This Friday night in Cleveland, Ohio, hometown favourite Jessica “Evil” Eye begins a new journey at Bellator 66. Despite a late change in opponent, Eye remains focused on fighting her way to becoming the first Bellator women’s champion at 125 pounds. That goal is the most important of her career.
Outside of the cage, Eye remains heavily involved in her community through charity work and educating others about the sport of MMA. Once the cage door closes, “Evil Eye” takes over and the talented rising star will take her first step towards becoming a Bellator world champion in three days.
Born July 27, 1986 in Barberton, Ohio, Jessica Eye learned the value of hard work at a young age. Her parents divorced when she was just a child and she and her brother were raised by their father, Randy, in the communities of Cuyahoga Falls and Rootstown. Life on a farm often led to times of boredom – Eye admits that cow-tipping was a favourite pastime – and Eye’s father spent long hours working in factories to support his family. When her father was home, he was “not always the easiest to live with,” Eye recalls, but he instilled the importance of working hard and believing in oneself upon both of his children. Those ideals remain a crucial part of Eye’s life today.
Long before she was ever interested in martial arts, Eye was an active BMX racer and soccer player during her high school years in Rootstown. Having grown up in a male-dominated environment, the self-professed tomboy preferred to spend her time in the familiar outdoors playing sports and staying as active as possible.
After graduation, Eye planned to continue to pursue soccer as a long-term venture in college, but the sport and the school’s academic program began to lose their appeal and Eye found herself looking for a new path in life. Her attention shifted to working out, first for her health and for shedding the “Freshman Fifteen,” and later with the intention of taking part in fitness competitions. It was then that Eye first got in touch with Marcus Marinelli, owner of the Strong Style Martial Arts Academy where she continues to train to this day.
Though known today for her boxing and standup skills, Eye got her start in martial arts as a grappler. During her first year at Strong Style, Eye found early on that learning jiu-jitsu came the most naturally to her and she competed exclusively in grappling tournaments while gradually perfecting the striking game in the gym. It took time to adjust to hitting people and getting hit, but Eye enjoyed learning how to defend herself with submission techniques.
On June 7, 2008, Eye made her amateur mixed martial arts debut for the Ohio-based North American Allied Fight Series; a promotion that launched the careers of many of her Strong Style teammates. Eye won her debut by third-round TKO and went on to post a 5-0 record as an amateur. In December 2009, she became the first NAAFS amateur women’s champion. As the first female fighter to come out of the respected Strong Style gym, Eye was already a leading fan favourite by the time she opted to make the jump to the professional ranks in 2010.
As she awaited an opponent for her pro MMA debut, Eye dabbled in amateur boxing and entered a grappling tournament to stay active. NAAFS was struggling to find anyone who was willing to take on the popular prospect, but at last an opponent was found. Eye was to make her pro debut on June 5, 2010, just shy of two years after she first stepped into the NAAFS cage. When her original opponent dropped out on short notice, NAAFS officials worked tirelessly to find a replacement. In stepped Amanda LaVoy, whom Eye defeated by second-round TKO. Despite hiccups along the way, Eye’s pro career had begun with a victory and that was ultimately all that mattered.
Three months later, Eye received a big opportunity in the form of a main event spot on the inaugural all-female NAAFS card, “Eve of Destruction.” The event would take place in the city of Akron, just miles away from where Eye grew up. She had the fans firmly behind her and entered the bout highly motivated by pre-fight trash talk from opponent Marissa Caldwell. In a three-round affair that Eye says was the first time she really knew that she could fight, Eye defeated Caldwell by Unanimous Decision.
Where she was once a grappler, Eye was quickly becoming known for her boxing skills, which were honed under the tutelage of trainer Joe Delguyd at Strong Style. She put those skills to good use in February 2011 in her lone appearance for Ring of Combat, stopping Ashley Nee in the first round to claim the promotion’s vacant 130-pound women’s title.
