At the end of a long night, Keri Anne Taylor decided she would give her date something memorable.
A black eye.
"He was confident, almost overconfident. We were messing around, teasing each other," she recalls. "We had both had margaritas. ... We were back in the living room with his roommates, and he decided he wanted to test my punching skills, so he broke out the pads. I decided to bypass the pads and pop him in the eye. His roommates laughed. He took it well. I liked that."
Fight fans now know her better as Keri Anne Taylor-Melendez, a professional kickboxer and strawweight prospect with Bellator MMA. Her date that night was Gilbert Melendez, a former MMA champ, longtime UFC contender and current analyst at ESPN and elsewhere. That was 12 years ago, and they've been married for about half that time.
Clearly, this kind of roughhousing—playful, consensual roughhousing, but roughhousing nonetheless—is pretty atypical for a first date. That is, unless you're an MMA fighter.
Fans could be forgiven for being unaware that the planet's most brutal sport is a breeding ground for romance. But according to anecdotal evidence and the fighters themselves, it is precisely that.
Speaking more generally, unless a police report or a Kardashian is involved, sports fans don't normally pay much attention to athletes' personal lives. But the topic waltzed into the MMA spotlight recently thanks to Amanda Nunes and Raquel Pennington. When they square off Saturday to vie for Nunes' bantamweight title in UFC 224's main event, they'll become the first openly gay athletes to fight each other for a UFC championship.
What's more, their partners are also active UFC fighters who may one day face each other as well—strawweights Nina Ansaroff and Tecia Torres, respectively, for Nunes and Pennington.
Athletes dating their colleagues is unusual in the wider sports universe. Not at all uncommon in MMA.
No matter one's orientation, MMA fighters seem far more likely to form romantic bonds with one another compared with their non-MMA counterparts.
High-profile relationships between fighters are everywhere. Ronda Rousey married heavyweight Travis Browne in 2017. UFC golden girl Paige VanZant is engaged to fighter Austin Vanderford and once dated former UFC bantamweight champ Cody Garbrandt. Reigning UFC strawweight champ Rose Namajunas has a longtime partner in retired heavyweight Pat Barry. UFC women's featherweight champ Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino recently got engaged to fellow fighter Ray Elbe. The list goes on.
It's not exactly the kind of topic that lends itself to robust data collection, but the dynamics fighters describe demonstrate why MMA can lead to love, and potentially reveal more about the sport—and what it demands of the lives it ensnares—than anything that happens in front of the cameras.
"In MMA it's a lot more personal, and we're our own type of community," the 29-year-old Pennington (9-5) says. "You're training with men and women or men and men or women and women, and we're all in it together. When you're sitting there sweating on each other, up close and personal, kicking each other and punching each other, you experience something different with each other.
"I think a lot more connections are just built there."
Long before the world watched her effectively end Rousey's MMA career, Nunes (15-4) was turning heads and tanning the hide of any sparring partner shoved in front of her. The native Brazilian who would eventually be dubbed "The Lioness" needed an equal, or at least someone with the sand to stand up to her. That's when Ansaroff appeared.
"We were great training partners, and she matched well with my style," Nunes, 29, says. "Nina is fast, and I was able to finish rounds with her. She will always come forward, and I keep moving forward. She is strong like I am."
A mutual respect formed, intertwined with the physical intimacy that MMA necessitates. Nunes, an admitted workaholic, didn't have much of a life outside of her daily routine.
"I used to live in the gym, basically," she says. "Then [Ansaroff] asked me if I wanted to go somewhere, and I would just go. We used to train and go eat together, maybe go out. It was meant to be."
To say that fighter attraction is born from the physical doesn't solely imply alluring physiques glistening with sweat. It's customary for fighters, men and women, to practice together, and in far closer proximity than other sports.
"For me, I think [fighters dating fighters] is a thing because men and women tend to share the same training area," says Gilbert Melendez (22-7). "You're around each other a lot, and there's that common interest. It was a passion that we shared."
Perhaps counterintuitively, fighting itself breeds affection, competitors say. There's vulnerability in stripping oneself to bare wood, as happens in the starkly binary world of fighting. It's not an easy thing to do. Sharing in the risk and sacrifice, combined with the traditions of mutual respect that accompany most martial arts, helps keep it all tolerable while laying groundwork for larger relationships.
"One day in training, I just looked at her different," Nunes says. "I think it's because of sparring. You grow together. You need somebody else with you. ... We helped each other so much. I started to look at her with mother eyes. People get so close, and they see things they never see before. You are chasing the same dream together."
Nunes and Ansaroff started dating about five years ago. At first, their personal compatibility dovetailed nicely with their professional compatibility. Problems at home? Handle them at work. Plenty of couples may laughingly acknowledge the appeal of that approach, and for Nunes and Ansaroff, it actually worked for a while. That model of conflict resolution eventually (and predictably) ran its course, though.
"Definitely we used to settle [arguments] during sparring," Nunes says. "We used to argue, then we sense anger in the face of each other. But you can hurt each other. Now if there is something to fix, we talk."
