Jessica Aguilar, the South Florida-based, mixed martial arts champion, is affectionately known as “JAG” to her avid following. It’s not because of her amazing bod or Amazonian girl-on-girl aura. And it’s not because she delivers a swift sense of justice and a fierce message for gender equality in a supremely male-dominated sport (okay, it’s these things too).
But rather it’s because the 115-pound, 5'4" strawweight instinctively — and seemingly effortlessly — overtakes her opponents with her arsenal of intellect, athleticism and agility. She knows which weapon to wield and how much pressure to apply; it’s a technique mere mortals just don’t know how to employ.
“When I’m in the ring, I might start out with a boxing 1-2-3, so my opponent is forced to defend," says Aguilar, “and then I can go for the takedown, which is a wrestling move.”
And the MMA fighter just lobbed her biggest move this year, signing with the UFC and facing the most media-watched match of her career against topper Claudia Gadhela. Though she didn’t win, the consensus by MMA observers is that Aguilar more than held her own. With a 19-win, 5-loss record, she still ranks as one of the top MMA strawweight contenders in the world.
To truly appreciate her ascension in the octagon ring, you may need to understand a little more about mixed martial arts. First, it’s the fastest growing sport in the world. Second, it’s not for sissies. Sparring includes a wide range of fighting techniques: Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing, wrestling and a mashup of martial arts (jeet kune do, judo, muay thai, sanshou and tae kwon do). For fighters to succeed, they need to adeptly draw from a wide range of combat styles and strategies.
But if you think Aguilar has trained her entire life like some tennis protégé, you’d be dead wrong. In fact, prior to her MMA career, she worked as a mild-mannered corrections officer and as an actress on Dexter and in a few Spanish-language films.
Aguilar’s fighting instincts and meteoric rise within the MMA ranks was actually influenced by a powerful maternal figure. Her mom, who was born in Mexico, was widowed at an early age and relocated the family to Houston. “She didn’t know a word of English,” says Aguilar. “And she raised us all by herself. She’ll always be my biggest superhero.”
It’s Aguilar’s strong sense of family and community that inspired her to expand her fight beyond the ring. Although she sticks to a rigorous six-day training schedule, she also battles against bullying in her spare time. She flexes her muscle volunteering with Fort Lauderdale’s Pride Center, the Miami Children’s Hospital and Sweethearts & Heroes — a nonprofit organization that works to educate society about the impact of bullying and to empower would-be bystanders.
“Words can hurt more than anything,” she says. “And now that I have the greatest platform of my career, I’m speaking out and fighting for the entire LGBT community.”