Thought in Action: Inside the mind of the Happy Warrior at UFC St. Petersburg

In every fight the variables are different: the opponent, the time of year, location, how the fight camp went, life circumstances, and physical condition.…

By: Roxanne Modafferi | 4 years ago
Thought in Action: Inside the mind of the Happy Warrior at UFC St. Petersburg
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

In every fight the variables are different: the opponent, the time of year, location, how the fight camp went, life circumstances, and physical condition. This time I was going to Russia, facing a Kyrgyzstanian woman (so the whole Russian arena would be against me), the sister of the champ and getting hyped as heck, a multi-time Muay Thai champion, undefeated, I hyper extended both elbows in two freak training accidents and felt slightly injured going into the fight, I was going to Russia. Oh… did I say that twice?

However, I believed my grappling was better, and I’d been having great success in training facing a southpaw. I felt genuinely excited to try my techniques in live combat—my main motivation for fighting MMA.

Fast forward to fight day. I had just eaten lunch. My coaches John Wood and Mike Pyle were napping in their room. I was pacing up and down the hallway to digest, and try and stay calm.


Antonina Shevchenko
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Antonina had so much hype behind her. She got open work-outs and I didn’t. That made sense, though, as the Kyrgyzstani fighter in Russia. The whole country was behind her. So many fans thought her and her sister-team were invincible. But I don’t care about that. Russia won’t fight the fight for her.

Roxy, I told myself, remember JoJo fought an un-ranked opponent (Lipski) who had a huge hype train, and she derailed it? Antonina is a multi-time Muay Thai World champion, undefeated in MMA. But Roxy, your grappling is probably better. Just don’t dive for a take-down. You’ve gotten way stronger and better since your last fight. You’ve been training take-downs on southpaws non-stop for three months. Plus there’s no way she’ll be harder to take down than JoJo. You’re genuinely excited to try out the techniques you’ve been training!

Roxy training cage take-downs with JoJo

But what if I can’t take her down?

I was doing thought-replacement hard-core before the fight. Whenever a negative thought came up, I had to replace it with a positive one. That’s what Coach John taught me. I’m good at it, since positivity is my thing. I’m The Happy Warrior. I wrote a book on this.

Mike’s voice: “Your fifteen years of fight experience will tell you the right reaction in the moment. You’ll know what to do. You’ll feel it.”

John’s voice: “Don’t think about the ways you could lose. Focus on where you’ve been and how far you’ve come.”

In the locker room

Even while my mind coped, my body reacted poorly to pressure. I was running to the bathroom every 20 minutes.

I’m always worried that I’ll have to pee or something worse in the middle of my fight. Fast forward to me exiting the bathroom from my final pee run. The previous fight had just ended and I was about to be called to the cage.

My life is about to change. My life will be different in 20 minutes. I could be a superstar. I could be a failure and get cut from UFC. My career could be over. My career could skyrocket. I could get injured. I could be crippled. I could be blinded. No, I have to have confidence in myself. I always have confidence in myself. My mind was spinning. I could get the KO I’ve always wanted. I could accomplish all my goals.

But I couldn’t think about any of that! So what should I think about? Think about punch combinations. Think about movement… think about…

“Okay let’s go!” shouted a staff member. I felt John touch my shoulder reassuringly.

Mike Roach | Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

I made my walk to the Octagon.

I’ve dreamed of fighting in the UFC since 2003, back when I was a college kid. I wish I could enjoy hearing Bruce Buffer call out my name, but those several minutes between entering the cage and the fight starting are the worst. I’m so tense. I’m emotionally and mentally holding my breath. Hurry up, spit it out, and let’s fight.

I looked across the cage at Antonina. In my near-nearsightedness, I could make out her figure, bouncing around to keep warm. Roxy, I told myself, prepare yourself for violence. You might have to hurt her.

And then silence. My inner voice quieted. I was fully in fight mode. Nothingness. Void. Just react. No words. Hush the voices. No audience. No ref. John’s voice translated directly to action. When his command entered my ears, my body would react. Hold it. Hold it…

There is no emotion. There is peace—peace inside.


I walked towards her, holding out my fist, praying she would fist bump and not sucker punch me. Excellent, she did.

