Courtney Casey

Arizona native Courtney Casey returns to the octagon against Michelle Waterson April 14 at Gila River Arena.

Courtney Casey was a star soccer player in Arizona, but she always wanted to try mixed martial arts.

“I always watched boxing and MMA on television, but knew soccer would be a way to go to college,” Casey said during a recent interview during her training. “After playing at the University of Texas El Paso, I decided to give MMA a try.”

She started four years at Red Mountain High School, before earning a scholarship to play Division I soccer at the University of Texas at El Paso. After her playing career was cut short, due to an injury, she began training MMA in 2009 and is now returning to Arizona for the first time since her amateur days.

After training in the East Valley early in her career, Casey joined The MMA Lab with Coach John Crouch, following time spent in Hawaii.

“I had trained (at the MMA Lab) a few times years ago, and when I returned from Maui, I knew this was where I wanted to be,” Casey said. “Coach Crouch has been very welcoming and I am learning a lot being here.”

Casey started her career with a match in Roswell, N.M.

“My first fight was for Double Down Productions in New Mexico,” Casey said. “I won the fight by submission in the third round with an arm bar and I was hooked.”

She has fought seven times in the UFC, winning three of those fights, but Casey has fought some of the top contenders, such as Claudia Gadelha (currently ranked No. 3 strawweight), Felice Herrig (No. 8) and Joanne Calderwood (No. 13).

“The (Gadelha) loss was tough because I had a car accident and only had like four weeks of actual camp to train,” Casey said. “I don’t think I lost that fight, I took a controversial knee, but the fight was a great learning experience for me and I learned a lot from that fight.”

She said while she prepares hard for each fight, she doesn’t focus on her actual opponents. She says she watches the first round of a fight or two of each opponent, but she mainly just listens to what her coaches tell her.

“I let my coaches do that and will watch a couple of rounds, but I know each fighter changes in each fight as they go on,” Casey said. “I have great coaches that always come up with a game plan that I know if I follow, I will be successful.”

She said her goal is to fight as much as she can, but had to learn some basics over the years, including the obvious thing when it comes to MMA.

“The hardest part to learn, was how to take a punch,” Casey said. “The guys I train with are tough on me and, early on during my training, the guys sparing with me would come at me hard, so I learned early.”

She said that when she steps into the octagon, everything moves in slow motion and she only sees her opponent in a tunnel.

“It is really like tunnel vision and everything starts slow and then slowly gets bigger and bigger,” Casey said. “I only hear my coaches at first, then as the fight goes on, I focus on my breathing. Slowly, then I hear (my opponents) coaches, then the crowd and then certain people. It is a weird feeling, but everything is moving full speed by the middle of the first round.”

Casey is currently ranked No. 12 and will battle No. 7 ranked Michelle Waterson at Gila River Arena April 14.

“I am excited because I haven’t fought in Arizona since my amateur days,” Casey said. “It has been a long time coming and I am happy to be back in Arizona and have somewhat home turf for myself and be the hometown hero. This could be a huge spring-board for me and I am focused on getting the win.”

While she is excited to be fighting in her home state, she doesn’t focus on the crowd when she steps inside the octagon.

“It will be nice to fight close to home,” Casey said. “But, when I step into the cage it is like tunnel vision. I don’t hear anything until later in the match, and I am ready to show people what I can do in the cage.”

Casey added that the UFC knows that if they call her, she will not turn down a fight as long as she is able.

“My ultimate goal is to be remembered as a fighter who didn’t take any easy fights,” Casey said. “I have never refused a fight and I want to be a good role model to younger girls who see that a fighter can be classy and someone they can look up to and I can be proud of what I have done.”

When asked why people should come to see her bout at Gila River Arena April 14, she responded, “Why not? I always put on a show and win, lose or draw, I guarantee it is going to be a good fight.”