DENVER — When 20-year-old strawweight Maycee Barber enters the cage for her UFC debut on Saturday, a timer on her phone back in the Pepsi Center locker room will continue to wind down.
That “countdown,” as Barber refers to it, is constantly running on her home screen. She set it up about one year ago, and it expires on Jan. 17, 2022. That is the day Barber will turn one day older than Jon Jones was when he became the youngest champion in UFC history at age 23.
“I wanted to have a reminder for myself every day,” Barber told ESPN. “I’m going to break this record well before that countdown is up. I’m going to crush this record.”
Barber (5-0), who fights out of Fort Collins, Colorado, takes on 26-year-old Hannah Cifers (8-2) at the UFC Fight Night on Saturday. She won a UFC contract four months ago by defeating Jamie Colleen on the UFC Fight Pass show “Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series.”
The running countdown on Barber’s phone fits in perfectly with her backstory. If there is one thing Barber has never done in her fight career — or anywhere in her life, for that matter — it is waste time.
Barber started training in martial arts when she was 3 years old. Her father, Bucky, is a former stone mason who was threatened on a job site a little over 20 years ago. He figured he needed to learn some self defense and enrolled in American Kenpo karate classes. That eventually turned into a passion for his entire family, and they opened a school in 2010.
The first time Bucky remembers Maycee, his second-oldest daughter, expressing an interest in fighting, she was 13. That was around the time the family’s school started to add Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes to its karate schedule. Barber showed a strong interest in jiu-jitsu from the start — because like her father, what drew her to studying martial arts was the application of martial arts. Self-defense.
“The whole reason behind martial arts is to defend yourself,” Barber said. “Karate is very much an art. It’s not looked at as a fighting form. You can make it look good, but can you apply it in a real-life situation? I was 12 when I started jiu-jitsu, and looking back on it, I think we added jiu-jitsu classes to our school because it is the most applicable self-defense there is.”
By the time Barber was 15, her father knew the interest she had in pursuing fighting wasn’t just a phase. Despite his love of martial arts, it wasn’t what he wanted for his teenage daughter — but he knew she was going to pursue it with or without his blessing.
“I tried to talk her out of it, to be honest with you,” Bucky said. “But if you don’t support it, you’ll have no say in what goes on, and she’s going to do it anyway. It was at that point we decided we were going to get her around the best people in the world, the best coaches in the world.”
One of the first calls Bucky made was to JacksonWink MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico — which is, perhaps not coincidentally, the home of Jon Jones.
“I remember calling JacksonWink, saying, ‘I’m going to bring my daughter down,'” Bucky said. “She was 15 at the time. I said, ‘I’d like to possibly get some private lessons and pay for them. The business manager laughed at me and said Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn don’t do private lessons with the general public, which I respect. They’re busy.
“We went down there, and on the second day, Jackson approached Maycee and said he would like to do a private lesson with her.”
In the years since, Barber has worked with Duane Ludwig (coach of TJ Dillashaw) and Trevor Wittman (coach of Rose Namajunas) in Denver. She visited Matt Hume (coach of Demetrious Johnson) in Kirkland, Washington, and Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California.
For the majority of this year, Barber made the seven-hour drive from Colorado to Salt Lake City to work with boxing coach Matt Peña (former coach of Robbie Lawler and Matt Hughes). For this fight, she’s been at Factory X Muay Thai in Denver.
“We’ve done the same thing, over and over,” Barber said. “We watch fights and say, ‘This is person is really good. What makes them good?’ My whole four-year career so far has been looking where the talent is, finding out why it’s there and then going there.
“And you try to copy that and recreate it in your own style or training regimen. How are these people sleeping? What are they eating? It all plays a part into becoming a better fighter.”
It has required a lot of time and a lot of travel, and both Barber and her father have been asked many times why they move around so much. Their answer is Maycee needs to be in the best environment possible, where she can get a lot of direct, one-on-one attention.
The beginning of Barber’s career has taken on a nontraditional approach. But then again, her goal of becoming the youngest champion in UFC history is itself nontraditional.
“She needs experience, but make no mistake, when she’s 9-0 or 10-0 and still only 21, we’re going to be pushing for that title shot,” Bucky said. “I think she can do it by the end of her 21st year. All of this stuff is staying healthy and getting some breaks, but as far as talent level, she can fight anyone.
“And that’s not a dad thing. I will never hype my kids, because this isn’t a game where you want to have confidence where it’s not deserving or worthy, because that’s dangerous.”