When Season 18 of “The Ultimate Fighter” began, it would have been difficult to find anyone picking Jessica Rakoczy to win the women’s tournament on the reality TV show.
She was the final selection when coaches Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate picked teams at the end of the first episode.
Whether it was her age (36) or record (1-3) in the four mixed martial arts bouts she competed in on the side while winning several world boxing titles, there seemed to be plenty of reasons Rakoczy couldn’t win.
But she wasn’t going to accept any of them. Rakoczy won her elimination bout to get into the house on the show, then defeated two opponents to reach the bantamweight final, where she will fight Julianna Pena tonight for the season title and guaranteed six-figure contract on The Ultimate Fighter 18 Finale card at Mandalay Bay.
The famous catch phrase of the show, coined during an emotional, off-the-cuff speech by Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White during Season 1 of the show, is “Do you want to be a (expletive) fighter?”
Rakoczy has been fighting her whole life.
She moved out of her mother’s house at age 15 because of a violently abusive stepfather. Six months later, her mother died under mysterious circumstances
“We still don’t know how my mom died. We have no answers,” Rakoczy wrote at the time the episode aired in her weekly blog about the reality show for USA Today. “Anybody can make an assumption. This man abused my mom so bad, and then all of a sudden she’s gone, and they don’t do an autopsy because he had her cremated right away. We had no answers as to what happened to her, and then he moved to Cuba. So anyone is free to make their own assumptions.”
Telling the story on national television was a difficult experience, but Rakoczy doesn’t have any regrets.
“It’s part of me,” she said. “It’s a part of who I am.”
The tragedy sapped Rakoczy’s ambition. The once-promising athlete in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, dropped out of school and lacked direction.
Then she found boxing when she was 20, and it turned around her life. She would win eight world titles, the last one in January when she moved to 33-3 by capturing the vacant WIBA super bantamweight belt with a unanimous decision over Ada Velez.
She took her first MMA bout in 2009 and was competing in both disciplines, but jumped at the chance to reach the UFC, which formed a women’s division last year and has opened the door to bigger opportunities for females than boxing.
Rakoczy saw the chance to make a splash, though she knows she’s different from many past winners of the reality show who were young prospects with years to make an impact.
“For me, I definitely put the pressure on myself to succeed quickly,” said Rakoczy, who moved to Las Vegas in 2000 to train with Dewey Cooper. “Everyone knows I’m the oldest one on the show, and I know I don’t have a whole lot of time left. I have to push it to get to the top as soon as I can.”
She’s also motivated by her 4-year-old son, Jesse. Those maternal instincts were apparent on the show, where she was often seen cooking and cleaning the house.
Rakoczy made it clear from the beginning, however, that she was there to win.
Now on the verge of beating the odds, and the expectations of the coaches and her fellow competitors, Rakoczy is starting to embrace what a victory tonight would mean.
This is the first season women have competed on the show.
“It’s history,” Rakoczy said. “To be the first female winner would be something remembered forever. Being a part of something like that would be a great accomplishment for me.
“To win that would mean all the blood, sweat and tears, all the sacrifice would be worth it.”
The Rakoczy-Pena fight is part of a main card that will air on Fox Sports 1 (Cable 329) at 7 p.m. Bantamweights Davey Grant and Chris Holdsworth will fight for the men’s season title.
The main event is the third matchup between former UFC lightweight title challengers Gray Maynard and Nate Diaz. Diaz defeated Maynard on his way to winning the Season 5 championship on the reality show. Maynard exacted revenge with a split-decision victory in 2010.
The preliminary card will air on Fox Sports 1 at 5 p.m.
Contact reporter Adam Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.