When Houston-based mixed martial arts champion Jessica Aguilar shared her dreams of becoming a professional MMA fighter, her loved ones reacted with laughter and disbelief. But Aguilar kept her eyes on the prize, and that determination led her to become a decorated world-champion fighter. Having recently returned to Houston, the advocate for women’s and LGBTQ rights is ready to forge a new path and make her impact on the city.
“Being able to share the importance of self defense with men and women makes everyone involved feel so empowered and confident. I love that I can share my skills to help people protect themselves.”
The out and proud athlete knew she was different from a young age. “My father passed away when I was six, and my mom enrolled me in a private Catholic school,” Aguilar explains. “Students attended mass every Wednesday, and sometimes the priest would say people who are gay are going to hell. I figured I was going to hell, because that’s the way I felt. I eventually realized that what I was hearing was so wrong, because I’m not a bad person. There was a lot of confusion.”
Having lost a number of family members at an early age, including her older brother in a car accident, Aguilar didn’t want to add, in her words, “any more trauma” to her family by revealing she was gay. Ultimately, she took the step to live her truth by coming out to her mother, an immigrant from Mexico—a decision Aguilar is grateful for.
After graduating high school, she attended San Jacinto College before chasing a new dream. “I decided to fly away. I took a semester off and went to California for about eight months to be a movie star. I wanted to do the Hollywood thing,” Aguilar reminisces. “It wasn’t as easy as I thought.” Needing a change of pace, she accepted an invitation from friends to move to Oregon, where she found work as a corrections officer and gained robust experience in self defense.
The modern nomad’s next move was to Florida, where her path to MMA fame began. “I moved to Miami, worked for a mortgage company, and joined a gym. I took fitness classes, and one day I arrived late and saw another class in session. It was Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which focuses on manipulating the joints for self defense,” she explains. Aguilar began training with a coach and signed up for a jiu-jitsu tournament one month later. “I was on a team and I loved it. I ended up winning first place at that tournament.”
American Top Team, a primary team in MMA, came calling soon after. “They owned the second-largest MMA tournament in Florida in 2006 and were featuring their first female battle, but they couldn’t find a second girl. They called me up and asked how much MMA experience I had. I said I had no idea what it was!” Aguilar laughs. “I told him I had done jiu-jitsu for two months, and he asked if I wanted to fight. I said yes because I wanted to compete.”
Looking back, Aguilar laughs at how fast everything happened. “I had five days to train for my first professional MMA fight against someone with a ton of wrestling experience. I lost that one, but it became the fight of the night. There were so many promoters in the stands, and they called me and offered me more fights. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew I loved it.”
At that point, Aguilar was ready to “go big or go home.” Having formed the first female team at American Top Team, she was up for her next challenge. “I told my coach that I wanted to fight and be the best in the world. They laughed at me, but gave me a training schedule.” The athlete was still working at the mortgage bank during the day. “I started winning fights. I was getting to travel, compete, and still work my full-time job. I loved learning how to fight. I felt like such a badass. I was super successful, and I found myself in front of my idol, Megumi Fuji. I was in the cage, fighting the number-one girl in the world.”
Aguilar emerged victorious from that fight to become the MMA world champ—a title she held for more than three years.
Although her career in mixed martial arts is a far cry from her original Hollywood dreams, she realizes her talent in the ring translates into a greater mission. Her lifelong calling to help people has led Aguilar to use her martial-arts skills to teach self-defense classes. “I never grew up thinking this would ever be something I’d do for a living. I started at 24 and I didn’t know anything about MMA. Being able to share the importance of self defense with men and women makes everyone involved feel so empowered and confident. I love that I can share my skills to help people protect themselves.”
Aguilar is also excited to bring her LGBTQ pride to H-Town. The MMA icon beams as she talks about her partner and her vision for their life together, splitting time between Houston and Los Angeles. “I have a very special love in my life, and I’m so happy to be back home. I can’t wait to see what this journey will look like. I want to be part of the LGBT community here and lead some self-defense classes. I’m here, Houston!”
Aguilar reflects on the lessons she’s learned while fighting for her dreams, and the message of positivity and hard work she has for a new generation looking for their life path. “I was my biggest believer. No one thought I would make anything of myself fighting in a cage.” Her gospel of positivity and hard work transcends the MMA fighting cage. “Be a good person, smile, and believe everything is going to be okay. Whether you want to be a fighter, a movie star, or whatever, just believe in yourself! Go to work and make it happen.”
Keep up with Jessica “Jag” Aguilar on Instagram @jagatt.
This article appears in the March 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.