Fighter to Fighter
If they didn't know any better, hotel guests might have mistaken Pennington for a DJ, with her backward ball cap, Puma hoodie and barbell piercing through her lower lip. Sitting by her side, Torres is primmer in a plaid skirt and thin navy V-neck over a crisp white blouse. Only the trash-compactor biceps writhing under Torres' sleeves suggest that these two might be pro athletes. As they settle into chairs in the noisy lobby, both exude a kind of deliberate sanguinity. They're being nice, but that can change if it needs to.
They met six years ago, when both were competing for the all-female Invicta Fighting Championships. A friendship grew to something more after Torres (10-2) left American Top Team in Florida to train with Pennington in Colorado. The couple now own a home there and got engaged last year.
"She came during a rough time in my life," Pennington recalls. "I was going through a bunch of different surgeries, and I was pretty low during that time period. She just stood by me."
Fighters say that, or some variation of it, over and over again. The MMA life is so regimented, so multivariate, so—if you'll forgive a lazy metaphor—spartan that it's hard for someone outside the community to keep up.
"A typical day in training camp is, I wake up, and as soon as I wake up, I have to have a specific meal. The meals are all about timing and what's going into your body for your fuel," Pennington says. "And then you have practice at a certain time, and sometimes our practices might run 30 minutes or an hour late, so it's not to where we're on a time schedule. A lot of people are used to 9 to 5 or whatever, but if noon hits and we're not home, we get it."
Six years ago, Keith Jardine semi-retired from MMA, but he still knows how it is. A light heavyweight perhaps best remembered for taking down celebrity ex-champ Chuck Liddell, Jardine now plays a supporting role for fiancee and UFC strawweight Jodie Esquibel.
"I'm on the other side now, and when Jodie is training in camp, your whole world revolves around one thing," the 42-year-old Jardine (17-11-2) says. "It puts my life on hold for a few months. If I had not been a fighter, I might have a hard time understanding that. ... Fighting is a really selfish thing. Someone else might want your time, but you can't give it to them."
When both fighters are active, it's a whole other ballgame. The Melendezes are both active fighters and own a gym together, on top of Gilbert's on-camera duties. They also have a 7-year-old daughter, Layla. Being fighters stretches schedules thin, but it simultaneously makes the fabric of their lives more pliable.
"There's a lot of compromise," Gilbert says. "We know when it's time to step up when the other one is in camp. We have an understanding of what they need in their diet. I'm not going to be rude and bring in some ice cream when my wife is cutting weight. ... Sometimes someone needs to sleep in more. Today I woke my daughter up, my wife made her breakfast and did her hair, and I dropped her off. Then we trained, we did business stuff, and I picked her up."
These kinds of stable, loving relationships may be a bit surprising to those who have only passing familiarity with MMA. Wider focus tends to fall on the sport when bad things happen, and horrific headlines like those created by War Machine and Thiago Silva established domestic violence as a common MMA talking point, as did a 2015 investigation from Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel that found that the adjusted rate of domestic violence arrests was 750 per 100,000 U.S.-born men ranked in the Top 200 in MMA since 2003.
But what the fighter-fighter relationships show is that even if MMA can inadvertently attract those with criminally violent tendencies, it can also be an environment that helps steer athletes into a healthy lifestyle.
Or even one that deters domestic violence across the population. Torres, who endured domestic violence as a child and younger adult, takes it a step further. She recently earned a master's degree in criminology, just days before Pennington proposed, and one day plans to work with domestic violence victims.
"I grew up inside a broken home. I saw domestic violence my whole life," Torres says. "I'd definitely like to work with women and children with domestic violence and broken homes. ... What better way is there to do that than with self-defense? That's where my heart lies."
Once established as couples, fighters have to create mutual understanding to sustain complex relationships. That's easier said than done in a grueling sport that has irregular logistics and requires fierce focus on individual achievement.
"A bad day for me is not like the internet was down," says the 32-year-old Esquibel (6-3). "It's that I got my butt kicked and got subbed four times in a round. It's good to come home and have someone who has been there before."
And no, it's not always roses and puppy dogs. These are still fighters, after all, and sometimes there's a bit of agitation in the mix. An empathetic and knowledgeable ear goes a long way.
"During camp, we're not ourselves," says Keri Anne. "We're mean people. Sometimes we're not loving or caring."
There's also a certain built-in tolerance for violence. Several years removed from competition, Jardine says he gets one question over and over, one that may not come as readily to an active fighter.
"The question I get all the time is, 'What is it like seeing Jodie get punched?'" Jardine says. "People's idea of fighting is very different from our idea. It's not a street fight. I'm worried about winning and losing. It's an athletic event. I don't have any fear of her getting beat up. It's more of a performance anxiety."
As for UFC 224, Pennington and Nunes have struck up a friendship over the years. They've even double-dated with their respective partners. But each side will try to keep any anxiety to a minimum in a fight with monstrous stakes. This is easily the biggest fight of Pennington's career. If Nunes can win a third straight title defense, she's well positioned for a blockbuster with Cyborg.
Despite a friendship and the buzz of history, it's all business Saturday. Even when the storm hits, though, both women know they'll have shelter in Ansaroff and Torres.
"How could it be more right?" Pennington says of Torres. "We're both fighters; she understands my lifestyle. I've been with other people who have no idea what we go through and what we need. She was that missing puzzle piece."