I spoke with UFC strawweight Pearl Gonzalez about the story of her life, career, and of course, the bizarre circumstances surrounding her UFC debut at UFC 210.
How did you discover MMA?
“I started MMA when I was eleven years old. I was being raised by my Dad at the time as a single parent and he worked lots of hours and I was getting into trouble. He needed something to keep me busy. I was a pretty angry kid and so he wanted to get me into fighting. I was always what he called the boy he never had. So he enrolled me into MMA at 11 years old.”
When you were younger did you see yourself becoming a professional or was there something else you imagined you would do and MMA was more of a hobby?
“When I was young I did not like it at first. I was like ‘This sucks! I got hit!’ One of the women [where I trained] said to me ‘Quit being so prissy! Get tough!’ Once I learned how to channel my energy and use that as an outlet for my anger and my emotions, it was my world. At the time, it still wasn’t big for women or girls. When I would compete, at 11, it would be with older women who were obviously bigger and stronger. It started just as a hobby but it actually taught me that this is how you deal with your anger and your emotions.”
Fans learned a lot about you during your interview on the MMA Hour. You spoke about your time in jail and your circumstances at the time. What do you remember telling yourself during that time to help get yourself out of that situation?
“It started when I was 18. I had my sister with me at the time. It was hard for me to get a job because I had been in jail. As soon as the nine days were over, I realized at a young age that this was not the life that I wanted to live. I wasn’t sure what life I wanted to live because in reality, I didn’t have many positive role models or people telling me ‘you can do this or that with your life.’ It wasn’t until my aunt, who was an actress and model in LA, moved back to Chicago and took me under her wing. I was so depressed, confused, and lost. I felt like my life was over. She taught me about networking, how to write down my goals and how to go after them. She showed me a whole new way of life.”
In terms of your professional career, how did MMA coincide with how you were trying to change your life?
“I got a job at 21. I was overweight, I think I was 175 pounds at the time since my divorce from my first husband. My dad had called me and he said ‘I accidentally called Bob and Teresa’ who I used to train with when I was a kid. He said they told me they think I should go back. I thought about it, I was fat and depressed so I was like ‘Why not?’ My dad said he would pay for my first four months. I went back and I grew to love it, started losing weight and feeling better. Not even three weeks later I had my first amateur MMA fight. I kept competing and it became my goal to go pro. I would hang out at the gym and would be the last person to leave. I would picture it and I’d cover my apartment with pictures of these fitness girls and stuff and that was my process of becoming a professional fighter.”
What do you remember most about your early days as a professional? What were your biggest challenges in terms of growing as a mixed martial artist?
“I’ve always catered more to the ground and been more of a grappler. I think my struggles were more of what else it takes to become a professional athlete. At first you just start training, so then you commit to training and obsess about that. Then there’s the diet. I think the diet was the biggest struggle. I was an emotional eater so I always had that struggle. Then came the focus, focusing on where you are in your camp and in competition. Even today, after doing this for so long, I learn new things and the new levels to get to. I think UFC 210 really showed me what it takes at that next level.”
By now everyone is familiar with the debacle at UFC 210. You’re signed to fight Cynthia Calvillo in your UFC debut and on Friday you weigh in. Then the news breaks and it explodes on social media. What thoughts went through your mind because you were set to make your debut but all everyone wants to do talk about is talk about something else?
“I think one of the toughest lessons I’ve had to learn in my life is if I can’t change something, if I can’t affect it, why let that stress me out? Why let that bother me? Why let that affect me? And I still fall short on that sometimes. My mind was spinning. My phone was blowing up, my social media was blowing up. Obviously the fights off and it’s just everywhere. And I told myself that I could let it stress myself out and sit there and cry, or I could just accept what is right now and know in my heart that they are going to figure this out. I tried to stay off my social media but my family is sending me stuff like ‘You’re on ESPN.’ or ‘You’re on TMZ.’ My husband is texting me saying ‘They have your picture on military pages, they have your picture.’ So it was crazy. I just tried to stay calm and not stress myself out because there was nothing I could do about it.”
We saw you address the media and I think it was impressive how well your represented yourself following the resolution that Friday. What was the toughest question you had to answer that day?
“All of it honestly. Every day for fight week was a challenge, it was exciting and nerve wrecking. After I got done weighing in and the UFC asked me to go talk to the media I heard them all talking about me. So just going out there was a lot, I was hoping I didn’t stutter and that I said all the right things. There wasn’t just one particular question, it was all a big challenge for me.”
Women’s MMA is having a second surge in popularity recently. Not just the UFC but other major promotions are really taking the women in their lighter weight classes and pushing them front and center. Why do you think that is that the women are gaining new traction recently?
“I think one, women are beautiful. I think that everybody loves women. And two, I think we’re really talented. We bring a lot of emotion and passion into this and that’s exciting. We go out there and we show our skills and we’re beautiful as women and I think that is why we’re so popular.”
Another thing fans and the media say is that it seems that the women just seem to fight harder than the men. Why do you think it is that the women always seem to steal the show?
“Hormones! No just playing, I think that we just have a lot to prove as women. I do think that just with hormones, we’re just emotional beings and that’s just why that is. At least, that’s my take on it.”
Has anything been said to you about your next fight?
“There has not yet. I’m just still training and focusing on getting better every single day. I don’t want to sit, I want to stay active. I want to show my skills and what I can do because I didn’t get to at 210.”
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