Aspen Ladd wasn’t quite 15 years old. That’s not always the easiest age for girls, but Ladd was shyer than most. Her self-confidence wasn’t great.
She’d never heard of mixed martial arts in late 2009, and laughs at the suggestion she grew up dreaming of winning an MMA world title.
“I thought it was some karate-type thing, but I wasn’t really sure,” Ladd said.
Ladd wouldn’t turn 15 until March 1, 2010, and wasn’t eligible to fight until she turned 18 in 2013, which was only a week after Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche made history by becoming the first women to headline a UFC event when they met in Anaheim, California, at UFC 157.
Rousey meant nothing to Ladd in 2010. Ladd was in a search of something to do with her life to occupy her days and happened upon this gym.
“It was a little MMA gym in Jackson, California, and I had no idea what MMA was,” she said. “But when I saw it, I was absolutely impressed, and mystified, by what they were doing. I saw someone do an arm bar, and I was like, ‘Wow, that is amazing. I need to learn to do that.’ And I just fell in love with it.”
In just over nine years from her first encounter with MMA, Ladd has moved almost all the way to the top of her profession. She is ranked fourth in the UFC women’s bantamweight division, and on Saturday at UFC Sacramento, (8 p.m. PT, ESPN+) she’ll take on No. 1 Germaine de Randamie in the main event.
A win could result in a championship shot against Amanda Nunes, but Ladd learned early on not to look past an opponent. De Randamie is 35, and was a professional kickboxer before Ladd had started school.
She’s a former UFC featherweight champion and one of the most decorated female fighters in the world. Ladd, though, is the kind of person who doesn’t let much bug her. She’s clearly listened to UFC president Dana White speak, because in expressing her feelings about the fight with de Randamie she spoke the words that White has so often repeated.
“Once you get to a certain point, you know you’re going to have to fight everyone sooner or later,” Ladd said. “So it’s no big deal to me. She’s a world-class striker and she’s very good at what she does. She’s extremely accomplished. But I wouldn’t be here if I weren’t ready for this.
“I’m not putting any pressure on myself and I’m not thinking of anything other than doing what I have to do to win this one fight. Everyone wants to talk to me about her experience and fighting for the title and Amanda and all of that, but none of that is important. What’s important is the fight that is in front of you and for me, that’s [de Randamie].”
Ladd is a one of number of young UFC fighters, along with the likes of Sean O’Malley, who are under 25 and oozing with potential. White has been highly impressed with Ladd and hearing her quote about fighting de Randamie made him sound almost giddy.
He looks for fighters who run toward challenges, and that’s most definitely what Ladd did in accepting this bout.
“That’s the kind of thing a real fighter says,” White said. “I love fighters with that attitude and that’s what I love about Aspen Ladd. She has a ton of potential and she’s done awesome to this point, and she’s not worrying about matchups or what it might do. You give her someone and she says yes and then goes out and starts trying to figure what she needs to do to win the fight. I love that kind of attitude.”
Ladd’s confidence grew exponentially during her formative years, not long after she walked into that gym, and took up a sport she did not know.
Not only is she vastly more confident in her abilities as a fighter now than she was then, she’s also a more confident person, period.
“[Skills I learned in fighting help] with just about everything,” Ladd said. “Once you actually fight, you realize you can do just about anything. I go in there and I fight another human being for a living. I do all of this work leading up to it. You realize when you look back what you can deal with and what you’re capable of. Putting your body through a fight camp and fight week and a weight cut is tough, and when you learn you can do that, it extends into all aspects of your life. It’s very mentally fortifying, I’d say.”
Nothing, though, would be more fortifying than to win the belt. She won’t even give that one a thought at this point.
“If and when that time comes, I’ll think about it and I’ll talk about it,” Ladd said. “But the only thing that matters now is beating Germaine de Randamie.”
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