The remarkable comeback story of UFC fighter Jessica Eye

Editor’s note: This story was originally published ahead of Jessica Eye’s appearance at UFC 238. Eye lost to Shevchenko in that bout by second-round knockout.

The day Jessica Eye decided she’d never go home again was her 26th birthday.

She remembers that it was a warm Saturday afternoon in July, three weeks before her next MMA fight. Her father, Randy, always hosted family and friends on weekends at home, a one-story ranch house on 5 acres of northeast Ohio woodland. The flock would idle outside at the picnic bench or in folding chairs in the yard while her dad tended to his fish fry or tenderloins.

For this particular gathering, Randy’s partner, Michelle, had made Jessica a “fruit cake” to celebrate. Not a true confection but a tiered tower of actual fruit made to look like a cake — watermelon and pineapple and grapes, with a sprinkling of baby marshmallows — because she was a professional fighter in the heart of training camp and thus couldn’t afford any guilty dietary pleasures, birthday or no birthday.

Saturday’s UFC Fight Night main event features a flyweight battle between former title challenger Jessica Eye and Cynthia Calvillo, who is moving up from strawweight. In the co-main event, Marvin Vettori and Karl Roberson will get to settle their feud, which includes a confrontation in a hotel lobby last month.

UFC Fight Night: Eye vs. Calvillo
• Saturday, Las Vegas
Prelims: ESPN/ESPN+, 6 p.m. ET
Main card: ESPN/ESPN+, 9 p.m. ET

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As everyone congregated — her family and friends, a few kids, even some sponsors Eye was courting for her still-budding MMA career — her father started to smoke marijuana. With those kids and sponsors nearby, she asked if Randy could do it away from the crowd. He agreed, then walked to the front yard.

What came next is a fog. Eye recalls bits and pieces — thin, jagged rays of daylight that escape the dense cloud cover of her memory. She followed him to the front. She thanked him for doing what she’d asked. He turned angry, on a dime, and screamed at her: “Don’t tell me what to do on my own lawn!” He reared back. He punched her in her face, putting the full force of his bulk — all 260 pounds and 6 feet, 5 inches — into that blow. She fought back. She lunged at him. She kneed him in his stomach. Her older brother, also named Randy, jumped between them. As Jessica ran to her car, she thought, “For the first time, I f—ing hit him back. I got him.” She thought, not for the first time, “This is the last time I’m coming back.”

That summer day in 2012 wasn’t Eye’s first brush with her father’s violence. It was the first moment she felt bold enough to respond to it with violence of her own. She was a professional fighter by then. Violence was her trade. Her hands were weapons too.

As she sped away from her father’s house, her adrenaline seeping out like air hemorrhaging from a balloon, she felt hollow, deflated. That’s when she remembered that Sunday, the very next day, she was due to visit the Cleveland Browns’ training camp, to join a friend, wide receiver Josh Cribbs, for a workout. She’d have to show up with a fresh, blooming bruise under her right eye.

“Any other time, I’m proud to talk about my bruises, to wear them,” she says now, seven years removed from that black eye. “But this one didn’t feel right.”

There’s another bruise, this one fading and on its way out — soft purple and a little yellow in spots — just above Eye’s right cheekbone, one more token of her chosen path.

“Occupational hazard,” she shrugs.

It’s early May 2019, exactly four weeks before the biggest fight of her professional life, a title bout against flyweight bulldozer Valentina Shevchenko at UFC 238 on June 8 in Chicago. Eye considers her path — an abusive father, a terrible accident as a teenager, a four-fight UFC losing streak that threatened her career — and insists she always trusted she’d wind up here, on the cusp of a UFC championship. That doesn’t mean it has been easy. That doesn’t mean she never wavers. She is dead center on the mat of an octagon, legs tucked beneath her, head tilted just the slightest bit downward, in the fetal position. She’s beat.

