Let me be honest with you: This isn’t the nicest of stories. I didn’t have the most conventional upbringing, and there’s a lot of violence in this tale. Even for a UFC fighter there’s a large amount of punching involved in this one. And not regular punching either. Your typical five-round MMA fight is miles away from the stuff I’ve been involved in.
I just wanted to give you a heads-up because this is going to get kind of heavy, and I want you to know that going in. This is my story and I think the best place to begin is when I got hit by a drunk driver when I was 16 years old.
The weird thing about it was, this was the second car crash I had been involved in. Back in the fall of 2001, when I was a freshman in high school, I had been in the passenger seat in a one-car accident and got a nice little chunk of change from a settlement. I put that money toward a little drop-top 1983 Dodge 600, which I would drive around my neighborhood every chance I got. I’m from a place called Rootstown, this tiny place about an hour southeast of Cleveland. After soccer practice late one Sunday afternoon, in January 2003, my car broke down when I was driving with my friend Michael to the home of another friend of mine, Ashley. If you’ve ever been on a country road in the Midwest it’s not uncommon to drive on a stretch with no centerline and not many lights overhead. Things get real dark and kinda dangerous pretty quick if you don’t know what you’re doing.
When my car broke down that evening, I pulled off to the side of one of those dark, unmarked stretches of road. Then I walked to a friend’s house and called my father to come pick me up. (It was 2003! Not everyone had a cellphone!) My father was a trained mechanic and showed up about 20 minutes later in his freaking huge ’89 Dodge Ram pickup and started tinkering with my car, telling me to pop the hood and chewing me out about not looking after the alternator. He was kinda miffed that he’d been dragged away from the TV. We had a deal on Sundays — I’d get out of the house and he’d have his boys over to watch sports all day. He was grumpy because he had been watching the Browns-Steelers wild-card game when I called him out. But things were O.K. between us.
Things get real dark and kinda dangerous pretty quick if you don’t know what you’re doing.
He parks his car with his front bumper to mine and tells me to get on the side of the road while he pops the hood, as if he’s giving it a jump. A few minutes pass and we’re talking about alternators, comparing my car to his massive truck. You know, stuff you can talk about with your dad that you both know is safe territory and won’t cause a real disagreement? Easy, in-front-of-your-face stuff.
After a bit, my dad tells me to get back in the driver’s seat to try to start the engine. I remember walking around the front of my car and back into the road, and hearing my dad say, “Watch out for drivers, it’s dark out.”
And then it happens.
It happens so fast.
I see a flash and then I’m up in the air.
And then I’m on the ground in a heap.
My memory is kind of sketchy about what exactly happened, but Michael told me later in the hospital that a drunk driver had just blasted me with his car. His car had hit me so fast it flung me into the woods. And then it sideswiped both my dad’s car and mine, with the collision crushing my father’s legs between the two for an instant.
So, I’m in a heap in the woods. My dad has been thrown out somewhere. Michael is around somewhere else, maybe in the car. I’m fading in and out of consciousness, but I can hear my dad calling my name. I didn’t know it at the time, but his right leg had been completely smashed between his truck and my car on impact (he had to have complete reconstructive surgery on his right knee afterwards), and the hood of my car had fallen on his hands, crushing them. People who’ve experienced instant serious trauma like that will know it’s such a surreal feeling afterwards — your brain shuts down and goes into Safe Mode, and then slowly reboots as it figures out what’s happened. Your body goes through this weird foggy state where you know something is wrong but you don’t know what it is exactly.
My back is broken. My brain is still trying to reboot, but I know one thing for sure: I have to get something out, say anything to get my dad’s attention.
Not to let him know I’m still breathing.
Not to let him know where I am.
But because I know that if I don’t call him over, my dad will crawl to his truck, grab his gun and kill the drunk driver.
A lot of things I’m going to tell you today involve my dad, Randy Eye. He wasn’t such a great guy. He was a big, dyed-in-the-wool Midwestern man who worked hard at his job and then went out and drank and raised hell. He started out as a maintenance welder up at DaimlerChrysler for 20-odd years before becoming a mechanic around town, and when he wasn’t doing that he was hanging out with his biker buddies or spending time in strip clubs.
