Alexa Grasso ready to live up to expectations

Alexa Grasso seeks to build on her June victory over Karolina Kowalkiewicz on Saturday in her home country of Mexico. Alex Garcia for ESPN

MEXICO CITY -- The collective distance Alexa Grasso has traveled to her fights, including the trek to the biggest one of her career Saturday, doesn't compare to how far she's traveled in her personal life from her days growing up in Guadalajara.

Grasso, 26, recalls being the victim of bullying in grade school and regretting not fighting back. She doesn't know why the bully would target her, only that he would kick her, pull on her hair and steal her lunchbox.

"It was pretty cruel," Grasso said in her native Spanish.

Now, she's ESPN's No. 9-ranked UFC strawweight and preparing to take on Carla Esparza in the UFC Fight Night co-main event in Mexico City.

It seems the adversity served as a sort of inspiration for Grasso when her father began to teach her how to box as a teenager.

"When I started training, I would mentally place the person's face on the punching bag and it gave me a certain motivation," Grasso said of her childhood bully.

Cathartic therapy aside, her innate skills and growing passion have led her to a budding MMA career over the last decade. The path started with an apprenticeship under her father Luis and her uncle Francisco, a former MMA fighter who now runs Lobo Gym in Guadalajara, where she still trains.

Grasso made her pro debut at 19, knocking out Sandra del Rincon in just 15 seconds. Less than four years later, in 2016, she was signed away from Invicta and joined the UFC after racking up an 8-0 record.

The opportunity was a welcome development, considering the variety of jobs Grasso performed to support herself in the early days.

"I was a waitress at a sushi place, a secretary at a law firm, a receptionist, I taught fitness and boxing to kids, and I even had to clean up at the gym where I trained," she said. "It was a relief when I could dedicate my time and my life to training; it was an emotional time."

UFC president Dana White, who saw further potential in Grasso, orchestrated the signing. However, injuries and the steep jump in quality slowed her rise.

"First of all, she'd been someone we'd been watching for a long time," White said in June at UFC 238, after Grasso scored a decision over Karolina Kowalkiewicz. "Then she came in and didn't really live up to the hype."

Since joining the UFC, Grasso has suffered her first professional losses and endured two lengthy injury layoffs on the way to a 3-2 record. Her match against Esparza will be her second in just three months, a quick turnaround considering she fought only twice between March 2017 and May '19.

"My preparation has changed," Grasso said. "It's been a radical change, really, and it's key for me not to pick up injuries anymore. Look, you're always going to get bruised as an MMA athlete, you're always at risk, but the difference is how you treat it and how you recover."

After Grasso defeated Kowalkiewicz, White himself noticed the change.

"Coming into [fight week] I was like 'Wow'. She was in the best shape I'd ever seen her. She looked phenomenal, and it showed," he said.

Grasso comes in as the favorite against Esparza amid a friendly crowd at the Arena Ciudad de Mexico. Some of her fellow Mexican fighters have struggled to win fights on home territory -- Tijuana's Brandon Moreno lost to Sergio Pettis in the headlining match at UFC Fight Night 114 two years ago -- but Grasso has already won twice in Mexico City.

"I love to fight in Mexico," she said. "My best nights have come here, and being in an arena where everyone is cheering your name is amazing. You can feel that energy, that vibe. I feed off of it."

Fame in her homeland has been mostly a positive thing for Grasso, though it comes with its share of critics. Perhaps that fame is what's given her admirers and detractors alike license to speak a little too freely.

"Many times, people have told me 'You're too pretty to fight, take care of your face'," Grasso said. "I'm proving you can compete in a contact sport and be feminine. When I choose to do something else with my life, maybe that's when my sense of vanity will return, but I'm focused on my career right now."

A win in the bout over Esparza could vault Grasso's career into loftier territory. She craves bigger fights, adding she'd put on "a spectacular show" against any of the women above her ranking. Included in that group are strawweight champion Zhang Weili and Tatiana Suarez, whom Grasso lost to in 2018.

"She's an example," said her uncle and trainer Francisco Grasso. "There's a lot of pressure not only because all the eyes of Mexico are on her, but because of all the women who are looking to emulate her in the future."

Whatever the result Saturday, those around Grasso note she's come a long way since her troubling experiences as a child and the underwhelming beginning and bumps on the way to a professional career on the upswing.

"I'll take any fight they give me, and I'll train my hardest to win," Grasso said. "Things have changed now [since the Suarez fight], it'll be different for sure."