Fighter identity is one of the most compelling aspects of our sport.
MMA’s individuality affords athletes to create their own cult of personality. Consider Donald Cerrone; the winningest fighter in UFC history and the sport’s own Marlboro man – delivered from the Gold Rush era to save us from the norm. Former champions Matt Hughes and Stipe Miocic are cut from the same cloth; champions whose collars remain proudly blue.
In the women’s bantamweight and featherweight divisions, one such personality is Tonya Evinger.
The Odessa, Missouri native is regarded as one of the key pioneers of women’s MMA, making her professional debut in June 2006. Her tout that night with Jennifer Tate was the first female bout to be sanctioned by the California State Athletic Commission. She went on to fight in Elite XC, Titan FC, and Invicta FC, becoming one of the latter’s longest-serving bantamweight champions, before signing with UFC in 2017.
Speaking to John Hyon Ko of The Body Lock, the veteran reflects on a pioneering career, the difficulties of finding female sparring partners, and her upcoming bout with Lina Lansberg, doing it all whilst holding down one of the most dangerous 9 to 5s in the world…
From drilling in the gym to drilling for oil
Two minutes into her conversation with The Body Lock, Tonya Evinger’s badassery becomes apparent. Not content with the life of an elite fighter, and the struggles that come with it, for weeks at a time she is isolated out on the sea, drilling for oil.
“It’s hard work,” Evinger laughs. “Two weeks on, two weeks off, so I only have to work half the month… but it is hard.”
The system works well for Evinger, affording her a stream of financial revenue and a career outside of the cage. Nevertheless, physically, she feels like the candle can too often burn at both ends.
“I figured the hard work would keep me in shape, but it just wears me out,” Evinger said.
A long, winding road of a career
Now thirty-seven, Tonya Evinger is undoubtedly an MMA legend. Her road to the Invicta bantamweight title was long and arduous, one that saw her compete against the world’s best for nine years before capturing the title in 2015.
Following three successful defenses of her title (and one no-contest over Yana Kunitskaya), “Triple Threat” debuted for the UFC on short notice against the indomitable Cris Cyborg for the featherweight strap in 2017, succumbing to the Brazilian’s violent onslaught in the third round.
Despite the result, her future in the promotion seemed bright; having taken Cyborg further than the majority of her opponents, Evinger looked to be the real deal, even at 145 pounds. A match-up with rising prospect Aspen Ladd in late 2018 was an opportunity to put other UFC bantamweights on notice, but signs of wear and tear from her storied career were beginning to show.
“I worked hard to get back to where I was,” began Evinger, “but, there’s not much I could’ve done. I had an injury like no other and had to have two surgeries. I think I came back a little [too] early, but it’s hard to sit out for a long time and not know where I’m at.”
Something was clearly off in Evinger’s performance that night. Her movement, usually crisp and precise to set up her outstanding boxing, was stiff and labored, and her inability to explode out from underneath her opponent resulted in Ladd finishing the fight with her trademark ground and pound from top position.
That “L” on her record is clearly frustrating for Evinger, who embodies the warrior mentality of some of the sport’s greatest and most violent figures. But, as can often be the case, the irresistible call of the cage can get in the way of much-needed time away from it for Evinger.
“Any kind of loss like that sucks. I was just in positions that I’ve never been in; I couldn’t scramble my leg. I think it’s just the nerve damage,” said Evinger.
Tonya Evinger on upcoming Lina Lansberg battle
Now rested and back into training at full capacity, Tonya Evinger has her sights set on fellow veteran fighter Lina Lansberg at UFC on ESPN+ 11 on June 1st, which will be held in Stockholm, Sweden.
Traveling to face a Swedish fighter in her own backyard could be an intimidating prospect for many, but Evinger is just looking to punch in, throw down, and get out, and move her UFC trajectory back onto a positive path in the process.
“It’s just another fight and another day at work,” said Evinger. “I plan on going in there, getting in a fight, and [coming] home with the ‘W’ and [getting] right back on track. I feel like I was at the top of my game before this injury, so I don’t want that to be the changing factor for my career in any way. I think I just need to jump back in there, do what I do, and hit it hard.”
At this stage in her career, Tonya Evinger knows the ins and outs of fight preparation. Predominantly based out of Houston’s Metro Fight Club, the former Invicta champ trusts who she knows and vice versa. If one can tell a lot about someone from the company they keep, then Evinger remains a somewhat closed book; but insists the team she’s built knows how best to get the most out of her on fight night.
“I’m real picky about my training,” Evinger said. “I train with the same people under my boxing coach; [when] I go to another gym, I train with the same people. Some are amateur, some are professional; they’re just a great group of guys who I can trust.”
And what of any favorite female sparring partners? Well, the truth is, Evinger hasn’t had much luck finding any.
“It’s weird ’cause I’m always super cool with everybody to come in and train with me. But, it’s weird, girls don’t tend to come into town to train with me. It’s almost like everybody’s too afraid to come.”
Scenes of an old Western movie, in which a lone gunslinger stands unchallenged thanks to a fearsome reputation, come to mind.
“I think – maybe they think I’m a creep – but it’s probably because I’m so good looking, I don’t know,” Evinger joked.
Fighting until the well runs dry
2019 marks the 13th year of Tonya Evinger’s professional career.
Two years removed from her title fight against Cyborg, she still harbors championship aspirations. However, if you ask an MMA fan who their favorite fighter is, it is rarely those with the longest title reigns or the champ-champs. It’s the meat and potatoes pugilists who just want to live paycheck to paycheck and fist to fist, reminiscent of days from a society gone by.
Cerrone, Miocic, and Evinger: all guns for hire in one of the industry’s last band of outlaws.
And once an outlaw, always an outlaw: Tonya Evinger plans to leave it all in the Octagon for the baying townspeople until the money runs out. At that point, she’ll saddle up and ride to the next town down the road.
“Win, lose, draw. I don’t give a (expletive). I’m going to go out there and fight every fight, and I’m going to fight until they decide they don’t want to pay me no more. Then, I’m gonna find somebody else who’ll pay me a little less, then I’m gonna do that to them until they quit paying me.”