I didn’t have the most typical childhood, but there was a decent amount of good in the house growing up. There was my older brother, Randy, my younger brother, Nick, and my dad’s second wife has a daughter, named Jennifer, who I was really close with, too. Add to this all the other children from my dad’s “flirtations” with strip club dancers and there was no shortage of kids for me to hang out and play sports with. And I played A LOT of sports when I was a youngster. Young Jessica was a hyper kid who loved the outdoors. My dad enjoyed recreational drugs, so I kind of had to love the outdoors. Dad would say, “Go outside and play on the trampoline,” or, “Why don’t you play basketball outside?” and I’d be off, playing whatever sport I could with my brothers, trying my best to keep up.
By my early teens, people around Rootstown knew me as “Jessie Joe, the Misfit.” Everybody knew my life was really screwed up, but they also knew that I was always out trying to do things and make the best with my lot. I was kind of an oddball, an athletic girl who always hung around with the boys. People knew that my heart was in the right place. I hope people know that now, too. Just because you come from really crappy beginnings, doesn’t mean you have to be a crappy person.
That was pretty much the way of things until I was about 14, and I started going through puberty. My dad … he wasn’t so great with having a daughter. I was his only blood daughter and I think his own bad childhood — he had been the first to find his dad’s body after he had committed suicide — had left him completely screwed up and unable to understand how to raise a girl. He had a lot of things he didn’t deal with properly, and I think that made him the type of person who would lash out physically.
It’s taken some time for me to get to a place where I can talk about this stuff without outright calling my dad a terrible human being or a piece of garbage. But I know now why he was so ill-equipped to deal with me and why he did some of the things he did. Randy Eye was one of those people who was just used to being in control — he didn’t know how to deal with anything else. He knew that the way he treated women was wrong, and that there were a lot more guys out there like him. So when he realized that his daughter was getting to the age where she might start dating, he didn’t know what to do. That loss of control made him lash out. And I’m not talking him paddling you on the butt.
We’re talking physical, violent stuff, and I want to give you a heads-up now before we go any further.
One stormy Saturday night when I was 14, I was at this little rock-and-roll club that all the kids in Rootstown would go to. I used to go there all the time. (It got me out of the house, just like my dad liked.) But this one week, I got my wires crossed with who was taking me there. I told my dad that a girlfriend he knew was taking me to the club, but in the end I ended up hitching a ride with my brother and a few of his friends.
My dad didn’t like that. At all. He had spent much of that week taking heavy drugs and was hungover most of that day, and when he heard I had gone to this club with boys he lost it. I remember them calling my name over the loudspeaker at the club, “Jessica Eye, your father is here to see you,” and being so confused as I went to the front — until I saw dad standing there and the look on his face.
I stood there thinking, Oh my God, he’s gonna kill me.
I stood there thinking, “Oh my God, he’s gonna kill me.”
He grabbed me by my hair, pulled me outside and started beating me. Choking me, slapping me, throwing me back to the ground whenever I tried to get up. I was 14 years old, weighed 90 pounds, and everyone in town could see my six-foot-four, 250-pound dad beating me half to death in the parking lot of a local dive bar. The security guard for the club tried to get involved, but he was some kid in his early 20s. He didn’t stand a chance against my dad when he was like this. My dad had travelled to this bar with a kid named Jarrid. He was 16 years old, and the son of a woman my dad was dating at the time. And Jarrid was doing everything he could to get this to stop. I can remember him screaming “Stop! Like you gotta stop, dude! That’s enough! Just get her in the f***ing car and we’ll take her home!” But my dad only stopped bouncing my head off the pavement long enough to bark, “Where the f*** is Ashley?”
She was my best friend.
Then he bundled me in the car and ordered Ashley and Jarrid to get in, too.
My dad’s in the driver’s seat, Jarrid is in the passenger seat, I’m in back behind my dad, and Ashley is next to me. And I clearly remember thinking, This is it. He’s going to kill me. It’s all over. My dad was screaming at me, and I really thought it was the end. When we pulled up to the house, he screamed, “Ashley, go get your f***ing s***! Get the f*** out of my house!” And then he dragged me inside by my hair and started beating me.
He punched and stomped me. He smashed my head into the wall until nothing made sense anymore. I don’t remember how long he beat me, but I do remember the things he said.
