SAN DIEGO — Ashley Yoder was a 20-year-old undergrad at Indiana University studying criminal justice. She had an internship at the Monroe County (Indiana) prosecutor’s office. Before that, she was a cheerleader, swimmer and her high school’s homecoming queen.
But at this particular moment in 2008, she stood barefoot inside a fenced-in structure in an exhibition hall on the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Standing across from her was a woman more than two decades her senior, all sinewy muscle and life experience. Yoder was about to get into a fight, and she realized this was not at all what she had signed up for.
“They put me in the cage, shut the door and I [told my coaches], ‘Uh, I don’t think I want to do this anymore,'” Yoder said. “They said, ‘It’s too late, turn around.'” Yoder ended up losing her amateur MMA debut by unanimous decision. At that point, Yoder didn’t know what a jab was. She had never sparred before. She fought orthodox, even though she was left-handed.
So how did she end up inside that cage?
THAT FIGHT WAS barely more than two years from the day when Yoder’s older brother, Michael, died in a motorcycle accident on her 18th birthday. It was the event that eventually led her down the road to mixed martial arts and that ill-advised night in the cage in Indianapolis.
“I think at the time I was scared out of my mind, but that was the only emotion that I could feel that matched not having my brother,” Yoder said. “Not the same emotion, because I wasn’t scared. But that intense feeling — I’m fighting for my life, my brother lost his life. I think about it a lot, and I think that’s where I get that drive. It’s fight or flight and I’m gonna fight, because my brother didn’t get a chance to.”
Yoder is 31 now. She’s made fighting her life and her career, and it all traces back to Oct. 20, 2005, the day she lost her brother. It has led her to the UFC, the pinnacle of the profession. On Saturday, she’ll fight Syuri Kondo at UFC Greenville as she chases a second consecutive win in a sport in which she never envisioned herself.
She can still remember how she felt once that first fight was over.
“If I knew then what I know now, I probably would never have stepped in a cage, to be completely honest with you,” Yoder said. “The dangers, especially as an amateur, are real. Because one, you’re not getting paid to get beat up and your hospital bills [aren’t] paid for. And all my fights have been really bloody.
“They’re laying me out on this table, stitching me up. I’ve never been in a fight in my life and I’m laying next to a 40-year-old lady that just punched me in the face.”
YODER WAS DRIVING back from a concert in Louisville, Kentucky, with a friend on the morning of her 18th birthday when she spotted her brother on a motorcycle coming in the opposite direction. Michael wheeled around and pulled up next to the car. Ashley knew he had been loaned the bike by a friend who was deployed in the military.
“He waved, then he turned around,” Yoder said. “To this day, it’s the weirdest thing. Normally, if we saw each other, you know, wave, I’ll see you in a little bit. He made the effort to turn around and stop us. He told me, ‘Happy birthday, I’m gonna go for a ride. I’ll be back in a little bit.'”
It was the last conversation the Yoder siblings ever had — one that Yoder has replayed in her mind over and over.
A few hours later, Yoder was driving with another friend to go costume shopping. Halloween was coming up, and her birthday party on the family’s 188-acre farm in Mitchell, Indiana, was going to have a haunted house theme. She passed by a car wreck, saw a white sheet covering a body on the ground and started to have an uneasy feeling. But her friend told her not to worry — that there was no way that could be her brother.
Rain started coming down on what had been a sunny day. They stopped in Yoder’s Camaro to put the T-tops on. When Yoder got back in the car and looked at her phone, she had 20 missed calls. Her heart dropped. She called the last number back, recognizing it as the local hospital.
There’s been an accident, the voice on the other line said.
“My whole world kind of crumbled at that point,” Yoder said. “It’s all just a blur from there.”
Yoder arrived at the hospital and was informed that Michael had died. He was just 20 years old. A car driven by a 92-year-old man had pulled out in front of the motorcycle. The bike turned on its side before impact and Michael flew off. The motorcycle crashed into the car’s gas tank, igniting an explosion and fire, according to an article from the Hoosier Times. Michael died after hitting the ground when a broken rib punctured his heart.
At the hospital, Yoder said, her mother, Tammy, was on the floor crying. Her father, Rick, lived in Indianapolis — her parents were divorced — and he had not yet arrived. Seeing her mom’s state, Yoder volunteered to be the one to identify Michael’s body.
Yoder had been 18 for only a few hours at that point, but adulthood and its responsibilities set in quickly. She took the reins of planning her brother’s funeral services. Yoder decided who would be the pallbearers, where Michael would be buried and what kind of casket he’d be buried in.
“At 18 years old, those are things you shouldn’t have to experience,” Yoder said. “But my mom was so broken, I couldn’t do that to her.”
The rest of Yoder’s senior year of high school was a struggle. She considered not even going to college. The high-achieving student, dancer, swimmer and cheerleader was a shell of her former self.
“I just couldn’t get it together,” Yoder said. “I tried. I put up this front, because I don’t like people to see my emotional side. They all think I’m strong.”
Michael’s death hit Ashley hard. Tammy said her children were “remarkably close.”
“A lot of people used to say there’s no way they could be brother and sister. They get along too well,” Tammy said.
