In her own words, it took Jessica-Rose Clark 28 years to realize that if she can’t do the thing she loves most when the going gets tough, maybe that isn’t what she’s supposed to be doing. After an uncontrollable accident following her last fight, she overcame the obstacle that shelved her for over a year.
The now 31-year old Clark was born in Cairns, Australia and lived a self-described gypsy lifestyle which led her to several places such as Innisfail, Queensland. Upon returning to that town around the age of 23-24 for an amateur kickboxing match, it would be here that Clark’s mother realized how serious she was about a career in fighting. An occupation that wasn’t at all prevalent in her youth. It was the first time that Clark’s mother had seen her “serious about anything in life.”
The transition into MMA came late in 2012 for the inked Aussie as she would make her professional debut on Dec. 21. A third-round TKO of Mae-Lin Leow would be the starting point for a career that continues to unfold.
Achieving victory over Leow without any grappling experience, Clark went in purely as a kickboxer. The demanding discomfort that came with grappling and Jiu-Jitsu was something that was going to take getting used to. Clark’s coach trying to make her work in the gi also didn’t help her willingness to learn.
But after picking up that first win by utilizing wrestling, it opened her eyes to the importance of that aspect of fighting. And in the current day, she now finds herself as a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu purple belt after being promoted from a “lifelong blue belt” in January of this year.
“I was disappointed because I guess now I’m gonna have to be a purple belt for like eight years… then I can change it to lifelong purple belt,” Clark joked when speaking with The Scrap. “No, it’s cool. I was so stoked. I wasn’t expecting it. The woman who graded me, Jess, like we’ve spoken about it for years and she knew that when I was ready to get my purple that I wanted it to come from her. But I was always under the impression that she needed me to come back and train with her consistently for a couple of months before she would. So I wasn’t expecting it at all but I guess when she came out to help me with the fight in Singapore, cause she was with me so much at Syndicate, that was what she needed to see from me to justify grading me. So it was dope. It was a really pleasant surprise. I cried. I don’t cry very much but I definitely cried then.
“The surprise and happiness [I think is what got me]. Like obviously it was right after what happened in Milwaukie and I was kinda at a low point. Nothing had really been happening for me, the last fight I had was a loss then I passed out in my weight cut, it was just a really nice little piece of happy.”
Five more fights in her home country would follow her debut before “Jessy Jess” made her first appearance on unfamiliar land.
Amassing a solid record of 5-1, Clark did so without honing her skills at a real MMA gym. As less than ideal circumstances as they were, there was more to it below the surface level.
The Cairns native wound up meeting a fellow fighter in the early stages of her career and the two eventually grew fond of each other. Unfortunately, things quickly darkened before Clark’s star could truly shine.
The relationship became abusive with Clark on the receiving end and one incident pushed things over the edge for the rising bantamweight. After reporting her partner to the authorities, he would eventually plead guilty in late 2016.
“The reason I came out so publicly about this is because it TERRIFIES me to think that if someone like myself, a professional fighter, can get so deeply caught in such a toxic and hurtful situation,” Clark wrote in a Facebook post about the event. “And knowing how hard it is to break free of their hold on you, then what hope is there for the women, men, and children who don’t have the physical ability to not only defend themselves but remove themselves from the situation.”
Before the Aussie was able to make her escape onto the path of betterment, she still made her international debut and did so in Invicta FC in July 2015. This coming against Sweden’s own, Pannie “Banzai” Kianzad.
Despite her best efforts, Clark wouldn’t be able to overcome the unbeaten Kianzad as she was outpointed en route to a unanimous decision loss. Four plus years later and the two are set to tango once again… but under entirely different circumstances.
“Honestly, when I fought Pannie the first time… the gym I was at was a gi Jiu-Jitsu school,” Clark explained to The Scrap. “I didn’t have a striking coach, I didn’t have sparring partners. All I was really able to do was conditioning and gi Jiu-Jitsu. That was it. That was what was available to me at the time. I think that – plus me making my international debut, plus I was with my ex, and everyone knows the story about my ex – there was a lot of turmoil going into it. So that’s no real excuse but that is the difference between that one and now.
“When we fought then, I felt all of that. I went in really unhappy and then on her end, I felt how much more experienced she was. That was my sixth fight or whatever and she was already 7-0 and had an amateur boxing background and that was my sixth fight ever. I went into it with a lot less experience than her – just a lot less cage time, I guess. That on top of all the external factors, I really think was a lot of the downfall. I remember after the fight that night I could just feel her timing was a bit better, her reactions were a bit better, her instincts were a bit better, you know?
“This time around, I’m at a real MMA gym and I have been with Syndicate and now [Combat Sports Academy], I was at Syndicate for two years and I learned a lot of really amazing stuff there,” she continued. “I just feel like that is probably the biggest difference is now, I have a real coach, I have a head coach, I have a grappling coach, I have a striking coach, I have really, really high-level training partners that push me every day. Whereas before I just had my partner at the time. That was it. He was the only one that I trained with and he just tried to knock me out all the time.
