Tracy Cortez didn’t know what MMA was when she saw her brother Jose fight for the first time. At an impressionable 14 years old, Cortez saw her oldest sibling beat UFC veteran Drew Fickett by split decision in November 2008 and was instantly fascinated.
Cortez had already followed Jose into amateur wrestling. If he could fight in MMA, she thought, why couldn’t she? That was constantly Cortez’s thought pattern growing up as the youngest child with three older brothers.
Soon after his fight, Jose brought his kid sister to his gym near where they lived in Phoenix. He immediately put her in the ring with a pro boxer.
“This is my brother just being mean,” Cortez said with a laugh. “Like, ‘You don’t want to fight.’ And I got my ass handed to me.”
If Jose was trying to teach his sister a lesson that day 11 years ago, it didn’t work. Cortez is now a professional mixed martial arts fighter — not in spite of her oldest brother but in honor of him.
In 2011, Jose died of germ cell cancer. The bout with Fickett would be his last. He showed symptoms of cardiovascular issues in that fight — unable to catch his breath throughout — and was diagnosed shortly after. Jose fought the cancer for nearly three years but eventually succumbed to the disease.
After her brother’s death, Cortez got a tattoo on her arm of Jose wearing a Yankees cap, a bracelet he wore after undergoing chemotherapy and a gray-and-red UFC T-shirt. Fighting in the UFC was his dream.
On Tuesday night, Cortez will attempt to be the vehicle for that dream, with Jose no longer here. She can earn a UFC contract with an impressive showing against Mariya Agapova in Dana White’s Contender Series in Las Vegas.
“Every time I feel tired or I feel fatigued or I question anything, I think like, damn, my brother fought with cancer in his heart and he didn’t give up,” said Cortez. “He fought through it. I’m perfectly healthy. I’m more than capable to do what I’m doing. This is easy work. That’s a huge motivator for me.”
There were ups and downs for Cortez after Jose’s death. As she set out to become a professional fighter, she struggled with depression, was inconsistent with training and fell in with the wrong crowd.
“I was the black sheep of the family,” Cortez said. “I was the troublemaker. Looking back now, I was a selfish-ass little girl. But I was still trying to figure life out. I didn’t understand why my brother was gonna die. I didn’t want to understand; I was trying to block emotions.”
Cortez said her father saw her struggling and snapped her out of it with words of advice — that she was better than the way she was acting and could be someone in this world. Cortez started her amateur MMA career in 2013. She still had her two other brothers, J.R. and Abraham, to lean on. Plus, she trained at a gym with J.R., an MMA fighter on the regional circuit, and is family friends with the Cejudos.
Jose was a high school wrestling teammate of Henry Cejudo, who is now the UFC bantamweight and flyweight champion. Jose and Angel Cejudo, Henry’s brother, were best friends. Cortez has been training with Henry since she was a teenager. She now trains under coach Santino Defranco at Fight Ready MMA and with the Neuro Force One scientific program that Henry has sworn by.
“It’s that tragic adversity that has propelled Tracy into becoming a dedicated MMA athlete,” said Eric Albarracin, the Cejudos’ longtime coach in wrestling and MMA. “I think it’s that family bond that motivates her to train like a champion. This Contender Series will be a chance for her to realize her and her brother’s dream of becoming a UFC fighter.”
Cortez, now 25, faced a setback when her mother died after a battle with thyroid cancer in 2016. She has considered quitting MMA. But the thought of her mother’s deathbed message always brings Cortez back: “You’re special, you’re more than capable of this — don’t give up.”
“So I can’t give up,” Cortez said. “I just can’t.”
Cortez said the fact that she’s in the position she is in now is “mind-blowing” given all she has gone through. But she has put the work in over the years. Training at Neuro Force One, a “data-driven” program that incorporates nutrition, strength-and-conditioning and mental training, has been an added boon, Cortez said. She has been working out there for the past eight weeks.
“Just body-wise, I’m a lot stronger, I’m a lot more explosive,” Cortez said. “Mentally, I’m able to calm myself down. They have me doing breathing exercises and calming my heart rate. There’s so much science behind the training. Instead of always going hard, they say train smarter and fight stupid. So when we’re in the fight, we’re fighting. There’s a plan behind it, but you’re going in there to fight. When you train, you’re not training to hurt yourself every day. We’re training a lot smarter than what I normally would.”
Losing her oldest brother and mother is still hard on Cortez, but she is powering through. She has a reason to be doing what she’s doing now. The UFC was Jose’s dream. Cortez is doing this for him and her entire family.
“There are still days where I just break down and cry, like damn, life is hard,” she said. “Then I’m like, hell no. Life is good. I’m healthy, I’m alive. I’m gonna fight for something that I’ve been working toward for so long. Now I have this opportunity.
“I’m gonna leave it all in the cage. I’m gonna fight like this is my UFC title fight.”
Dana White’s Contender Series, Week 6
Heavyweight: Rodrigo Nascimento vs. Michal Martinek
Welterweight: Daniel Rodriguez vs. Rico Farrington
Women’s flyweight: Tracy Cortez vs. Mariya Agapova
Men’s featherweight: Steven Nguyen vs. Aalon Cruz
Light heavyweight: Aleksa Camur vs. Fabio Cherant
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