Eye’s biggest fight to date came four months later in her return to NAAFS. She was booked to compete for the first NAAFS 125-pound professional women’s title in a bout with Aisling Daly, a veteran opponent from Ireland who was coming off of a quick loss in her most recent fight and entering hostile territory to face Eye in Ohio. Two weeks before the fight, Eye suffered a concussion while sparring in the gym. Other distractions further took her mind off of the challenge ahead of her, but she felt an obligation to fight on and perform to the best of her abilities.
For close to nine minutes, Eye looked to be in complete control of the title tilt with Daly. To the average observer watching from cageside or via the event’s online stream, Eye appeared to be implementing a solid game plan and seemed well on her way to sending the fans home happy with a title-winning performance. In reality, nothing could have been further from the truth.
“In that fight with [Daly], I just wasn’t me,” Eye recalls. “I wasn’t myself and I just wasn’t connecting with myself and my corner. I remember looking to my corner at one point and just asking what to do. I was just so confused.
“I had had a serious concussion about two weeks before the fight while sparring with this girl who is a really good boxer,” she continues. “It was eight straight rounds and it was great work, but as soon as it was done I started feeling sick. Going into the fight, I just lost all of my game plan. I didn’t fight like I was supposed to. Everything was just wrong.”
Eye was ultimately forced to submit to a rear-naked choke when Daly was able to take her back in a scramble exactly nine minutes into the fight. The loss remains the only blemish on Eye’s professional record. While it motivated Eye to train even harder and to continue to improve, she gives full credit to Daly for the victory and is not hung up on the prospect of a rematch. The fighters were initially slated to face off for a second time at Bellator 66 this Friday, but Daly withdrew due to an ear infection. Eye is unbothered and, while she understands fans’ excitement for the rematch, she feels that there are many other challenges ahead of her.
On Friday night, Eye will compete in front of friends, family and supporters once again when she faces Anita Rodriguez on the Bellator 66 card. The bout will be contested at a catchweight of 131 pounds. Now 6-1 as a professional and currently riding a three-fight winning streak, Eye feels that she is fully prepared for the fight and does not believe that Rodriguez brings anything different to the table from what Daly would have. As such, she will maintain a similar strategy for the fight and feels that changes in her own game as a fighter will ultimately be the biggest factor.
Whereas she was once prone to becoming overly aggressive in her early fights, Eye cites an increased “cage awareness” and improved footwork as instrumental to her improvements in striking technique. As she puts on more muscle and becomes stronger, Eye has noticed that she gets tired more quickly as a fight progresses, but fighting at a measured pace allows her to be just as strong and technical at the end of a fight as at the start. Her conditioning team ensures that her cardio is always on point.
In her quest to become the best in her division, Eye remains extremely focused and dedicated. She feels that she is more than prepared for anything that Rodriguez will throw at her, but she is not taking her lightly. Eye continues to train twice per day, every day, in preparation. Her days begin with strength and agility training, sprints and Olympic-style lifting, and end with sparring, jiu-jitsu and MMA training. It is a tough schedule that Eye maintains even when there are no fights on the horizon.
“I have to [train every day],” Eye says. “There’s so much else going on in this sport, and if I truly want to be ahead of the game, I have to stay in [the gym] and stay a part of it.”
As with many other fighters in the sport, Eye knows that she would not have made it to where she is today without the help and support of those around her. Her inner circle includes friends and family, but also extends to long-time sponsors who have been with her throughout her career. She speaks glowingly about the contributions that each individual has made.
“My support system is just insane,” Eye says. “It’s so awesome, and not just when leading up to a fight, either. Just in general, they make it so everyone wants to see me and so I have a solid group of 20 to 30 people around me. They go through this just as much as I do, and I appreciate how much everybody’s here for me. I hope that they know that I’m there for them as well.
“I get mad when people just do one-time sponsorships. I don’t like that,” she adds when discussing sponsors. “I like year-long sponsorships and knowing that we’re going to work together to make this a bigger thing. Others aren’t really in it for the long-term. That’s why you see Chick-O-Stick [candy company] and Haasz [Auto Mall]. I’ve been working on the Haasz deal for a long time. I’ve been buying my cars from them since I’ve been buying cars, so I’ve known them for such a long time. And same with Intimidation Clothing. You’ve got [CEO] Luke [Jernigan], who is just awesome and proud of his business and what he’s doing.”