She’s still new here, at Xtreme Couture MMA, this gym that’s 15 minutes off the Las Vegas Strip but boasts none of its glitz. The facility is all exposed beams and silver insulation, with a smattering of ancient treadmills that sport a fine layer of dust off to the side, and this practice cage, where Eye listens to instruction from her new trainer, Eric Nicksick.

When she and Nicksick try (and fail) to nail their two counter flow drill — a flurry of blink-and-you-miss-them punches — she drops to the ground again.

“I’m not good at this yet!” she yells.

They’re still learning how to read each other, how to speak each other’s language. Eye spent more than a decade at her previous gym, Strong Style, back in Cleveland. She received a chance invitation from a stranger when she was 19, so she showed up at the facility one Monday, with no MMA training — no combat experience whatsoever — and spent the next 13 years building a career there, building a second family. But different visions for her future drove a wedge between her and the gym’s owner, she says, and she was left with one choice: to leave. Less than two weeks later, for the first time in her adult life, she called someplace other than Ohio her home. She sobbed during the plane ride to Vegas. Even now, Eye is a little dizzy from the upheaval. “I have complete separation anxiety,” she says.

She didn’t just pick up and move across the country; she asked her younger brother, Kasey Smith, and her jiu-jitsu coach, Darren Branch, to come along, to pin their hopes on her and uproot their lives too. She didn’t just get a title shot; she earned the right to face ESPN’s No. 3-ranked women’s pound-for-pound fighter in Shevchenko, an uphill climb that’s closer to scaling a mountain. Caesars has deemed Shevchenko a -1400 favorite; Eye, a +800 underdog. Eye is still just trying to make a living at this. Although she tripled her earnings by fighting and winning three times in 2018, she earned less than $40,000 from September 2016 to October 2017. This is her chance, finally, to keep herself afloat.

Three months in, she still sometimes buckles under the weight of what she is asking herself to do. When she tweaks her knee during an afternoon wrestling class at Xtreme, and it still aches the next morning, all of this feels too much. Her voice thickens. Her eyes well. “I’m just scared something’s gonna take away my one opportunity to create a better life for myself. That’s all I’m trying to do,” she says. “Everything I ever wanted is riding on this.”

Eye shouldn’t even be here, not according to conventional wisdom. She lost four consecutive fights at bantamweight from 2015 into 2016. After her last defeat, a split-decision loss to Bethe Correia in Cleveland, her own backyard, Eye’s manager called bearing news of her UFC death knell. They had received her cut papers. She texted UFC president Dana White, devastated but clear-headed, to tell him she understood. He had a business to run, and her return on investment hadn’t cut it. White told her he’d give her one more chance.

“Take some time off,” she recalls him advising her. “Get your s— together.” So she did. Eye didn’t fight once in 2017 — by virtue of her extended mental health break and a handful of canceled bouts — and by the time she returned, the UFC had introduced its flyweight division. She promptly rattled off three consecutive wins at 125 pounds. Even if two victories came by split decision, they were enough for Eye to ask White for a shot at the belt. And they were enough for White to grant her one.

“People aren’t screaming from the rooftops to fight Shevchenko, OK?” White says. “She’s an absolute beast.”

So the fact that Eye was screaming?

“I love it,” White says. “I respect it.”

“I wish I had gotten to meet my dad as a friend and not as a family member,” Jessica says of Randy, right. “He was such a good friend. He was harder on his family than he was on anybody else.” Courtesy of Jessica Eye

And that’s just it. Eye asked for this weight. She wants this fight. Most days in Las Vegas, isolated crises of confidence aside, she feels pretty great about it.

Sitting at the high-top dining table in her new house, she laughs off the fact that she and Shevchenko are training at the Performance Institute at the same time — or the potential awkwardness that could ensue should they cross paths there.

“You want to work out next to me?” she challenges her nemesis, as if Shevchenko were parked next to her. “Fine. I’ll squat more than you. You want to see me wrestle? You’re going to get really scared when you see me wrestle. You want to see me punch? Your whole training camp is going to be nothing about what you can do. It’s going to be about me.”

She’s as blustery as she was broken only hours before, but the emotional whiplash doesn’t faze her. It reaffirms what she already believes to be true.