Must pressure, but not too much. Stay just out of range. Don’t rush it. Head movement, lateral movement, vertical movement. Wait for my opportunity to press forward and get the take-down. My movement was jerky and hard to read. Feints. Circling. I kept her back to the cage. Several front kicks breezed by my nose but didn’t land.

Jeff Bottari | Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

I stood just outside her range and BAM. Oops I thought I was outside her range. Her arms are so long. She’s fast. BOP. So fast, but I’m not afraid. When we exchanged, her hardest punches connected with my forehead or eye socket—they didn’t phase me.

Finally! Close enough to grapple. I backed her against the cage and we wrestled. She tried to get a clinch grip, but I shrugged my shoulder in and squished her sideways, so she wouldn’t have the power to control my head and knee me.

HECK YEAH! My inner voice screamed. I did the thing!!!!

I had been drilling that clinch-smashing technique every day for three months.

We scrambled. I took her down. She got up. I took her down, she got up. I got the underhook and ran her forward until she face-planted.

HECK YEAH! I did another thing!!

I had been drilling that particular take-down for three months.

I ended up in weak mount. She kept holding my head. I couldn’t get away from her long arms. It was so bizarre; I could not figure out how she was foiling my ground-n-pound so much. The round ended.

When we went back to the corner, Coach John told me to breathe. I would have liked to breathe even more but the cutman’s hands were all in my face. I was reaching for my water bottle, and he was right in the way. I had to stifle feelings of annoyance, though. I was grateful he was trying to help me, and grateful we had somebody provided for us.

Rounds two and three were very similar. Where I tried to be patient before closing the distance. She dinged me up here and there, but I caught most of her strikes on my forehead and cheek. And I landed some as well. I knew Antonina’s striking was dangerous, and I managed to avoid the brunt of her power before catching her and dragging her to the ground—my world.

I felt that I was winning. In the third round, I tried to take her back. When we rolled to our side, she spun around and I couldn’t get mount. I ended up in bottom guard.

OH CRAP NO! My inner voice screamed. I’ve lost too many fights from being in guard. Not really getting beat up, but just not able to get the submission. It looked bad in the eyes of the judges. A moment of despair crept into my heart, followed by a rock-solid determination.

I’m gonna sweep her with Mike’s sweep, I decided. He had showed it to me months ago, and I thought it was the coolest thing I’d seen since Taco Tuesday. I drilled it incessantly. Later I learned it was the no-gi version of the jiujitsu ‘Flower Sweep.’

I held her head down, transferred her arm to the other side of my head, and reached over her back. As I grabbed her armpit I felt a surge of glee! I was gonna get it! I reached under her leg to off balance her, and kicked her over.

Jeff Bottari | Zuffa LLC via Getty Images


I couldn’t finish the fight, but I finished on top.

The round ended. Is it really over?

John hugged me and said, “We got it!” But, I couldn’t celebrate until I knew for sure. The judges’ scorecards were read out. I got one. My opponent got one. Oh my gosh, am I going to lose a decision in Russia?! I was horrified, remembering my dad had warned me of the possibility. When I won the final judge, sweet relief flooded through me like oxygen to a swimmer holding their breath under water.

Jeff Bottari | Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

I had a future.

I heard a few boos. When I got the mic, I said, “Spaisiba! Spaisiba Sankt Peteruburgu!” Meaning, “Thank you! Thank you Saint Petersburg!” I tried so hard to learn some longer Russian phrases, but it was really hard. They have sounds not present in the English language. At least my fight-muddled brain remembered “Thank you” and how to pronounce “St. Petersburg” correctly. I had been practicing. I got some cheers after that.

The cage door opened and here came my least favorite part—dark, hazardous steps, fans & staff everywhere, uncertain pathways. I felt disoriented, dizzy. Everything was dark, and I was still high on adrenaline and breathing hard. “Somebody lead me!” I said. Why did I have to go first? Someone else should, so they could catch me. Ideally, one of my big strong cornermen would just carry me back to my locker room, ‘princess-style.’

I survived the trek. The second I passed through the door out of the arena, a staff member said, “Go for a doctor’s check.” “Where?” “There.” “Where? Somebody lead me. And can I get ice for my head, please?” Mike gave it to me. I know the value of icing your brain after getting hit a lot.

