Pioneer Tonya Evinger wants to crash the party in Sweden, score her first UFC victory

Tonya Evinger’s initial tour of the UFC hasn’t exactly been a joy ride. As the reigning Invicta FC bantamweight champion transitioning over, her first task was to bulk up and face one Cris Cyborg at UFC 214 for the featherweight title. Because she’s made of grit and burlap, Evinger gladly accepted. As so many others that went before her, she came up short, succumbing to a tough fought third-round TKO.

Since then it’s been a career on tumble dry. Fights booked, and fights cancelled. Once because she was injured in training camp (for her fight with Marion Reneau), once because her opponent was injured in the lead-up to the fight (Ketlen Vieira). It all led to a battle with the 23-year-old upstart Aspen Ladd at UFC 229, which went south for Evinger quickly. She lost via a first-round TKO.

Given the turbulence of her UFC start, it’s no wonder the 37-year-old Evinger is ready to erase some short-term memories.

“It’s kind of sucked,” she told MMA Fighting this week, as she gears up for a fight with Lina Lansberg out in Stockholm, Sweden. “Having eight months between fights doesn’t pay your bills. I have a full-time job so I had to get permission for time off to even do this camp. I only got a four-week camp out of this because I have to work. And I’m away from home out in the middle of nowhere where there’s no gym, and nowhere for me to work out. Literally, I can run and that’s it. So it’s a real weird situation for me. But I was able to get off work and train for this fight, and I know how important it is for me to win this fight.

“I’m just going to get out there and do my best. I think last time [against Ladd] it was a little too close to my surgery. Again, here I was sitting out 14 months because the time they put off past Cyborg to the time I got injured to the time my opponent got knocked off to the time I got rescheduled. I was already kind rushing back, but what do you want me to do? I was sitting out 14 months. I need the work. I knew it was a little too soon. Hard-headed, I guess.”

Evinger lives in Texas. Her day job is to work long, grueling days in the oil fields operating a drilling rig. It sounds like something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel, but that’s the life she leads. “After a day’s work, fuck you’re tired,” she says. When you talk to Evinger, there is zero percent chance of encountering B.S. In fact, it strikes you that she doesn’t feel a need to exaggerate.

But what the former collegiate wrestler loves to do is compete as often as she can, and whenever the opportunity arrives. The hardest thing for her to do is watch time tick by on the sidelines, while nursing an injury or waiting for UFC matchmakers to call. She knows her status in the fight game: She is a grinder, a tough out, a tough-nosed fighter who is going to mash your nose up. What she is definitively not? Well…for lack of a better word, entitled.

“It was crazy for me,” she says. “It’s not like they’re looking for a fight for me every couple of months like they do some of these girls. I know [Irene] Aldana just fought a couple of weeks ago and now she’s fighting again on July 20. Good for her, I think that’s great for the girls that are getting a lot of attention.

“But man, I don’t think I get that kind of attention. And I don’t get pushed that much. If I miss a fight and they’re like, ‘well we’ll just reschedule you,’ well yeah, but not for next week. You’re going to reschedule me for two months from now, if that. I don’t think I’m on the top of their minds. It’s just one of those things. I’m trying to take whatever I can get and fight as long as I can and win as many as I can.”

It won’t be easy against Lansberg, who will have the privilege of fighting on her native soil in Sweden. Back when she was competing on the U.S. National team, Evinger competed at various ports in Europe, and at one point was slated to do so in Sweden. That time a cartilage tear in her wrist kept her out.

Now that she finally gets tour Scandinavia, she knows the crowd will be all about Lansberg, and that’s fine with her.

“I just don’t ever real think about that,” she says. “I fought Colleen Schneider in LA, which was in her backyard I guess. I’ve done that a few times. I think Vegas, when I fought for my world championship in Invicta, was the craziest. That’s when I fought Aldana, and I swear all of Mexico came to watch her fight. The whole arena was full of people booing me. It was crazy. I was like, where are all the Americans?

“It wasn’t a big deal. As I beat her more and more during each round, the crowd just got more and more quiet, so it was one of those things.”

That’s the kind of energy leak that Evinger is hoping can happen in Stockholm. Should she beat Lansberg, it will be a milestone in a career that spans a decade-and-a-half. As a pioneer in women’s MMA, and one of the original ambassadors for keeping it going, Evinger has never won in the UFC. As crazy as that sounds, it’s true.

“It’s funny, I just saw a post the other day, somebody posted the pioneers of women’s MMA,” she says. “And I’m like, are you fucking kidding me? Those girls started not that many years ago. Get out of here. I was fighting back when they didn’t have women’s MMA, and it wasn’t even on the Internet, and you couldn’t even find a promotion to fight for, and there were only a handful of girls. Get out of here. I was fighting way back then, when you literally couldn’t find a fight.

“It’s crazy to even look at my record back to when my first fight was back in 2005. I was trying to fight way before then, there just wasn’t anybody to fight and no promotions. The five other girls in the world that were fighting didn’t want to fight you because you’re a wrestler. You can be a pioneer winning just a couple of fights these days. But man, I’ve put in a lot of time, so I’m going to keep fighting until they stop paying me. That way it’ll even out.”

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