She has known physical violence her whole life. As a target. As the one doing the targeting. This is where — she hopes — it all comes together.

“I. Have. To. See. This. Through,” she says.

Eye knows exactly why she became a fighter. Because fighting found her first.

“I was mad at the world. I was mad I had been given this hand. I was just like, ‘I’m going to f—ing fight,'” she says, waving her fist. With her high cheekbones and flowing brown hair, Eye looks like she could as easily play the part of TV personality as flyweight contender. (She was offered such an opportunity at a local news station back home.) But she wanted to dole out pain.

When she walked into Strong Style 13 years ago, she wasn’t cowed by the physical battery she saw on display. She was invigorated by it. Violence wasn’t foreign to her. And the small matter of never having fought before? Well, that didn’t dissuade her, either. She felt certain she could take a hit.

“It all went back to eighth grade,” she says.

When she was 14 years old, still a middle schooler, Eye had gone to a teen dance club one Saturday night. The Grind, it was called, and it sat about 10 houses down from her home on State Route 44. Rootstown, Ohio, was small, barely a blip on the map, and State Route 44 basically comprised all of it. There was the Dusty Armadillo, a country bar, and an intersection that was home to a bank, a firehouse, a pizza place and a Chinese restaurant. Eye insists that she had told her father where she was heading, that he simply forgot. It didn’t take Randy long, once he found out where Jessica had gone, to get there himself.

As soon as she came outside, he grabbed her by the neck, nearly choking her. When the bouncer tried to intervene, Randy pulled her into the car and drove home. Once there, he attacked her again. Outside the garage, then inside the house. Randy’s girlfriend at the time, Linda, and her son, Jarrid, fled the house, threatening to call the police as they left.

“He was raging,” Jessica says.

The first time Jessica remembers thinking to herself “My dad abuses me” had been five years earlier. Randy was always physical with his children — grabbing hair here, dispensing a smack there — for homework left undone or trash left unemptied. And when she was in third grade, jumping on the family trampoline, she bit her older brother and drew blood. Her father charged over and slapped her, open-handed.

But she had never feared for her life — until this moment.

“I thought I was going to die,” she says.

He picked her up by her throat, then shoved her into bed. “Go the f— to sleep now,” he told her. She doesn’t remember if it was an hour, or if she dozed off and it was longer, but eventually she heard a rapping on the door and bolted upright. The police had arrived and were asking for her. She walked to the front door, passing her father along the way. He whispered, “Watch what you say,” but the officer looked at her face, beaten and swollen, and told her, “You don’t even have to say anything.” He arrested Randy on the spot.

Jessica’s mother, Colleen, hadn’t been in her life for 10 years at that point. After she and Randy divorced when Jessica was 5, he assumed custody and severed communication between Colleen and their kids. With nowhere else to go, Jessica and her brother spent the weeks that followed their father’s arrest with a cousin. The separation didn’t last long.

Randy posted bail and was released, and by the time Jessica saw him again, a few weeks later, he had shaved off his thick beard, cut off his long ponytail.

“As soon as I saw him, I cried,” she says. “I just wanted him.”

She was his only daughter; he was the only parent she really knew. He said he felt bad; she could read it in his face. Logical or not, warranted or not, Jessica wasn’t scared of her father in that moment. She was grateful.

“It’s so weird,” she says now. “He always had that kind of control over me.”

In the end, Randy was charged with a first-degree misdemeanor for endangering children, forced to pay a fine and then allowed to retake physical custody of his son and daughter — to Jessica’s relief. She wanted to go home.

When Jessica tries to make sense of it now, she’s both nostalgic and clinically logical. She loved that house in Rootstown, with its garden and the green beans and peppers and squash that she was responsible for growing. She loved the pond nearby. She loved the way those 5 acres felt like they stretched for longer, as long as the universe itself. And she loved her father, who anchored all of it.

“I wish I had gotten to meet my dad as a friend and not as a family member,” she says. “He was such a good friend and so kind in that way. He was harder on his family than he was on anybody else.”

