SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.—On July 3, 2010, Daniel Roberts earned his first victory in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Four days later, he was awarded a life-changing win bonus—the birth of his daughter Gabrielle. Only, “Ninja” knew nothing of her entry into the world.
Nearly six months later, the welterweight received a surprise gift four days shy of Christmas Eve: knowledge of his first-born child.
“There’s this girl at mama’s house saying this baby is yours,” said his older sister Kamela over the phone from back home in Tulsa, Okla.
Suddenly, his world was split between Oklahoma and California—fatherhood and fighting.
In just nine days, he faced Greg Soto in the Octagon at UFC 125 on New Year’s Day, 2011. He relocated from his home state to San Francisco, Calif. roughly 18 months earlier to train alongside Strikeforce champions Gilbert Melendez, Nick Diaz and the UFC’s number one welterweight contender, Jake Shields, as part of the Cesar Gracie fight team. Roberts had to march on with the fight, but he knew the news from home was no ruse and required real attention.
“My mom, right away, knew it was mine. She could kind of tell. For me, when I was a little kid, she knew I had the same features and all,” he says, sitting in the living quarters at the El Niño Training Center in San Francisco where some of his teammates reside.
The 30-year-old was not completely blindsided by the reveal. He demanded of Gabrielle’s mother that she not contact him anymore during their break-up. Scared of being a father, he suspected deep down pregnancy was a possibility.
But it wasn’t a question of pregnancy anymore. His daughter was six months old.
Training intensified: added responsibility of having a baby he never met pushed him harder to succeed. A kimura secured a three-fight win streak in the Octagon 3:45 into round one. The most important decision still needed to be rendered: Would he punch the clock not just as a fighter, but as a father?
“You fight everyday whether you know it or not,” says the three-time NAGA champion, beating himself up over missing Gabrielle’s birth, disappointed that he acted out of fear instead of love when greeted by fatherhood.
The selfishness necessary to be an elite prizefighter coupled with a fractured concept of fatherhood due to an on-and-off father in a single parent home clouded his initial actions. His older brother Donnel, who also has a young daughter, encouraged Roberts to take on his responsibility.
Roberts flew back home exactly one week removed from victory at UFC 125, meeting his daughter for the first time on Jan. 8, 2011, 185 days after her birth.
“I instantly took on a father role,” he says proudly. “It’s just awesome, seeing my little baby girl. She’s so beautiful too.”
Roberts describes meeting his daughter for the first time as the perfect post-fight celebration. Holding up Gabrielle so their faces align, her cheeks are unmistakably his like his mother insisted (a DNA test later verified he is the biological father).
Meeting his first-born put everything into perspective—the sacrifices of a combat career reap greater rewards beyond fighting.
“I realize now that to take care of her, I have to train and I have to do well in my career so she can have the things she needs in life,” he says. “You’re never fully ready [to be a father] but you’ll just have to get better as time goes on. You’ll prepare yourself as time goes on."
“Ninja” shows off a subdued, bright white smile every time he mentions his daughter except when discussing his missteps. A serious individual, he acknowledges his deep regret but falls back on a hidden purpose behind everything.
Countless photos and an open letter to Gabrielle flood his Facebook page leaving the intensely personal situation out in the open. Family, friends and even fans comment they didn’t know he had a daughter.
His response is simply, “Well I didn’t know that either.”
Roberts hopes sharing his story motivates other men to embrace fatherhood no matter how intimidating it can be.
“I normally would say, it’s not too late to take responsibility, but actually it can be too late,” he reflects. “She wasn’t in my life for six months and I hate that. I can’t do anything now but be there for her.”
He characterizes her as a serious and sweet little girl, already taking after her daddy—in more ways than one. “She actually put me in an armbar,” he jokes. “I have so much fun. It’s countless moments with her.”
Preparing for Claude Patrick on April 30 at UFC 129 at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Canada, the Cesar Gracie purple belt believes he will be one of three Gracie fighters—Nate Diaz and Jake Shields are also on the card—successful that night.
“I know he’s a tough guy, but I think I’m mentally strong. I have a lot that I’m fighting for, it’s not just me, I’m fighting for my daughter,” says the Scrap Pack representative. “With that aspect, I don’t think there’s too many people I can’t beat.”
He explains pursuing his dream will teach Gabrielle to do the same. Still, he knows he has to prioritize his daughter's well-being over his day job in the hurt business.
“She can’t talk yet, but I at least I hear her voice everyday [on Skype],” he says, noting he arranges trips home or brings her to California to see her more often. “I see pictures of her. It’s really hard for me not to be with her, but right now I know this is the best decision for my career.”
An inventor in his spare time, Roberts asserts his best invention will always be his daughter (even though parenthood has inspired some baby-related inventions already).
“A lot of people ask me, ‘What if she wants to be a fighter?’ Honestly, me personally, I wouldn’t want her to be a fighter but if she really, truly did, I definitely would support her,” he says confidently. “I’mma teach her everything I know. If they do mess with her—good luck!”
Danny Acosta is the lead writer at FIGHT! Magazine. Follow him on twitter.com/acostaislegend.