“You f***ing piece of s***.”
“You little hoe bag.”
“You’re not going to lie to me.”
“You little bitch.”
“You’re not going to get one over on me.”
I have no idea how I made it through that night alive. He beat me, he choked me, and he shrugged off anyone who tried to make him stop. The only time he paused was when Jarrid said he was going to call the police, and I hid in a closet while he argued with Jarrid and Linda (Jarrid’s mom).
Rootstown is one of those tiny townships — it doesn’t have local police, but uses sheriffs and highway patrolmen instead. It took so long for help to come, but I still remember the knock on the door and what the officer said, clear as day.
“Hello, Randy Eye. We’re here to check on the welfare of Jessica Eye. Can I see your daughter please?”
I heard my dad trying to protest for a bit before the police got to me. There was this one officer who looked at me as I got into the police car. He just said, “You poor girl,” in the most defeated way. And I could feel this huge welt on my face.
I was utterly crushed inside.
They arrested my dad in his underwear that day. He got bailed out pretty quickly by some of his biker buddies, but he got charged with child endangerment and domestic abuse. He lost his gun rights, which was a big deal for him because he LOVED hunting. That kept him pissed at me for a few extra years.
(I told you that the story of my childhood was not exactly straightforward.)
That’s why, two years later, even though I was near-death after having been hit by a car, I was more concerned with protecting the drunk driver who had nearly killed me than I was with telling my father I was still alive.
I ended up with a broken back and a broken ankle from the accident, and my dad needed reconstructive leg surgery.
In the months after, we spent most of our time in the house together, playing solitaire, watching television and rehabbing, while also trying to stay out of each other’s hair. And the moment I could play sports again, I was back outside, doing what I could to get out of my dad’s way. I had played a lot of sports before the crash, but after I hurt my back, I had to make some changes. My jump shot never felt the same after my injury, so my basketball days were over, and I gave up running for a bit.
My dad still hated me, and was doing things I didn’t approve of in the house, so it was one of those things where I was the first one at school in the morning and the last one to leave practice at night. Most weekdays I was out the house from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. If I’m honest, the two years of high school after my crash were some of the most incredible times of my life. I studied business management, I had a part-time job, I graduated with a 3.5 GPA.
Things were good.
And then, when I was 18, my father found out I had a boyfriend and things went south. I’d been keeping boys a secret after the rock-and-roll-club night because I was afraid he might do something to me again.
What he did was punch out all my car windows and shout abuse each time he broke the glass:
“You know what? You think you’re a big girl?”
“You’re gonna do things that I tell you not to do?”
“You’re gonna talk to people that I don’t want you to talk to?”
And then he handed me my settlement money from the car accident, about $42,000 cash, and said:
“I tell bitches like you to f*** off.”
And that was it. I graduated and then got an apartment by the University of Akron, where I studied for a while. Rent chewed up my settlement money pretty quickly, so I quit my job at Arby’s and ended up at a local strip club called Scarlett’s, working as a cocktail waitress.
It was there that I met the guys from Strong Style gym and began my journey into the world of Mixed Martial Arts. I’ll be honest, it all happened super quick. I think one night I was serving the boys drinks and one of them went, “Hey, you look like a pretty in-shape chick. Do you know what fighting is?”
And I was like, “Yeah, I’ve kind of heard about it before.”
That was it.
The first time I walked into Strong Style, my brain went, Holy s***, this is what you’re meant to be doing, Jess. Maybe it was the house I grew up in, maybe it was my love of sports, but there was just something about being in this space, with all of these guys trying to work, that made me feel like I was little Jessie Joe again, hanging out with her brothers.
I immediately quit my job at Scarletts, picked up a part-time gig at Dick’s Sporting Goods to help cover the rent, and threw myself into fighting.
It took seven months of training before my first fight and, in that time, the guys at Strong Style helped me forge a family and a lifestyle that, growing up, I hadn’t thought was possible for someone like me. The guy who owns the place, Marcus Marinelli, took me under his wing, and I became a person who was more than her crappy upbringing.
No one was going, “That’s Jessica, the girl who came from f***ed up beginnings. Her dad was an abusive drug addict.”