That’s why, in the years that followed, Jessica’s relationship with her father turned into something akin to a carousel. They’d rise, enjoy a respite when their relationship felt healthy and normal and safe. Then they’d fall, with Jessica cutting him out of her life, sometimes for months and other times for years.

They rose: By the end of her eighth-grade year, Randy had moved his new girlfriend, Michelle, and her young son, Kasey, into their home. The addition of Michelle and Kasey to the fold flipped a switch in Randy, Jessica says, and as she made her way through high school, he didn’t hit her again. Yes, he was still physical — he’d grab, he’d shove — and still a rigid father. But Jessica never feared for her life in that house again. And Randy morphed into a different kind of parent. He played bluegrass music in the morning and made coffee for his kids before they went off to school.

They fell: Just as her senior year of high school started, her father caught her driving with her boyfriend around Rootstown. That was an act of disobedience in his book, and disobedience was unforgivable. When she returned home that day, her belongings were strewn across the front lawn. Randy kicked her out, and she spent the rest of her senior year living mostly unsupervised, with a few older friends in a four-bedroom apartment in Akron.

They rose: Before her amateur MMA debut in 2008, Jessica reached out to her father. She missed him. She wanted him to be there as she began this new journey, and so he was, going to her fights, holding her belts, hugging her first after she got out of the cage. “We were best friends,” she says.

They fell: Four years after that, on her 26th birthday, in that summer of 2012, Randy attacked her, and she fought back. Jessica left her father’s house with a black eye and a broken foot — Randy had stepped on her during their clash — and new determination. That would be the last time she stepped in her father’s house.

And it was. Until the day, more than a year later, when she found out that Randy was dying.

In the early days of 2003, when Jessica Eye was only 16 years old and a sophomore in high school, she narrowly skirted death.

She remembers that it was snowing and that it was late afternoon. While driving her 1982 Dodge 600 home after a soccer game, her car began to sputter as she rounded a curve on a country backroad in Rootstown. She pulled over, walked a few blocks to a friend’s house and called her father for help. Randy arrived in his Dodge Ram, a tank of a truck, pulling up in front of Jessica’s car to provide a jump. He asked Jessica to turn the ignition.

“Go get in your car,” he told her.

Seconds later, the words barely out of Randy’s mouth, Jessica looked over her shoulder to see a vehicle barreling toward her. Barreling into her. Clipping her car, which smashed into her father’s car, and pinning Randy between the two. Jessica broke her back, fracturing her T5 and T6 vertebrae. Randy shattered his knee. Jessica was bedridden for nine weeks and had to wear a brace for months. Randy needed complete reconstructive surgery.

She remembers the car hitting her. There wasn’t pain, just the feel of the cold plastic of the bumper on her legs. Then black. She remembers her father hobbling over on his destroyed knee, murmuring, “Please don’t be dead. Please don’t be dead.” Over and over, like a mantra. Then black. She remembers Randy screaming at the driver, the unscathed drunk driver, “I’m going to kill you,” and then her yelling for him, scared he actually might. Then black.

This was the father she had known her entire life. A bear of a man, tough and full of rage and larger than life and invincible. He could hardly walk, but he dragged himself over to her, wrecked knee and all, when she needed him.

So when her father’s new partner, Candy, called her in late 2013, relaying a frantic message — Randy was being transported to Cleveland Clinic; he needed emergency surgery; he had a mass on his brain the size of a baseball — the axis of her world went sideways. Even when they weren’t talking, even when she cut him out of her life, wasn’t he still — wouldn’t he always be — that bear of a man? A world in which he wasn’t seemed impossible, like a morning when the sun just opted not to rise.

Jessica was at Strong Style when Candy called. She hung up the phone, then she ran to Kasey, who was training there too. Jessica’s father and Kasey’s mother had separated after more than a decade together, but by that point, the two considered each other siblings. Kasey moved in with Jessica after he graduated from high school. He followed in her footsteps, trying to forge his own path as a fighter. And he stood by her, keeping his distance from Randy, a man he considered his father too, after he assaulted Jessica at her birthday party.