“So like honestly, everything’s different. Plus, I’ve fought in the UFC a few times now, I have a lot more fights than I did back then. This is my 20th overall, I’ve competed a lot more in grappling. I don’t know, I’ve been in front of people a lot more, I’ve been on a big stage a lot more, there’s none of that external pressure and that external anxiety there was like last time.”
The loss to Kianzad immediately saw Clark take her talents to the flyweight division. But the struggles continued as she would miss weight in her bout with Emiko Raika thus costing her the initial win.
A handful of fights later and Clark would get the call up to the UFC on short notice to compete at home. She would get her hand raised opposite a fellow Aussie veteran in Bec Rawlings.
Looking to become an elite among the flyweight ranks, some traction would be gained as her second UFC win came over the popular prospect, Paige VanZant. With the past in the rearview mirror, things seemed on the up and up. But one loss later and new issues presented themselves.
Clark began to feel like things weren’t working out with her gym of Syndicate MMA in her adopted Las Vegas home and the cut to flyweight wasn’t getting any easier.
Midway through her training camp for a rebound fight at UFC Milwaukie in late 2018, Clark would depart from Syndicate and go on to pass out during her weight cut for the fight. Therefore canceling the bout.
As she prepares to get redemption against Kianzad this Saturday night at UFC Moscow, the happy Combat Sports Academy (CSA) product is in arguably the best shape of her life – and she doesn’t quite understand why.
“Everything that has happened has kinda led to solidifying my decision to go back up to bantamweight,” Clark started. “I feel really good about it. For real, I’ve never had abs. Like not even for weigh-ins. Not like that [in that picture]. That’s the most ridiculous thing ever. I still haven’t accepted it yet. I just feel skinny. I’m like, ‘Where’s my power belly? Where’s the meat?’ Because my whole life I’ve been kinda chunky, like just thick. I’m still thick now but I’m thick and lean and it doesn’t feel right.
“I’ve never been this light in camp so it’s been a little mental thing for me. I feel really light but everyone’s telling me I feel strong compared to when I was going to 25. And when I was heavier, I was heavier walking around. When I was going to ’25 I was at 153 [pounds]. Now most days I’m 145-144 and people are telling me that I’m hitting hard, I feel real heavy and strong when we wrestle… I’m kinda just going off whatever people are telling me cause I still feel like I’m skinny. Definitely not counting that extra 10 or so pounds, I feel like my athleticism has gone through the roof which is really nice. Cause that’s something I’ve always really prided myself on – being athletic. I feel my movement, my fast-twitch muscles are firing a lot better, my vision’s a lot better, I’m not gassing like I was when I was carrying an extra 10 pounds. My legs don’t get tired anymore. It’s crazy, I don’t understand it at all. Everyone’s like, ‘What’s your diet like?’ … I fuckin’ eat seven Hawaiian rolls. Don’t ask me about my diet (laughs).
“I’ve known from day one that CSA is where I needed to be at,” she expanded. “I’ve been here permanently the last two weeks and actually been able to get into a routine and actually be able to focus on me has been fuckin’ life-changing. Every week that I came here, I felt like I was improving so much. Now that I’m actually here Monday through Sunday not worrying about flying back to Vegas, not worrying about going home and having to teach or look after the dogs or anything like that. It’s just been… Fuck, man. I wish I moved a lot earlier but timing, everything happens for a reason and I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do now but it’s just been… It’s been fucking great. And you know what? Up here right now I don’t coach and I don’t teach. I work for Triumph United and that’s pretty much it. I don’t have to help other people so I’m not really giving my energy to anyone else and I think that is really a defining factor as well. It’s hard to really focus on yourself and what you’re doing when you give so much energy to other people. So not doing that up here right now, I think it’s really making a big difference.”
Having only recently moved to CSA full-time, Clark would commute out through the year for a week or two at a time. As she’s trying to move to California from Las Vegas, her newly purchased camper trailer has helped her to get a head start since California isn’t the cheapest state to live in.
Now living somewhat of a superstar lifestyle but free of the accessories that may come with that, such as alcohol, it doesn’t mean Clark is swimming in hundred dollar bills.
From sleeping in supplement shops with her cat to a camper trailer with her dogs and boyfriend, as she embraces the return to 135-pounds, this wasn’t Clark’s first attempt at doing so. After the incident in Milwaukie, she knew it was time to say goodbye which led to a matchup with Talita Bernardo for UFC 237 in May. However, her first major injury put a halt to those plans.
On the bright side of things, perhaps it was this additional yet unplanned extra time that forced Clark’s body to optimize for the comeback to bantamweight. Either way, there was a lot to gain from the tough experience that was a Lisfranc fracture.