The doctor asked me how I felt. “Fine,” I said. “Any pain?” he said. “No,” I lied. “Dizziness?” “No,” I lied again. I knew I wasn’t concussed. At this point, I have enough experience to self diagnose. “Okay, seven-day suspension,” he said, and handed me some papers. I forked them over to John and held onto Mike’s arm, as we headed back in the direction of the locker room.

“Roxanne, please come do an interview this way,” another staff member said, before we could reach it.

“Can I have two minutes?” I asked, spotting a bench in the hall.

“Sure, take as much time as you need.”

“No, no. Just two minutes,” I told him. I had finally won and didn’t want to lose any interview opportunities. All the fighters were being shuffled along as soon as their fights had ended. I lay down on the random bench and put the bag of ice on my forehead. It felt so good. I had a little headache. Not bad at all, though. I know what a bad headache feels like from past fights. “Okay, I’m ready.” “Are you sure?” “Yes.”

The fights were still happening. An image of All Might from the anime My Hero Academia popped into my head. After he won his huge battle, he stood there looking grand, bloodied, and heroic for the public. His student asked, “Why doesn’t he go rest?” “This is also part of his job,” another said.

I did my job—the interview. I’m pretty sure only ten minutes had passed since I had been fighting for my future.

“Photo shoot that way.”

I was so happy! I held onto Mike or John’s arm and giddily limped down the hall towards the photographer. I started feeling Antonina’s low kick on my left thigh. Various staff members and security guards smiled at me and gave me a thumbs up. How cool! I got to have victory photos with my wonderful coaches!

post fight in locker room with jiujitsu trainer Mike Pyle (left) and head coach John Wood (right)

After the photo shoot, a staff member asked if I wanted to go get food in the green room?

Absolutely. I gave myself about five minutes in the locker room with the ice on my head to be safe, but people were hustling in and out. The fights were still going and the main event was about to start. We packed up and went to the room where the UFC graciously provided us with free hot meat, veggies, and dessert, along with TVs to watch the remainder of the fights. We watched Overeem vs Oleinik. I had just finished eating when the fight ended. It was 11 PM. Wait, what?! When did it become 11 PM?!? I had fought at 8:30.

The bus to the hotel was waiting… but they wanted me to stay and do another interview. Cool! The dizziness had disappeared. I just I felt a little spacey and tired.

I got to stand next to the ESPN desk with Megan Olivi and Rashad Evans. I was really flattered and honored when Rashad said that he’d rather see somebody like me work my way up, getting stronger, and fighting hard for my success, than someone with just natural athletic talent. That is exactly what it’s been like for me. I was so thrilled that people recognized that.

Finally, we got on the bus, arriving back to the hotel around midnight. My shuttle to the airport was at 3:00 AM, I had a 6:00 AM flight. Should I sleep? Yeah right.

John asked if we wanted to get drinks down at the bar?

Mike said, “Sure. I know I ain’t sleeping.”

Why not? I’d watch them drink, since I don’t, and enjoy the excitement of my win. I showered, ate a crap-ton of Russian deserts I had squirreled away in my room, and then hung out with them for an hour. Around 1:00 AM I decided to try and get an hour of sleep. I laid down, but couldn’t stop my mind from spinning and reliving my fight. I gave up on sleep and just iced my face. I looked in the mirror for the first time, and saw a panda looking back.

At 3:30AM, we boarded our shuttle to the airport, to start our 20 hour journey back to America. It was a whole lot easier to face up to considering I had won.

I’m so grateful to Antonina and her camp for the amazing fight and challenge. Thank you to the UFC match-maker and everyone involved in the UFC for allowing me to fight on your big stage. I can’t wait for the next one!

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About the author
Roxanne Modafferi
Roxanne Modafferi

Roxanne Modafferi is a former UFC fighter with 19 years of MMA experience. She’s fought for titles in the UFC, Strikeforce, and Invicta. A jiujitsu blackbelt, she teaches jiujitsu at the gym, and English in the classroom. Roxanne has self-published three books in addition to contributing articles for this site. In her free time, she watches anime and plays video games (Twisted Metal, Skyrim, etc).

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