At 24, Aspen Ladd brings something rare to the UFC

If there is one downside to being a young, physically tenacious MMA prospect, it’s usually a lack of maturity. That is something generally gained only with time.

It’s probably impossible to have the best of both worlds — youth and experience. But the MMA Gold Fight Team in Northern California believes it has the closest thing in 24-year-old bantamweight Aspen Ladd (7-0), who faces Sijara Eubanks (4-2) at UFC Fight Night on Saturday (5 p.m. ET on ESPN+) in Rochester, New York.

The UFC is now on ESPN and ESPN+. Subscribe to ESPN+ to get: exclusive live UFC events, weigh-ins and more; Ariel and the Bad Guy; Dana White’s Contender Series; and more exclusive MMA content.

“People look at her age and say, ‘Oh, she can’t be that experienced,'” said Ladd’s coach, Jim West, who is also her boyfriend. “She’s actually pretty experienced, and she’s super cerebral in her understanding of MMA. We knew she had this uncanny tenacity and will to win, something you can’t teach. So, we focused on teaching her the why — exactly why we’re doing things.”

Ladd’s maturity is a product of where she’s from and how she was raised. She grew up in Pioneer, California, a small town at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains. She was homeschooled, along with three younger brothers and two younger sisters. Beyond her family, Ladd’s inner circle includes her three dogs, who regularly accompany her on hikes of 10-plus miles.

Growing up, Ladd had some neighborhood friends, but living in a town that consists of “one store and a gas station,” she says, didn’t offer a wealth of extracurricular or social activities. Ladd began hiking when she was 5, mostly with her grandfather, Dave. By 11, many of those hikes were solo. She caught and released small animals. She helped raise her siblings.

That kind of lifestyle, Ladd says, made her fiercely independent.

When she was 15, Ladd attended her first MMA class, mostly because she was shy and needed a hobby. By the end of the first session, she knew she’d found her calling. She was drawn to the unknown of it, that there was so much to learn. She made a decision, on the spot, that she’d take an amateur fight — even though she wasn’t legally allowed to until age 18.

“That was definitely the whole focus the year I turned 18. Like, ‘Hey, I’m old enough now. Let’s get this ball rolling,'” Ladd said. “We were looking for the soonest fight I could take. I would have fought on my birthday if I could have.”

Just two weeks after her 18th birthday, Ladd made her amateur debut, winning by submission. She went 7-1 on the amateur circuit, and since turning pro in 2015, she has finished six of her seven opponents — all but the one she faces again on Saturday, Eubanks, whom she defeated by unanimous decision in Invicta FC in 2017. After that victory, Ladd signed with the UFC at age 22.

Ladd’s team attributes her success to the combination of her naturally aggressive style and her mental approach. She’s described by those closest to her as very eager to learn and extremely humble. West says Ladd still texts him before practice to ask if he’ll work with her, even though he has been her coach for years.

But in contrast to her quiet, reflective personality away from the cage, Ladd’s style inside it is intimidating. Primal, even. After her last fight, a first-round TKO against veteran Tonya Evinger, many observers commented on the way Ladd had screamed, loudly, as she pelted Evinger with the finishing blows.

“She’s that unassuming person, people think they’re just going to bully her around,” West said. “But she has a tenacity not everyone has. Let’s put it that way.”

Saturday’s rematch with Eubanks will test Ladd in a way she has never experienced before, as it is her first bout since the death of her grandfather earlier this year. According to West, many of the characteristics that define Ladd — determination, stubbornness, honesty — were instilled by her late grandfather, a longtime sheriff in California.

True to her strong, cerebral personality, Ladd says she believes she’s as sharp as ever, despite her personal loss.

“I think he supported me before anyone else did when it came to fighting,” Ladd said of her grandfather. “You’ve got to find a mental separation sometimes, where you can be sad but still handle your business. That’s what I’m going through right now for this fight.”

Should Ladd win, big things are ahead. UFC matchmakers have already indicated how highly they think of her. Before booking this fight against Eubanks, Ladd was linked to a bout against former champion Holly Holm. That matchup ultimately didn’t come together because of prolonged negotiations between Holm and the UFC, which resulted in Holm’s being granted a title shot against Amanda Nunes in July.

Ladd acknowledges there was some disappointment in losing out on that high-profile matchup with Holm, but she has moved well past it. After all, while she is mature for her age, Ladd is still only 24.

“That fight is still in the back of my mind, but here’s the thing: I know we’ll meet down the road,” Ladd said. “Sijara is my complete focus, but I believe I’ll still fight Holly.

“And it’s not like she’s the target. No, I’ll fight all of them. We’re all here, we’ll all good, and I’ve only had a couple fights in the UFC. I’ll meet them all. Let’s do it.”