“What do we do?” she asked Kasey.

“What do we do?” she asked her coach, Marcus Marinelli.

“You’ve got to go, Jess,” Marinelli told her. “You gotta go.”

They went.

Jessica spent the night before Randy’s surgery with her father. “I slept in the bed with him, and that was the first time me and my dad ever held hands,” she says.

She held on longer. For nine weeks, while she was in the middle of fight camp, Jessica went with Randy to his radiation treatments, Monday through Friday, for five, six, seven hours at a time. She packed healthy lunches. She raised more than $13,000 on a GoFundMe page she started to help pay for his treatment. She asked Dana White to let Randy stand in the Octagon before her fight against Alexis Davis.

Then that carousel she knew well started spinning anew. Shortly before her fight against Leslie Smith, in late 2014, Jessica drove with Kasey from the home they shared in Cleveland back to their father’s house in Rootstown, some 50 miles down I-77. They had made the trip often in the year since he fell sick, just to visit, and this time, they came bearing a gift: a rug with the inscription “Happy, Happy, Happy,” a nod to Randy’s favorite show, “Duck Dynasty.”

They sat at a table, with a big picture window facing out to their yard — their pool, their picnic tables, their campfire — and Randy told his children how frustrated he was. With being sick. With the clinical trial. With the damn battery pack he had to lug around as a part of that clinical trial. Jessica responded, not out of cruelty, she says, but out of compassion. She wanted to make sure her father understood that his trial wasn’t a cure for grade IV glioblastoma, his diagnosis. She wanted to make sure he concentrated on his quality of life too. Randy heard her words but understood them differently. He thought his daughter was telling him to give up his only chance at extending his life.

He grew angry, on a dime. Again. He slammed his fists on the table, and though he didn’t hit her this time, she thought of the times he had throughout her life. She got up and left, with Kasey trailing behind her. Like she had before, she told him she was never coming back. Like she had before, she stayed away — until Candy called her again, more than a year later.

Eye sits at her dining room table in Las Vegas, watching a version of herself that no longer exists. Jessica Eye still in Cleveland. Jessica Eye still by her father’s side.

On the last day of Randy’s radiation treatment, on Valentine’s Day in 2014, a friend filmed Randy and the entire Eye family commemorating its completion. She pulls up the video on her laptop to remember. The camera shows Randy, in recline, under a machine beaming radiation to his brain, then Randy ringing the bell to mark the end of his treatment. He looks happy. Jessica does too. “That guy existed too, and he was great,” Jessica says, eyes still trained on her father. “He was incredible. He existed for a long time. That’s the badass person we all knew.”

Randy died on June 30, 2016. Candy called Jessica about a month before to say she didn’t know how much time Randy had left, and like she had before, Jessica returned to her father. She and Kasey went back home on a Monday. Jessica left the next day for fight week, fought Sara McMann and lost, then spent the last month of Randy’s life by his side.

Perhaps it is easier to find compassion for a deeply flawed person when his death is near. Maybe it’s simpler to forgive then too. But when Jessica sat in the front row at the funeral home, listening to Pastor Gary Beck deliver her father’s eulogy, something closed inside her sprang open.

“Those who bury the shackles of the past carry it to the future,” he said.

Pastor Beck didn’t know the family well, but he got the chance to spend some time with them after Randy’s death and to grasp what that death — and Randy’s life — had meant.

“Forgiveness is not saying, ‘You’re right, and I’m wrong,'” Beck says now. “It’s not saying, ‘You were right to abuse me. You were right to treat me the way you treated me.’ No. Forgiveness is release.”

And so he offered the Eyes permission to do that. To release.

“He said, ‘Let it go. Let it all go,'” Jessica recalls. “And I don’t know that I had yet. I don’t know that any of us had.”

Three years later, she says she has let it all go.

