Alida Gray has only been a professional fighter for a little over six months now, and when the El Paso, Texas, combatant steps into the dodecagon tonight (Jan. 18, 2014) at World Series of Fighting (WSOF) 8, in Hollywood, Florida, it will be a very unique and fortunate situation.
She will be facing the No.1-ranked strawweight in the world, Jessica Aguilar, for the inaugural WSOF 115-pound title.
Gray is a teacher at Fannin Elementary School in the North Eastern part of El Paso. She had been juggling that, her training regimen and also coaching wrestling at Andress High School, also located in El Paso, up until this past summer. That became a reflective period for her, as she had big decisions to make before she would become a professional fighter.
"I turned pro this summer," Gray told MMAmania.com. I had spoken to my coach about turning pro prior. He just felt that I wasn't ready. I had a lot of stuff on my plate. This past summer I sat and thought about what I wanted to do. I ended up quitting being a wrestling coach. I'm just teaching now, in order to turn pro and follow that path and career."
Gray is now undefeated in four fights as a pro, and made quite a stir with a jaw-dropping knockout over Soannia Tiem on the regional circuit in Texas at 24/7 Entertainment 12.
"I had been working on that overhand right for two weeks," Gray said, recalling the third round finish. "Going into the third, my coach yelled at me, ‘She's going to stand in the same spot. Throw the overhand right. Just throw it. You know how to do it. You need to throw it.' He got in my face about it. That's all I had in my mind and it landed perfectly."
Gray had not yet signed on to fight Aguilar -- who is a quantum leap ahead in talent compared to Tiem and the others she's faced -- when she saw the news that the 16-4 fighter signed to WSOF. After the news broke a week or so later about the UFC cleaning out the Invicta 115-pound division and launching a strawweight division of their own with the announcement of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 20, Gray felt bad for Aguilar.
"I had heard when she signed with WSOF," Gray said. "All respects to her, she's top, number one... A couple weeks later I had heard the UFC opened the strawweight division and I was kind of bummed for her. Just the luck... It doesn't change anything, I'm sure, for her. She's still at the top and if she continues her career, I'm pretty sure she will be in the UFC."
"On my part, I was excited when I heard about the UFC opening the strawweight. I talked to my coach about trying out for TUF, we were planning on going to tryouts and stuff, then we got the call from WSOF and we went with that. I'm very excited for this opportunity to fight Jessica Aguilar. I think I'm a good match-up for her and it's going to be a war on January 18th."
A lot of things in this world hinge upon timing, and there are no doubt a lot of other contenders who could have received the opportunity to face Aguilar before Gray, but now they are all filming the next TUF, and she is the next in line. The former 1996 Judo Olympic alternate admits she feels like "the lucky one" on being given the opportunity to fight for the WSOF title against the highest ranked fighter in her weight class.
That being said, and despite this only being her fifth pro fight, she feels "it's going to be a tough fight" for the favorite. Aguilar may have more experience than her in the cage, but with her Judo background she knows a thing or two about competing on a high level.
"The amount of experience of her being in the cage, it says a lot about her," Gray said. "But, I have to look at myself and where I've been and what I've done. I've competed with the top Judo belts in the world. I was on the Junior World Team in 1992. I was still a baby at that time, and then I was lucky enough to be on the 1995 Senior World Team for Judo. I fell short in 96, being an alternate for the Olympics, but experience wise I think we are matched up fairly well. I'm not going to be intimidated by the lights and glamour. I'm going to be in the zone by the time I get in the cage. I think it's a good match-up."
Just because she has a background of being a Judoka, doesn't mean it translates to that of the UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. Gray admits going from gi to no-gi isn't as easy as you think.
"I'm excited to see that she can use her Judo," Gray said. I kind of struggle a lot from transitioning from not using the gi, to just being able to pummel with my opponent. It's totally different. Your grips are different and how you need to manipulate the body and work to get those throws. I'm going to study Rousey and watch how she's gripping and how she is using her grips so that I can start transitioning and using those throws also."
The young pro and former college softball player is still learning her craft and already making huge strides in her MMA career in a short amount of time. Tonight will undoubtedly be her biggest test to date.
"I'm proud of where I'm from and what I represent. Everybody here in El Paso is pumped for me and everybody in my family, my friends and teammates have all stood behind me and I'm going to give it my all on January 18th."