For Emily Peters Kagan, new situations are nothing new.
Kagan, born in Maine, has lived and worked in Israel. Along the way, she attained Israeli citizenship.
Her college degree is in management and international business, but she worked for some three years in Minnesota, Maine and New Hampshire as a wilderness therapist – counseling at-risk youth.
Then, some five years ago, she dramatically changed course. She moved to Albuquerque to pursue a career as an MMA fighter.
Thus, when UFC President Dana White called her in December with an invitation to appear on the first-ever all-female installment of “The Ultimate Fighter,” the UFC’s long-running reality show, Kagan knew exactly what to do.
Be ready for anything.
Filming of TUF 20 is complete, and the series debuts Wednesday. Kagan, of course, is not allowed to talk about the results.
But, she said in a recent interview, “It was an incredible experience, very, very unique.”
Anyone who has watched The Ultimate Fighter knows that crazy, even nasty, things can happen when athletes live together and train together as well as fight each other. The classic example is the tempestuous, toxic relationship that developed between TUF 18 coaches Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate, enmity that still simmers.
And who could forget the threat made on TUF 14 by Diego Brandao, Kagan’s teammate at Albuquerque’s Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA, to cut off teammate Marcus Brimage’s head with a knife?
This being a family publication, there are other examples of TUF toxicity that will not appear in this space.
So, given the opportunity to become the UFC’s first women’s 115-pound champion, Kagan (3-1 as a professional) did her homework.
“I was preparing for anything and everything,” she said. “I was preparing for the most uncomfortable, most awkward, most unappealing of circumstances.”
Fortunately, Kagan shares a gym with several TUF veterans. She talked with Diego Sanchez, whose victory in the original The Ultimate Fighter propelled him to stardom and played a vital role in making Jackson-Winkeljohn the MMA giant it has become.
She talked to Keith Jardine, Colton Smith, John Dodson, and, yes, Brandao.
“So, yeah, I actually got a lot of inside information,” she said. “… It was really, really great to feel I wasn’t leaving alone and I wouldn’t come back alone, so to speak, from the experience.”
What she gathered from all the advice, essentially was this: be yourself – and true to yourself. Be open to others, but not unduly influenced.
“I really tried to not be too persuaded by others and pulled out of my own persona and my own character traits,” she said.”But also, there were times when I felt like it was better for me to come out of my shell a little bit, try something new within those kind of safe boundaries, just so I could still build a strong connection with some of the girls.”
In the end she said, friendships were made and challenges were met.
“I developed a lot of strong relationships with all the girls, and I didn’t really feel like I struggled too much with the drama in the house,” she said. “That was one of the things that people had prepared me for that I didn’t really have to worry too much about.
“In the end, it was extremely challenging, but it was very positive.”
A greater challenge, in a way, was Kagan’s return to her daily life after the filming of TUF 20.
“I’m kind of in this waiting ground between finishing filming and waiting to see what happens to my life after it starts airing,” she said.
“(But) the gym is my home, and … this is the place where I feel the most balanced and comfortable.”
Albuquerquean Heather Clark, Kagan’s former Jackson-Winkeljohn teammate, also is among the 16 participants on TUF 20. Clark, 6-4 as a pro, has moved to Las Vegas, Nev., and trains at Syndicate MMA.
RFA: Resurrection Fighting Alliance, an organization that during its three years of existence has sent 23 fighters to the UFC, comes to the Albuquerque Convention Center on Friday.
Several New Mexico fighters are on the card, including Moriarty’s Brenda Gonzales, Rio Rancho’s Adrian Cruz and Tucumcari’s Abel Cullum.
The main event matches Matt Manzanares (7-2) of Cheyenne, Wyo., and Alexandre Pantoja (14-2) of Brazil in an RFA flyweight title fight.
Among former RFA fighters now in the UFC are Sergio Pettis, Tim Elliott, Dustin Ortiz and James Krause.
Tickets are available at holdmyticket.com.