(In truth, it’s a battle she’s still waging with herself. Colleen, who was absent from Jessica’s life until she was 15, has been in and out of it since. Jessica lived with her mother for a few weeks in high school, after Randy kicked her out. She even traveled to Florida, where her mother was living at the time, to spend a birthday with her a few years ago. She has tried, at times, to let her mother be part of her life. The rub is that she still doesn’t think Colleen tried hard enough all those years ago, when Jessica was a child, to be a part of hers. So for now, for today, Jessica doesn’t respond to the periodic texts that Colleen sends her way. Colleen, for her part, says she continues to reach out to her daughter not expecting to hear back but just to be heard. “I text her, and whatever I text is just for her to have,” she says. “No response is required.”)

Still, Jessica says she doesn’t feel like a victim of her circumstances anymore. She doesn’t feel sorry for herself, either. After their father died, Jessica’s older brother, Randy, clung to what his uncle told him. That parents must try to be better for their children than their parents were for them. “When you look at where he came from, it was five to 10 times worse,” Randy says now of their father. “Even though it wasn’t quite up to par, it was still better than he had.”

Jessica held on to that too. She came to accept that her father’s history — an abusive father of his own; trauma of his own; Randy, at 9, found his dad’s body after he committed suicide — had set into motion a cycle Randy never learned how to break. But can she forgive him? Does she?

“Yeah. Oh, god, yeah,” she says. “I forgive him big time. And I forgive myself too because I didn’t always do the right things either.”

When she hears the thrum of a motorcycle, she thinks of her father. Driving home after a workout at Xtreme, Kasey brings up how stubborn their dad could be. “‘Don’t you ever buy a foreign car because you won’t be able to park it in the driveway,'” Kasey remembers Randy, a welder for Chrysler for 20-some years, telling him as a teenager. Jessica smiles at Kasey’s retelling. And she rattles off all the times she’d tag along with her dad. Camping. Hunting. Fishing. Just being together.

Jessica grabs her phone and scrolls until she finds on an old voicemail she has saved.

“Hello, Jess. What’s up? This is Dad.”

Randy called her before her fight against McMann. He was already slipping at that point, his words slightly slurred. He would succumb to his cancer four weeks later. “Kick her ass but good. Jessie’s back. Show her who’s champ. I love you, dear. Give me a call later.”

She laughs, then admits, quietly, like it’s an afterthought, “It’s hard to hear his voice.”

Sometimes he was a great father. At times, he was a father who scared her to death. He was less than a paragon and more than his worst acts on his worst days.

“I don’t regret not talking to him at times,” she says. “And I don’t regret holding him accountable for the things he did other times.”

She doesn’t regret asking her fans and the MMA community for help raising money on that GoFundMe page to treat his cancer. She wanted to give him a chance. But she doesn’t regret, either, Randy missing the first time she stepped foot into the UFC cage. He had hurt her; she hadn’t wanted him at her debut. You can love a person and still hate what he is capable of. You can wish for a person to be in your life but know he can’t be.

There, in that land of in-between, she lets herself feel her father’s presence in new ways. When the UFC finally added a flyweight division, the weight class she pined for, in which she felt she could truly and finally find success, she thought, “That’s Dad’s doing.” When she leaves for Chicago for UFC 238, she’ll pack a framed photo — of her, hair braided in cornrows, swallowed in Randy’s embrace, after she won her Bellator debut. Randy used to tote it everywhere, dropping it in the pocket of his overalls. Now she totes it to all her fights, and it will sit bedside in the hotel until she faces Shevchenko.

If Eye finds a way to defy the oddsmakers and actually win this thing, she says the first thing she’ll do is hug Kasey and believe Randy is there too.

There, in that land of in-between, she lets herself do what Pastor Beck implored. Let it go. Let it all go. She was angry the first time she stepped into Strong Style. That was why she chose fighting, or fighting chose her. She’s not angry anymore, she says. That’s not why she still chooses fighting, or why it still chooses her.

“Once my dad died, it was, ‘OK, what am I mad at? Who am I mad at? Who am I? What am I? What’s my motivation now?’

“Me,” she says. “Me. I fight for me.”

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