“Honestly, yeah, that was my first major injury, that was the first injury that I’ve ever had that actually kept me out of training,” she recalled. “It made me realize my own mortality a lot within this sport. I think before that I kind of thought I was invincible and there was no end date for me. And when that happened, it was such a freak thing, such a split second movement that completely destroyed my foot. When I went to see the first surgeon, he told me about some people that have this injury, they never came back 100 percent from it. Because it’s common in NFL players, he’s like, ‘I’ve seen NFL players retire because of that injury.’
“That kind of made me realize like, ‘Oh fuck.’ Imagine my whole career could be over just because of someone else’s silly mistake. In an instant, my career could be done. That was kind of confronting. But it also pushed me to start working on things outside of just fighting. I’ve been dabbling in bits and pieces here in coaching and other stuff and then when that happened and I realized like, ‘holy shit, there’s actually an end date on my main career right now. Maybe I need to make sure that I have something else.’
“Because also, if I get cut from the UFC or if I get injured and can’t fight and I lose my contract because of that, I have to leave the country,” Clark explained. “So I’m like, ‘Fuck.’ I went through all the stress of realizing that. Not only would I lose my job, I would actually have to leave this country because my visa would get terminated.”
The gap between Clark’s last fight and this next one is the widest of her career. And as fighters only make money when they fight, it makes sense that she was forced to find other opportunities.
Because if she didn’t, even with a full recovery, the injury could have been life-changing as alluded to.
“All of that just made me realize that I needed to stop focusing energy on a few other things to make sure that…” she paused. “One, I have other income coming in. Because also missing out and paying for the full camp for Milwaukie, everything out of that fight check… And then paying for half of the camp for Rio [de Janeiro] and then missing out on that fight check. Honestly like, it left me over $20,000 in debt just cause I had no income coming in because we only get paid when we fight, right?
“I just started finding other jobs that I can do when I’m in the gym or out of the gym. I do a lot of online work now to make sure that I have something coming in monthly. And just trying to work with companies that like if something happened or I lost my job with the UFC, they could petition to have me stay and work for them.
“That was kind of the biggest thing that I felt that I found with that injury,” Clark stated. “Then also it allowed me to really sit back and realize how much I was wasting on pointless bullshit and how much time and energy I could be putting into things that were a lot more productive. And now that I’ve started training again and coming back to training, and then going back into camp, I’ve been a lot more aware of what I should be doing and what I shouldn’t be doing. Like prioritizing mobility, prioritizing recovery better, prioritizing my nutrition where maybe before I didn’t. So yeah, a lot of really, really positive things came out of that injury.”
During these past 18 months of weight management and recovery, if there is one massive highlight to be seen out of everything for Clark, it has been the finding of a new companion. And no, she didn’t get another dog.
Aiding her along the way into this rematch has been rising middleweight prospect and newly signed Bellator MMA competitor, Jered “Ty” Gwerder.
For “Jessy Jess,” getting to feed off of and contribute to someone else’s happiness is unlike anything she ever could have asked for – especially in her time of need. Whether personal or professional, Gwerder became the one that was always there for the drifter from Cairns.
“It’s been really cool,” she said of her relationship with Gwerder. “Before I got injured for Rio, he was holding pads for me whenever we were back in Vegas – he would hold pads for me every day, drill with me every day, you know, anything I could do he was like, ‘Fuck yeah. let’s do it.’ He’s a workhorse. When I got injured, he was a godsend. If he hadn’t been around, I would have been in a much more depressed state than what I was.
“Then now, going through the road to recovery and then going back into camp, it’s been really cool, kind of experiencing all those highs and lows with someone else. Now that we’re here like, he’s out in Cali with me as well. He’s actually back in Vegas right now packing up the rest of his stuff but he’s moving out here soon. I’m super excited to have him at CSA because he just brings such a good energy to the room and such a good energy to practice.
“He’s just so enthusiastic for the sport and enthusiastic to learn that really it’s brought me new energy,” Clark shared. “Where like maybe when I was with Syndicate I was kind of burnt on this sport and I was burnt on having to go to training and stuff. Then being there and meeting him, it helped me get excited again just to see how excited he was when he got to learn something new. It’s just really cool not having to do it on my own, you know? It’s a special thing getting to see someone you love get to do something that they really love. It’s nothing I’ve experienced before… It’s been really nice.”
At UFC Moscow on Nov. 9, it will be the same opponent for Jessica-Rose Clark… but it won’t be the same version of her that stepped foot into the cage in 2015.
This time around, everything feels like it has lined up the way it should have all along. The good energy has been channeled and now it’s just time to perform like she did when first entering the big stage.
“It feels like my UFC debut,” Clark stated. “Everything lined up perfectly. It feels the same way. Right place, right person, right timing… My dad’s birthday is November 9, my birthday is right after. Just everything feels really good about this one.”
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The Scrap’s Drake Riggs is an MMA writer and YouTuber based out of Brush Prairie, Washington who specializes in feature pieces, the women’s fight scene, lists, news coverage, and rankings. Riggs has been a passionate MMA fan since 2009 and has written for various news sources. You can follow him on Twitter (@Dre_Kriggs).