The first time Arianny Celeste was an Octagon girl at an Ultimate Fighting Championship card, Dana White thought she was trying to race someone. She got up and went around the cage so quickly, it looked to White as if she were late for an appointment.
"She was so shy in the beginning," the colorful UFC president recalled about the card in Las Vegas in 2006 when Celeste made her debut. "She's really grown into the role. She's by far – by far – our most popular Octagon girl. We get more requests for her than anyone. And she's a big part of the show."
I'm not sure, but I'm guessing she's about to become just a little bit bigger part of the show given her latest news. Celeste is the cover girl of the November issue of Playboy, which hits newsstands on Friday, and is featured in an eight-page nude photo spread.
She was a 21-year-old college sophomore at UNLV in 2006 who didn't know the first thing about mixed martial arts when she tried out for the gig.
"Basically, all I knew about it from what I had heard was that you had to be able to walk around in a bikini and I said, 'OK, I can handle that,' " Celeste said. "I was doing modeling gigs on the side in Vegas to get some extra money when I heard about the casting for the UFC. I had no idea what it was. It was a paycheck."
It was only supposed to be a one-night gig and that was more than fine with Celeste. But not long later, White and Craig Borsari, the UFC's senior vice president of productions and operations, were on the phone asking her if she's like to work UFC 70 in Manchester, England, as well. At that event, White offered her the gig full-time and she's never looked back.
She's become more popular than all but a handful of the UFC's biggest-name fighters. She is in demand for appearances at trade shows, fan outings and promotional events and has been more on the cover of numerous magazines.
She's the second UFC Octagon girl to appear on the cover of Playboy, following Rachelle Leah, who appeared on the cover of the November 2008 issue.
"There isn't much bigger than being on the cover of Playboy," White said. "It's one of those iconic things that will be remembered forever. It's huge for her and it's huge for the UFC."
Celeste, though, doesn't want to be typecast as just a swimsuit model. She majored in fitness management and nutrition at UNLV and wants to further her brand in those areas.
"Carmen Electra meets J-Lo," she calls the "sexy, healthy fitness brand," that she hopes to advance in her future.
She recorded a song, "Fight to Love Me," that will be released at the end of the year. Though it isn't a UFC project, the UFC has gotten involved and plans to help her market and promote it.
"This is a really sharp girl and believe me, she's a really good singer," White said. "She has a lot going for her."
The Playboy shoot was her first appearance in the popular magazine, though it wasn't the first time she was asked. She was approached in 2008, but didn't have the confidence in herself then that she does now, so she declined.
The UFC boomed in the intervening two years and Celeste's profile grew along with it. When she was offered the cover earlier this year, which is more evidence of the UFC's success in the young male demographic, she had no question that she'd accept.
"I was younger and a lot more shy back then, so [posing in Playboy] was pretty iffy," she said. "They asked me again this year and they offered me the cover and I was mentally ready for it. My body has changed and my mentality and my confidence have changed. I was very excited. It was a great opportunity and it came at the perfect time in my life."
She's headed to London for UFC 120 on Saturday, then will return to the U.S. for UFC 121 in Anaheim, Calif., a week later, on Oct. 23. That card will be headlined by a heavyweight title match between unbeaten challenger Cain Velasquez and the champion, Brock Lesnar, one of Celeste's favorites.
"We have so many amazing fighters, but I really love the ones who bring it and Brock does that every time," she said. "So does Clay Guida. No matter if he wins or loses, you know it's always going to be an amazing fight. Randy Couture is another guy. He's a super sweetheart, but when he gets in the Octagon, he's an incredible fighter.
"Anderson Silva is one of my favorites. He's not just an amazing fighter, but he's a really nice person, too. There are so many of them who are incredible, it's hard to even name them all."