Can Mike Tyson-inspired Aspen Ladd finally break through at UFC Rochester?

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Aspen Ladd leaves the Octagon after her victory over Tonya Evinger during UFC 229 at T-Mobile Arena on Oct. 6, 2018, in Las Vegas. (Getty Images)
Aspen Ladd leaves the Octagon after her victory over Tonya Evinger during UFC 229 at T-Mobile Arena on Oct. 6, 2018, in Las Vegas. (Getty Images)

Always get the name of the dog. That’s one of the first things they tell you, when you become a reporter. So I asked Aspen Ladd – UFC’s No. 6 bantamweight contender – for the names of her three.

Granite, Kaia and Chevy, the fighter said. Chevy is a German Shepherd. Granite and Kaia are Siberian Huskies. This trio — the pack, as Ladd calls them — travels with their owner almost daily on hikes near the picturesque Folsom Lake in Northern California. Together, they traverse distances which often exceed 10 miles. Almost always, Ladd posts photos from their journeys to Instagram — shots that sometimes feel as though they’ve been ripped from the pages of National Geographic.

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The names Granite, Kaia and Chevy might mean as much to Ladd as any. But the feeling she gets climbing the Northern California foothills with her four-legged friends means so much more.

“It’s my relaxation,” Ladd said. “My peace. I love getting out there with them.”

See, names don’t really matter to Ladd. For the bantamweight, the greatest challenges lie within. The undefeated contender (7-0) measures her performance not against others, but against herself. The possibilities of future clashes against the stars of the bantamweight division are nothing but distractions.

“Ever since she started with us when she was 17, it has always been one step at a time,” said her longtime coach, Jim West. “One fight at a time. 'Cause she doesn't ever look past that. And, that's what keeps, in my opinion, what keeps her really focused on what she's trying to do.”

The name Holly Holm was linked to Ladd’s for a time, earlier this year. The two were ticketed to do battle at UFC 235 in March, but the bout was scuttled in favor of a title showdown between Holm and Amanda Nunes in July.

The change in plans deprived Ladd of a possible star-making opportunity against one of the sport’s best-known figures. It would have been a chance for a 24-year-old rising star to instantly put herself in the title mix.

“She was pissed for about a day,” West admitted. “Maybe a couple of days, to be fair.”

Ladd pleaded guilty as charged.

“It was frustrating, disappointing to find out,” Ladd said.

But Ladd claims she promptly shook off the resentment and got back to work.

“Within a day, [I realized] there's nothing I could do about it but move on,” Ladd said. “Get ready for the next one.”

The next one, it turns out, is the same as a previous one — Sijara Eubanks, whom Ladd defeated by unanimous decision at Invicta 21 in January 2017. The two will meet in a rematch on Saturday at UFC Fight Night 152 in Rochester, New York, in a card streamed on ESPN+.

But West claims that his fighter is not viewing this return bout against an opponent she’s already dispatched as a setback.

“Look, there's — let's say 30 girls in the UFC at 135 pounds,” he said. “She wants to fight 'em all. And, each fight is her next most difficult, you know, the toughest fight in the world. And, whoever she fights next, this time is obviously Sijara, she's the next toughest opponent there is. And, she doesn't look past that. She wants to fight 'em all on the journey into becoming the best female there is. And not just female — but the best all-around fighter in MMA.”

Aspen Ladd (top) only needed one round to TKO Tonya Evinger (bottom) at UFC 229 on Oct. 6, 2018, in Las Vegas. (Getty Images)
Aspen Ladd (top) only needed one round to TKO Tonya Evinger (bottom) at UFC 229 on Oct. 6, 2018, in Las Vegas. (Getty Images)

The talk is ambitious, but then, Ladd’s skills are first-rate. A Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu purple belt, Ladd has shown a prolific striking ability in her first two UFC contests. At UFC 229, she finished off Tonya Evinger at 3:26 of the first round with some relentless ground and pound.

Interestingly, Ladd doesn’t recall the particulars of her big win — one that earned her Performance of the Night honors.

“As far as being in the moment and trying to remember the play-by-play, it doesn't work,” Ladd said. “It’s not necessarily a blur, but you feel pumped up on adrenaline. When you're in there, you're just focus on what you're doing at the time and afterwards, you're like, ‘Oh wait, that happened.’”

Whether Ladd remembers it or not, the quick knockout did happen. Great finishing ability was always a hallmark of Mike Tyson – the combat sports name Ladd promptly drops when asked to cite someone who has served as an influence.

“His explosiveness, the raw aggression that he displayed,” Ladd said. “That is what I truly admire.”

Those are traits Ladd admires, and traits she looks to emulate.

“As a fighter I want to show, that it’s not ... you have a lot of tit-for-tat kind of fights,” she said. “People who go in and are like, ‘I'm going to maybe try to win’ — that’s not what it's about. I'm going in and trying to put the opponent away, every single time. I'm trying to put on the best possible show that I can. I love what I do. I love to fight.”

She loved it, in fact, from the time she began doing it at age 17. Loved it from the moment she was shown how to apply an arm bar.

“I was just a very shy kid that needed something to do,” Ladd said. “And I wanted to practice some kind of martial arts and I did not know what MMA was when I walked into the gym.”

She added: “I walked in, I figured it out real quick. And then within a week, I knew I wanted to fight when I turned 18.”

From there, it has been a methodical, but effective climb. Seven names have been put before her. Seven have been turned aside. And yet Aspen Ladd’s work has only just begun. She is on a quest to show UFC fans what she has long believed: that the only name in the bantamweight division that matters is her own.

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