When Ashley Yoder talks about her last fight against Jinh Yu Frey in July of 2021, she does so in a matter-of-fact manner, when what she went through for 15 minutes in the UFC APEX was anything but ordinary.
“Well, we always get bumps and bruises,” said Yoder, who lost a three-round unanimous decision to Frey in a fight where she basically fought with one arm due to a shoulder injury that wound up costing her the last two years after a pair of surgeries. And while she felt good enough to go through with the fight, she says, “By the time I realized how bad it was, it was too late. I already was there. I have other limbs I could try to use and let the show go on. I signed that agreement, and I said I was going to step into Octagon no matter what.”
Fighting another human being trained to defeat you by any means necessary is scary when you’re one hundred percent healthy. Doing it with only one arm – when that one arm is crucial for a groundfighter like Yoder – has to be terrifying. But Yoder didn’t blink.
“Most people don't really get it unless you really understand fighting how important one limb is in getting takedowns,” she said. “Everybody's like, ‘Well, you threw seven crosses that landed.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, because that's all I had.’ So it's a crazy experience going into a fight where in my head, I have to ignore the fact that one of my limbs was not working.”
At this point, the result doesn’t really matter. Sure, it was half Yoder’s paycheck, but what glory there is in doing something 99.9 percent of the population wouldn’t even consider. That kind of courage won’t show up on a list of the best strawweight fighters in the world, but it will be something Yoder will have as a badge of honor for the rest of her life.
That’s real fighter stuff. I ask her when she knew she was a fighter.
“I think it was when surviving my brother's beatdowns,” Yoder said of the hazing she would get from her sibling and his friends while their mother was at work. “The instances of having a big brother that really put me through the ringer and made me fight, made me realize how tough I am. I think that's when I realized I'm a fighter. And, at the end of the day, I'm still here and able to talk about it. So I feel like that's validation in itself.”
Yoder’s brother, Michael, tragically died in a motorcycle accident on her 18th birthday, when fighting was the last thing on her mind. In fact, doing this professionally wasn’t even close to being on her radar. What would Michael have thought about his little sister fighting in the UFC?
“Well, it's kind of funny because I wish I could have that conversation because it's so out of my element. I was a cheerleader, dancer, swimmer, and now I'm this fighter. And really, I started because of him. I had anger issues from losing him, and that was my therapy. So I would like to think he'd be my biggest fan. I really do. Because he'd be like, ‘Yeah, I deserve some of that credit for making you as tough as you are.’ But it'd be an interesting conversation. It would be like, I don't know, just out of left field. ‘Oh, so this is what you're doing now?’ It’s completely out of my demeanor. My high school teachers still cannot believe I'm a professional fighter. It just blows their minds.”
It should, because if anyone doesn’t fit the stereotype of a prizefighter, it’s the 35-year-old Yoder, one of the most pleasant people you will run into in this game. But she is all-fighter, and it was through Michael that she learned that you don’t let someone else see you sweat or know that you’re hurt. And when asked if she ever told her mom about getting beat up by her brother and his pals, that was a no-no.
“You have to understand,” she said. “When my brother passed away, of course I told my mom everything. But no, it was one of those rules. My brother's like, ‘If you narc on me, then you're not allowed to do anything with me or my friends and I'm not driving you to school.’ So I kind of suffered in silence. I really did. One time I broke my arm when I was snowboarding and my brother made me sit on the side of where he was snowboarding, not even where it was warm, before he would take me to the emergency room because he wanted to finish snowboarding. Yeah, it's crazy. And then he’s like, don't tell mom I did that.”
As a New Yorker, I don’t get speechless too often. This was one of those times.
“Dude,” she laughs. “It's some redneck stuff. That's what that is.”
It certainly took Yoder’s toughness to new levels. Yes, the 8-8 record isn’t what she’d like it to be, but 10 of those fights have been in the UFC, she’s fought elite competition night in and night out, and she’s gone the full 15 minutes – win or lose – every time. That’s not easy, but she has no regrets.
“No regrets at all,” said Yoder. “I think as a younger fighter, I wish I would've listened to my body. When we do have bumps and bruises, it's kind of like ‘suck it up; your opponent has no days off.’ I think that's the most bulls**t thing you could say to someone that really is working hard because that instills this lazy mentality that is not really there. So if I could talk to my younger self, I’d say when you listen to your body, take care of your body, it's not important to be the toughest fighter. It's important to be an efficient fighter.”
Yoder has proven her toughness throughout her career. Maybe in her return on Saturday against Emily Ducote, it’s time to add efficiency into that mix. She’s done it in the gym. Now it’s time to do it on fight night. And she’s prepared to do just that – for the first time in a long time.
“I missed the actual competition,” she said. “One of the things I didn't realize I was going to miss is seeing my friends get all these fights and then I'm like, ‘Man, I want to be out there.’ And I think it comes from me wanting to prove myself. When you don't get a finish in a fight or you don't get your hand raised, you're like, ‘Man, I know I’m better than this. Let me go in the gym and fix my mistakes and get back out there.’ So I think I'm just trying to get to this goal in my own head of seeing the best Ashley possible before it gets past me. I'm not as young as I was when I started, and I know it doesn't last forever, but I still feel like I'm kind of in my prime and I have a huge chip on my shoulder that I'm trying to prove to myself.”
UFC Fight Night: Yusuff vs Barboza took place live from the UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada on October 14, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!