Between her amateur and professional careers, JJ Aldrich has been chasing her mixed martial arts dreams for nearly a dozen years.
She was 18 years old when she competed as an amateur for the first time and made her professional debut just a few weeks prior to her 22nd birthday. In each instance, she secured a victory, and then lost the next time out.
It’s been that way for much of her career — good performances chased by setbacks; little runs of success getting halted before they can really build into something bigger — but after a year off following her split decision loss to Sabina Mazo at UFC 246, Aldrich took a step back in order to start taking multiple steps forward.
“At the time, taking that year off due to injury felt like the end of the world, but looking back at it, I feel like it was the best thing for me,” admitted the 28-year-old, who kicked off her 2021 campaign with a victory over Cortney Casey in January. “It made me take a step back and re-evaluate where I wanted my career to go — if I’m just fighting to fight or if I’m fighting because I want to get somewhere with it.
“I feel like a lot of times you get caught in the hamster wheel where you’re just going and going — you get a fight, you go back to the gym, and you keep doing the same things that you always do. For me, having to take that step back and not being able to train, I had the opportunity to figure out exactly what I wanted to get better at and what I wanted to achieve.”
The victory over Casey was a good first step — a hard-fought win over a perennially tough out, and a reminder that despite being a pro for more than seven years and spending more than half of that time on the UFC roster, the Colorado native is just now starting to settle into life in the flyweight division and get to a point where she can compete night in and night out with the very best in the 125-pound weight class.
Aldrich began her pro career competing at strawweight, going 2-1 in her first three outings before landing a spot on Season 23 of The Ultimate Fighter, where she was a member of Team Jedrzejczyk and eliminated by the eventual winner, Tatiana Suarez. She returned to the regional circuit after the show, registering victories over veterans Kathina Catron and Lynn Alvarez before getting the call to replace Suarez in a bout against Juliana Lima on a fight card in Upstate New York in early December 2016.
While her short notice debut didn’t go her way, Aldrich rebounded with three straight victories before moving up to flyweight and landing on the wrong side of a second-round stoppage opposite Maycee Barber. She’s gone 2-1 since, alternating wins and losses, culminating in the victory over Casey earlier this year, and is now poised to start stringing together wins and climb the divisional ladder.
“I feel like I’ve matured a lot in the past year, two years with my training and the fact that I’m still growing as an athlete, even though I’ve been in the UFC for so long now and been a pro fighter for seven years,” said Aldrich, who faces Vanessa Demopoulos this Saturday. “I feel like I’m still able to grow and get better, and I feel like that’s important because you see some people get to the pinnacle or be in the UFC for X amount of fights and plateau.”
One of the key contributors has been settling in at flyweight and having the time to actual build her body to compete in the more physical 125-pound weight class.
“It’s been a big, big help for me,” the Brazilian jiu jitsu brown belt began. “I was killing myself to make ’15 for the first part of my career, and coming up to ’25, it took a little bit for my body to adjust; to be able to gain muscle and not just constantly be cutting. I feel like my maturity level as an athlete has grown, but also my body has changed a lot in the past year by being able to level out and not constantly being in a push to cut weight.
“I had a rough patch at first at ’25 and I think that injury made me take a step back,” she continued, tethering the two major threads factors in her renewed optimism and excitement together. “I think it was the best thing for me and moving forward, I feel more focused than I have ever been.
“I take more responsibility for my training instead of just going and doing whatever my coaches tell me. I know what I need to do to be prepared for a fight, and I know what I need to do mentally and physically to get there.”
Initially scheduled to face surging Dana White’s Contender Series alum Tracy Cortez, Aldrich saw the pairing as a perfect distillation of the “either or” approach she wants to take when it comes to her fights going forward.
“I want to make sure my career is going in the right direction,” offered the gritty young veteran. “If I’m not fighting someone who is ranked, I want to I want to make sure I’m taking fights that count.
“That’s’ a fight I wanted for myself,” she said of the bout with Cortez, who was forced out of the matchup with an undisclosed injury. “If I’m not fighting ranked people, I want to fight someone people are talking about because I want to steal their thunder and keep my momentum going for myself.”
While that may not be in the cards this time around, it will remain the guiding factor in Aldrich’s decision-making process from here on out, and now that she’s settled in physically and locked in mentally, don’t be surprised if the skilled and tested 28-year-old starts stringing together victories and making a run towards the Top 15 in the flyweight division.