Yoder made it through her senior year of high school, graduated and followed through with her plan of enrolling at Indiana. She staggered through her freshman year, turning to alcohol to ease emotional pain and nearly failing out of school in the process. Yoder was in a deep depression. Counseling didn’t work, and Yoder and her mother felt like they couldn’t confide in each other.
“It was hard for she and I to talk about Michael, because we didn’t want to upset one another,” Tammy said.
Yoder worked as a lifeguard in the summer between her freshman and sophomore years at IU. One of the guys who worked at the pool, Jonathan Arnold, was a budding local MMA fighter. He knew what Yoder was going through and invited her and another friend to train at Team Atchison Martial Arts in nearby Orleans, Indiana. It was sold to Yoder as a way to get her frustrations out on a punching bag. So, with few other outlets to turn to, she did it.
Yoder’s “training” mostly consisted of ground-and-pound drills on a heavy bag. Before long, though, she was taking amateur fights despite having little idea of what she was doing. Yoder was 20, a full-time student at Indiana, interning at the prosecutor’s office and working as a lifeguard. And then, twice a week, she’d go to Atchison’s for her therapy.
“I wouldn’t even sleep. I’d just have naps, like four-hour naps in between my shifts and going to school,” Yoder said. “Training was just something I did for anger management, like hey, it’s that time again, I’m ready to hurt someone. It was super crazy to think that I’m a fighter. It’s insane.”
While in college, Yoder fought three times on the amateur level in the area, losing twice. But MMA ended up being exactly what she needed, especially as her training became more well-rounded. Yoder turned her grades around as a sophomore and ended up graduating with two bachelor’s degrees: one in criminal justice, the other in African American diaspora studies.
In 2012, wanting to pursue MMA as a career, Yoder moved to Temecula, California, about 60 miles from San Diego, on the advice of her college friend Dave Herman, who was fighting in the UFC at the time. Herman was training at Dan Henderson‘s Team Quest, and Yoder joined him there.
“If it wasn’t for fighting, I don’t know,” Yoder said. “It gave me a purpose.”
Ashley has also been able to build a stronger bridge with her mother. Tammy said she was a nervous wreck when she went to her daughter’s first fight at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. She was crying so much that Yoder asked her friends to take her mom away.
Now, Tammy is her biggest fan.
“A lot of people have turned to drugs and alcohol, different things like that,” Tammy said. “This was something that she chose. And whatever she does, she gives 100 percent, whether she’s walking her dog or taking care of kids. From the time the kid could walk, she’s always been a leader, never a follower. I back her 100 percent in whatever she chooses to do.”
Gradually, Yoder has gotten better. The same could be said of her MMA skills. The 20-year-old college undergrad who didn’t know the name of any submissions is now a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Yoder is 6-4 in MMA as a pro, competed on “The Ultimate Fighter” and is a four-fight UFC veteran.
“It’s been a long journey,” Yoder’s grappling coach, Ricardo Feliciano of Checkmat Murrieta, said. “Completely different fighter now, even grappling. Now, Ashley can work from bottom, from top … she knows what she’s doing. Before, she just tried to survive.”
Yoder snapped a three-fight losing skid with a split-decision win over Amanda Cooper at UFC Denver last November. Despite those setbacks, Tammy takes pride in the fact that her daughter has never been finished, has never given up and has only lost close decisions.
“As a mother, to know what she struggled through, to know this is never something we ever discussed in our lifetime — professional fighting — to do this, to know how far she’s come to try and overcome the death of her brother and cope with it … and her just giving 110 percent in everything that she does, I’m so proud of her,” Tammy said.
YODER WANTED TO try something new this year, to get out of her comfort zone. She saw Instagram videos of some friends, who are fellow fighters, doing underwater training, and it really intrigued her. After all, she was a swimmer and lifeguard growing up.
During her second trip to San Diego for the training, she had a private lesson with Prime Hall, a former Marine Raider. It was a moving experience; when she was in the water, Yoder felt like she was re-connecting with Michael.
“I kind of got emotional,” Yoder said. “Me and my brother grew up in pools. We were lifeguards. We were pool rats. We had, like, no eyebrows, because the chlorine burned them all off.
“I was leaving [the facility] and I got so emotional and kind of opened up to [Hall]. A lot of people don’t know me from the outside. I’m not a hard person, but I’m not very emotional. … I hide those things. When it hit me, I just felt obligated — I had to tell him. So, it’s kind of like another goal I hit for myself, opening up.”
Yoder went many years refusing to talk about what happened. When someone asked her about it, she would shut down.
“‘You don’t understand what I’m going through,”‘ Yoder said. “That was my selfish mentality at the time.”
It has been nearly 14 years since Michael’s death. The tragedy still weighs heavily on Yoder. She doesn’t celebrate her birthday. On Oct. 20, when fans reach out with pleasantries, it can be painful.
But Yoder has come far in that time — as a fighter, but most of all as a person. Michael has left an indelible mark. In many ways, he made her who she is today. And that is something she takes comfort in.
“It’s something that I would never wish on my worst enemies,” Yoder said. “But I can say this in a positive light — and don’t get me wrong, I would take my brother back alive any day and change my whole life back — but it’s changed me in a positive way. I’d never be in California. I’d have never met the people I’ve met. I’d never have learned about myself what I’ve learned about myself, especially in the last year. I feel like it’s such a blessing inside this tragedy that was inevitable.”