She's Fighting Her Way From Reality TV to UFC Stardom
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes big things come in very small packages.
By Eugene S. Robinson
No one has mixed feelings about punches in the face.
Most of us are pretty clear on where we stand, and Angela Hill, San Diego resident by way of Prince George’s County, Maryland, knew maybe better than some that she wanted no punches in the face. Not even one.
“Like most people, this was something I was actually afraid of,” Hill says.
And here’s the thick-as-a-brick irony: The 115-pound Hill is now, according to fighter ranking portal Fight Matrix, the eighth best women’s strawweight fighter in the world. Or that portion of the world that follows Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), the clearinghouse for one of the toughest sports where competitors use an amalgam of skills and techniques to beat their opponents as far from consciousness as possible.
You have to realize that I had never lost before I started MMA. Not once.
Angela “Overkill” Hill on her 16–0 record
Which means something when you consider that the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) CEO Dana White responded to a question from the press gallery in 2011 by exclaiming “Never!” The question: When will women fight in the UFC?
Blocked from a competitive career path until the one-woman wrecking machine Ronda Rousey broke through with an undeniable star power a few years later, Hill’s rise to prominence was as accidental as accidental could get.
“In elementary and middle school I used to do this thing,” Hill says, “where each summer I’d do a different sport: softball, track, basketball.” Team sports lacked the wattage that Hill, the baby in a family with two older brothers, wanted. So she zigged, instead of zagging, and started drawing, inspired by an older brother. “The first assignment he gave me was to have me draw a Doritos bag,” Hill laughs. But the discipline it took to play the lights against the darks became an obsession.
So much so that she enrolled in a performing arts high school. A step that seemed pleasing and predictable to her parents — a father in sales and a mother who still works for the federal government, now at Homeland Security teaching immigrant and elderly sensitivity classes to its officers. And on the basis of her self-described “weird little art projects” — pop-up books, cartoons, comics — she was admitted to New York’s prestigious Cooper Union School of Art and enjoyed a healthy post-college career as an animator.
That is, until the 2008 recession hit and animation studios went out of business, a move that had Hill working in a bar and carrying buckets of ice up from the basement. And in the world of unintended consequences, this led to a gym membership that turned into a self-defense class, which turned into a class for Muay Thai, the near-deadly tornado of elbows, knees, punches and kicks.
Hill got good enough to start working as a personal trainer, only to notice that actually fighting gave you the kind of credibility that brought clients back. Next thing she knew she had beaten 16 people. In a row.
“When I threw my first elbow or hit my first knee,” notes Hill, who by then had picked up the fight sobriquet Overkill, “it was the kind of awesome that I can’t really describe, but it was a feeling of power, plus, as it turned out, I was good.” So, the 5′3″ Hill killed, winning the majority of her fights in Muay Thai and thinking she’d open her own gym. Or maybe even a bar — but for one of those phone calls that get filed under “fateful.”
The call? An invitation in 2014 to appear on Fox Sports 1’s The Ultimate Fighter 20, a ratings winner that would almost singlehandedly turn the UFC into a $4.2 billion acquisition for WME-IMG/Endeavor two years later. So Hill had her last kickboxing fight in February 2014 and by that June was moving into the Vegas-based studio to start filming the reality show featuring two teams of MMA hopefuls bunking together without cellphones and with all the alcohol they could drink.
And a twist: Hers was the first season to feature all women fighters. Entitled “A Champion Will Be Crowned,” the show gamified, over 12 episodes, the eventual winner’s march to the first ever strawweight (106–115 pounds) championship. More than the championship, even, since winners from the past two decades have gone on to wider fame and fortune — movies, TV commercials, household-name status — all undergirded by the grit that got them there in the first place.
“She was one of the hardest-working fighters I’ve ever worked with,” says Gil Melendez, two-time Strikeforce Lightweight Champion who competes at Featherweight in the UFC and who coached Hill on the show. “Never missed a session and never complained, a ‘straight soldier’ is what we would call her.”
But MMA goes beyond kickboxing, and Hill lost via a submission in the first prelim round to Carla Esparza, an accomplished grappler. “[Hill] seems more like a fun action fighter than a top contender,” MMA sports commentator Zane Simon says, while giving a nod to Hill’s ability to crowd-please through her cosplay entrances and by presenting opponents with sketches showing their hearts being removed. “It’s made for lots of fun fights,” Simon concedes, but difficulty in finding her style “has also led to lots of uneven results.”
Perhaps, but when the UFC released its list of the top 20 women strawweights in March 2018, Hill had bumped up in the rankings, propelled more than likely by her February victory over Maryna Moroz.
“You have to realize that I had never lost before I started MMA. Not once,” says Hill. “But there are highs and lows, and I’ve been getting plenty of the highs.” And before the end of summer? Hill, who scours the trades for news that her divisional opponents are injured so she can fight the fights they can’t, expects to be little more than striking distance from the championship. “Top 5,” she laughs. “At least.”