At Strong Style, it was just, “That’s Jessica. She’s here to be the most kick-ass girl she can be.”
And I loved that. People there trusted me. They wanted me to do well, not out of a place of pity, but because they knew I was putting in the hours. It meant so much to me, to be seen that way.
June 7, 2008.
I became a person who was more than her crappy upbringing.
My first fight.
Fight Night in the Flats 4.
It was an outdoor venue in Cleveland, Ohio. This thing was pure Midwest. You could basically smell the Cuyahoga River in the air. Honestly, I was a little nervous that day because I was two pounds over my fight weight, but I got a little help from my ex-teammate Stipe Miocic and the rest of the team at Strong Style. They gave me a sweat suit and helped me get down to 125 pounds. There were maybe a few thousand people in the crowd that night, including my dad, who … well, let’s say we were thawing out our relationship.
So there I am: Jessica Eye, 19 years old, 125 pounds, fighting under the Midwestern night sky in a sport people were still calling “cockfighting for humans.”
I had chills. I had only ever been in two fights before (against people who weren’t my dad, that is) and they had hardly been good practice. I still remember stepping into that ring against my opponent, this girl called Kari Ricker, and just thinking, All right, let’s go do this.
That’s the thing about fighting — proper MMA fighting. You can spend seven months training, spend all that time in the gym learning how to box and apply submission holds and manipulate space, but in the end, when it gets to fight night, it’s just you in the ring, by yourself, up against someone else. There’s no hiding. You have to go to work. You have to do it or you get done.
And that night, I did it. I don’t want to be mean about it, but I kind of beat the crap out of her. Less technique than I wanted, but … I got it done.
That was it for a long time. I’d go out and prove myself to the world and I’d get it done.
Jessica Eye can fight.
Jessica Eye is more than her past.
Jessica Eye is forging her future.
I spent 17 months in the amateurs and I won all of my five of my fights. Back then, women’s MMA was not what it is today. Every bout, you were up against two opponents: the person in the ring with you, and the people in the crowd who thought that women shouldn’t be allowed to fight. And I beat them both, every single time. Winners and losers in women’s MMA of that era deserve credit for turning doubters into believers.
Some of you may know me better from my four-fight losing streak in UFC, and I can’t blame you. I came to UFC after Bellator had cut their women’s division. UFC at the time didn’t have a flyweight class, so I moved up to bantamweight. I shouldn’t have done that — 135 pounds, that’s not me.
At the time of my losing streak, I was also losing my dad to a really aggressive form of brain cancer called glioblastoma. And despite all we’d been through, I wanted to help him through it. I’m never going to be sure how I feel about Randy Eye. Even after I had made it as a professional fighter, he once punched me in the face in front of my friends after I told him not to smoke dope in my house. But when your dad is dying, your dad is dying. I turned to crowdfunding to help pay for his treatment, and I’m so appreciative of the MMA world and what they did for me in that time before I had to say goodbye to him in 2013. I can’t be mad at him forever, and I choose not to fixate on the bad in my life — or I’ll never be able to move on with my life.
I can’t be mad at him forever, and I choose not to fixate on the bad in my life — or I’ll never be able to move on with my life.
When you’re done reading this I want you to judge Jessica on Jessica. Sometimes people close off when they hear a woman talk about terrible things that she’s been through. They say things like, “Oh, she’s only that way because she had daddy issues.” Or, “She’s only talking now because she wants people to feel bad for her.” I hate when I hear stuff like that. I remember somebody once said to me, “I never cheer for the pretty girl because pretty girls always got it made,”, and it pissed me off so much.
Don’t judge people on how they look, or what they’ve been through. Judge them on who they are today, you know?
And what I am today is a girl from the Midwest who fights for a living. I’m one of the happiest people you will ever meet, and a lot of hard work has gone into that. I love my dogs, I love my friends. And now I’m back fighting at 125 pounds and I’d love to win the flyweight title at UFC 238 in Chicago on June 8. Valentina Shevchenko is one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the UFC right now, but she’s never faced someone like me before.
Hopefully in reading this you’ll have learned that I’ve been through a lot, and now I’m ready to live a lot. And a lot of that starts this June when I take the title.
The past is the past. And by telling my story I’m hoping to forge a new future.