SCOTTSDALE – Tracy Cortez’s entire life has been a fight, whether outside the cage or in it.
Her wrestling coach, Angel Cejudo, recalls Cortez wrestling with boys before it turned into a fist fight, ending with Cortez making them cry.
“She was a fighter from day one,” he said about Cortez, who will make her UFC debut on Saturday at UFC Fight Night 164 in Brazil. “You have to be when you come from a family of hard work plus three older brothers that are all wrestlers. She was tough from the get-go. I guess you don’t have no choice but to be tough.”
Cortez became interested in mixed martial arts after watching her oldest brother, Jose, fight against Tucson’s Drew Fickett in 2008.
It wasn’t always easy. The Phoenix native went through a rough five year stretch when she lost her mother and Jose to cancer. She dedicates her fights to both because of the belief they had in her.
“I want to get my hand raised in that cage and look up and say, ‘This for you guys’ because honestly, they believed in me so much more than to this day than I believe in myself,” Cortez said. “And that’s why I keep going because every time I want to stop, I hear my mom’s voice in the back of my head, what she would tell me in Spanish.”
Cortez never wanted to make mixed martial arts her career path. She was interested in interior design and even looked into schools for physical therapy.
Once she transitioned to fighting, it did not start out planned as she suffered a submission defeat in round two at the hands of Cheri Muraski under the promotion Invicta FC.
But Cortez won her next six fights, including one against Mariya Agapova in Dana White’s Contender Series, which helped her earn a contract with the UFC.
Cortez moved from Women’s Flyweight to Women’s Bantamweight for her first fight in the UFC against Vanessa Melo. Her coaching staff wanted her to fight before the end of 2019, she said, and the UFC wanted her to fight on this card.
That was accompanied by a little drama.
Friday morning, Cortez (6-1 MMA, 0-0 UFC) and Melo (10-6 MMA, 0-1 UFC) weighed in over the limit at 136.5 pounds, USA Today reported. But hours later, the Comissao Atletica Brasileira de MMA stated the scale was not correctly calibrated, and their recorded weights were changed to 136 pounds, the proper limit.
After this fight, she plans to move back to the Women’s Flyweight division.
Cortez, 25, was surprised to hear that she was offered a fight in Brazil and against an opponent who fights in a division above hers.
“A weight class above me against a bigger stronger girl,” Cortez said. “Sure, you know, I love challenges. And I was like, ‘Sure, why not?’”
Cortez’s mindset is to keep working and pushing through during training because she reflects on the fight her mother and brother had with cancer and how they never quit.
“An extra five minutes of running isn’t going to kill me,” Cortez said. “Go and I just keep going … just because I have that stuck in my head. They were fighting for their lives and they didn’t quit. ‘Don’t you dare quit on this treadmill.’ You know, so that’s my mindset. That really is.”
Cortez wants to embrace the moment she walks out to the cage, no matter how the crowd reacts.
“I’m never going to get that moment again,” Cortez said. “So, I’m excited. I’m excited to live in the moment while I’m there.”
At her mother’s request, Cortez walks out to the song “Como la Flor” by Selena.
She could always immediately spot where her mother was because she could hear her mother yell her name.
“I don’t know how that little human had the loudest voice in the entire crowd,” Cortez said.
Although she’s fighting for herself and the memory of her family, Cortez also wants to help change the narrative surrounding women in combat sports.
“I want them to know you don’t have to be a badass,” Cortez said. “You don’t have to be girly girl. You can be whatever you want to be. As long as you love what you do.”
Cortez never wanted to be a role model because she doesn’t have the “perfect past” and doesn’t want people to be like her.
“I want these girls to be better,” Cortez said. “I want them to learn from my mistakes because I’m going to make mistakes, a lot of mistakes, and if they can learn from my mistakes and avoid certain situations and just be better.”
Cortez wanted to forge her own path, not be bound by a path that was forged for her and said, “I had to be that woman in the house that cooked for a man and waited. That was my future. And I didn’t want that for myself.”
She was the youngest sibling and had three older brothers. She always wrestled and describes herself as a “tomboy, 110 percent.”
She was always at the gym because she taught classes. Afterward, she would jump into other classes. She has been training at “Fight Ready MMA & Fitness Gym,” which was formerly “Lions Den.”
Not only did her fighting skills progress because of the time she spent in the gym, but it provided a much welcome distraction.
“I just started training and it kept me happy when I was in the gym,” Cortez said. “But when I was out of the gym, I wasn’t happy. I was very depressed.”
Cejudo, who has known Cortez since she was a young girl because he was best friends with her late brother, said Cortez would always ask him to coach her.
“I said, ‘Come to my wrestling class. Show me your commitment,’” Cejudo said. “When you show me commitment, I will show you the same. I can’t meet you there. You got to meet me halfway.”
Cejudo said Cortez can ultimately fulfill her goal of becoming a UFC champion because of the chip on her shoulder and what she’s gone through.
“She lost her mom. She lost her older brother who was my best friend growing up,” Cejudo said. “What can the world throw at her that she can’t conquer?
“And if it’s the UFC belt, it’s easy compared to what she’s gone through.”