Invicta definitely helped that. It allowed me to be more creative and show my personality."

Now the UFC is exposing that creativity and personality to a much wider audience. The expectations are higher, but Angela Hill has never been afraid of a challenge.