Eye goes on to describe her relationship with one of her longest-standing and most cherished sponsors; a company that she is so dedicated to that not even a recent car accident could prevent her from making an out-of-state promotional appearance as scheduled.
“Chick-O-Stick is a national candy company based out of Lufkin, Texas. [The product] is a peanut butter coconut candy and they’re awesome,” she says. “Chick-O-Stick really took a chance with sponsoring me because they had never dealt with MMA. They’re a completely different company. We’re talking about a candy business and it’s a completely different world.”
When another driver made an unsafe merge on the highway and crashed into Eye’s car earlier this month, it would have been easy for Eye to stay home and rest after the trying ordeal that caused thousands of dollars worth of damage to her vehicle. Instead, she boarded a 4:30 A.M. flight the next morning and flew to Minnesota to promote the Chick-O-Stick brand. The company has stuck by Eye through thick and thin and Eye wasn’t about to let them down.
Despite her affiliation with a candy company and increased muscle mass as she grows up, Eye has no problem making the 125-pound flyweight limit thanks to a strict diet and a disciplined approach to food. Whereas other female fighters have missed weight on multiple occasions, Eye feels that it is critical to come in on weight and ready to go for every fight. Reliability is key, she says, and when fighters miss weight it provides more fuel to critics who are hesitant to embrace female fighting as a valuable part of the sport.
“Growing up and learning how to eat the right way and eat the right foods has made me more muscular and stronger. Making 125 has never been hard and it all boils down to my discipline,” Eye says. “I think I could even fight [at a] lower [weight] if I was even more disciplined, but I enjoy food. I’m just learning how to enjoy it but still stay on a regular diet and stay very close to 125 so I’m ready for whatever.
“A lot of the promoters and matchmakers want an easy girl to deal with,” she adds. “They want to know that she’s going to come in on weight and that she’s going to come in ready to fight. That’s the most appealing thing. I like knowing that I can do that and that people can rely on me.”
Looking ahead, Eye feels that MMA will continue to become more and more viable as a full-time career option for female athletes and she hopes to help to pave the way for the next generation of women who enter the sport after her. She is focused on developing herself in the sport and building her own brand, “EYEbelieve,” a phrase derived from her last name and from childhood when her father always stressed the importance of believing in herself. Fans sporting EYEbelieve t-shirts and apparel are frequently seen cageside when Eye competes.
In addition, helping and working with her community has always been very important to Eye since she began her MMA career. When she competes on Friday, Eye will be sporting all-pink attire in support of United For The Cure, a cancer fundraiser on behalf of Metro Hospital in Cleveland. Eye works closely with boxing trainer Joe Delguyd on the project and enjoys being able to make a difference.
“It’s fun to get behind something like that,” she says. “I mean, what else was I to do with my fighting? I just can’t think of anything better to do and better to help. Sometimes you’ve just got to be a voice for the people that can’t be heard.”
Eye’s involvement with her community does not stop at charity work. As a leader for females at Strong Style, Eye is often approached by women looking for information on training for fitness or even to compete one day. She has taught self-defence classes and feels that it is important for women to take part in martial arts training in order to achieve a sense of self-empowerment. Strong Style fighters have long been renowned for their strength and toughness and Eye hopes that she and other women at the gym can live up to the Strong Style reputation when competing.
Eye has a tough test ahead of her on Friday, but her goal moving forward is clear. At her house, she has a board on the wall that lists achievements to be met. Following her loss to Daly this past year, Eye’s friend and training partner, Jake Peterjohn, wrote “Bellator 125-pound champ” on the board. Eye says that she will not erase it until she has captured the Bellator women’s title and she will take her first step towards the belt when she returns to Bellator action later this week. A Bellator tournament to crown the first 125-pound champion is expected to begin early next year and Eye wants in.
“I just want to keep doing what I’m supposed to be doing and be a positive influence for women’s MMA,” Eye concludes. “I want to be successful for myself and for my life, and to have the payoffs to live comfortably. I’m only 25 and I have a lot of time.”
(Photo Credit: NAAFS)