Last Saturday was one of the biggest fights of my life.
On June 17th, I was crowned the new bantamweight TuffnUff champion.
Last year, I fell short in a devastating manner, and it stung like nothing else I’ve ever emotionally felt before.
My successful winning streak went up in smoke, and I began to doubt myself and my abilities.
Over time that doubt led to a fire lit under me. I used it to take those negative feelings and cultivated them to push me through training, and do more to improve myself.
From mitts with my boxing coach John Heath, mitts with my MMA coach John Wood, and personal strength and conditioning lessons on top of my normal routine, I wanted nothing more than to get better. Like many of my peers on the spectrum, I became tunnel visioned in my area of passion…both fighting AND winning.
It’s easy for people to see the physical things they need to work on. You look in a mirror, watch videos, etc and you see where you need improvement. But, you can’t watch your brain and see what needs improvement.
THAT is the tricky part.
Reining in my mind, and the chaos within, is what requires serious dedication. For me, it requires more training than any physical things I do.
As I’ve matured, I have accepted some things about my brain. The light and noise sensitivity is not going to go away. Ever.
It’s just how I am wired.
And in regards to those things I can’t necessarily “fake it till I make it,” like being out in public, expending all the energy I got to keep cool, so I don’t have to feel paranoid about people watching and judging me… I have to learn how to deal with that.
Before my fight I decided to reach out to the sanctioning body that would be at the event I fought in, and explained my issues, and requested appropriate and small accommodations.
Although I had what I called a “backhanded favor” from the head of the commission, who ultimately did agree to accommodate my requests.
I was also happy to have familiar faces in referees, who I knew would support my needs while still maintaining an absolute non-biased fairness when it came to the actual fight.
Chris Tognoni, who was my ref in my last TuffnUff fight, approached me and seemed apologetic about last year.
The story about how I was overstimmed when he was making sure I was ready to fight, apparently reached his ear.
At the end of the day it wasn’t really his fault, I didn’t let anyone know cause I thought I could fight my own battles in my brain.
It just didn’t work.
Chris was never really aware of my triggers, or specifics of my form of autism before.
I’m really thankful to him for wanting to talk about it before the fights, and I really appreciate him, and TuffnUff for understanding, and making things go smoothly, and not making me feel embarrassed for being a little different as a fighter and human being.
Prior to my fight, I had to (for lack of better words) fight myself to turn my brain off.
I had flashbacks on constant replay to my loss last year, and all of the dark devastating feeling afterwards. Panic and depression reigned in my head, along with streaks of self-doubt and hopelessness. If you’ve ever read Harry Potter, the way J.K. Rowlings describes the effects of dementors…that’s pretty close to what I experience.
I’m really fortunate that Coach Wood and Lorenzo (my strength and conditioning coach) are in my ear. They know how to talk me through, and helped me refocus in time for me to walk (or rather run) out.
I’m grateful that the Nevada State Athletic Commission and the fight venue, TuffnUff accommodated me, and let me wear my hat and hoodie for the walk to the cage for the fight.
I wear hoodies a lot to prevent me from really feeling when people are touching me, and to me at least it feels like a constant hug, which is comforting. Even when it’s in the 100’s out here in Vegas, I have my hoodie with me, and I put it on when I need to.
My hat shields me from the light, and limits my exposure, so I don’t get those awful migraines that comes when too much light hits me.
It was finally time to fight this time, I was excited!
I waited so long for this moment.
I was ready to showcase my talent against a tough woman, one with loads of experience, and from a well known gym.
During the fight, everything flowed perfectly.
Everything I worked on, and trained for came out on display.
After nine minutes of action and showing dominance, I felt I had my redemption and I was finally back on track.
All of the struggles, the training the pain, all worth it, seeing my back to back losing streak snapped.
I was able to see my Mama, Roxy, and my little brother tearing up.
I was back to being a good role model.
Best of all, I was able to show Coach Wood how much I appreciated having him support me, as I led thousands of fight fans singing “Happy Birthday” to him. I’m no Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday, so thank goodness I had 12,000 or so backup singers!
At the end of the day, this fight was about life lessons: Work hard and push through, even if it sucks. Especially if it sucks! And keep going even if you don’t want to.
Trust the people who really care for you, and be honest with those around you, because as Dr. Seuss said, “you have to be odd to be number one!”
Serena DeJesus is the First Female Professional Mixed Martial Artist with Autism. She's 5-2 in her MMA career, has the Tuff-n-uff Bantamweight Champion Belt, and is an active autism ambassador for the non-profit Fighting For Autism. When she isn't training or fighting you can find her nose buried in philosophy books or video games. To read more from Serena, check out her blog.