For those having trouble remembering where they have heard Gray’s name before, recall the YouTube video of a “vicious female MMA knockout” that went viral about a month ago. Gray was the star of the video, and its various incarnations have racked up more than 60,000 views. It also drew the interest of “Inside MMA” on AXS TV.
Given Gray’s lack of MMA experience, the matchup with Aguilar may seem a little one-sided. While she did not make her professional debut until June, Gray’s martial arts experience extends back much further and includes the rank of black belt in judo.
“I first became involved with martial arts through my father,” she said. “I had asked him to put me in karate, but he felt that judo was a good foundation to start if I was going to do martial arts. He enrolled me at Valley Judo Institute in Sun Valley, Calif. I studied judo with Sensei Sus Kono for 10 years; that is where I earned a black belt. I now train at Bushido MMA in El Paso, Texas, under Shane Schuman and Hugo Sida.”
Unbeaten as a pro, Gray has finished all four of her opponents. She started with Particia Vidonic in June, submitting her with a second-round armbar at a Sugar Creek Showdown event in Oklahoma.
“After the first round, my coach reminded me of the game plan to keep her standing, but I ended up on my back,” Gray said. “I remember just trapping her arm and spinning off the fence to secure the armbar.”
Gray won her next three fights in less than six months’ time, a Nov. 23 technical knockout victory over Katie Klimansky-Casimir bringing her the SCS strawweight championship. Some may find it surprising that Invicta Fighting Championships had not called upon Gray, but the all-female organization requires a fighter to have at least three fights under her belt. With the World Series of Fighting on the lookout for talent, Gray’s YouTube fame proved to be a publicity flag.
“We haven’t talked to [Invicta] since,” she said. “I was hoping they would call for the next Invicta card, but they haven’t yet. WSOF contacted me via Facebook, saying that they needed to talk to me ASAP. I forwarded the information to my manager. When he called me back to inform me of the opportunity to fight Aguilar, we immediately had a meeting. We talked it over and took the fight. We are all excited for this opportunity.”
Being a prominent prospect at 115 pounds, Gray has considered trying out for “The Ultimate Fighter,” which will feature women’s strawweights for Season 20. For now, her focus remains on Aguilar.
“Before WSOF called, my team and I had been planning to try out for TUF, but after WSOF called and we made the commitment to fight Aguilar, no more thought has been put into TUF,” Gray said. “We are going to focus on Aguilar first. After Jan. 18, we will discuss our plans, as a team, regarding WSOF, TUF, the UFC and Invicta. I’m really excited for the 11 Invicta [strawweights] who already have a contract for TUF. I think they all have a chance to do well and make history as the first UFC champion [at 115 pounds].”
Aguilar, the world’s top-ranked fighter at 115 pounds, poses a unique set of challenges. The American Top Team standout will enter the bout on a streak of seven consecutive wins, having defeated Japanese legend Megumi Fujii at a Vale Tudo Japan event in October. Fujii retired with a remarkable 26-3 career record, with Aguilar responsible for two of those three defeats.
“I’m going to approach Aguilar the same way I approach all of my opponents [and] that is to come up with a game plan and try to stick to it as much as possible in the cage,” Gray said. “When I was young and competing against the top female judokas, my father would always tell me, ‘Yvette, you have nothing to lose.’ That is the attitude that I’m going to bring.”
Like many up-and-coming fighters, Gray works outside of MMA to pay the bills, serving as a physical education teacher for kindergarten through fifth grade. She finds joy in the job, which gives as much in return as she gives to it.
“I play different games and activities with them on a daily basis,” Gray said. “My students are my inspiration. Some of them know that I fight. Last month, they came to school excited, telling me that they saw my fight on YouTube, so I know they are going to be excited when they see me on national TV.”