Ariana Melendez went from surfing swells on Florida’s shores to training at The Jungle MMA alongside UFC featherweight Felicia Spencer.
Skipping classes and catching some waves with classmates entails one of the days in the life of Melendez’s teenage years. Although, another series of events that kept her outside of school wasn’t for leisure.
“I remember missing almost two weeks straight of school just taking my mom to doctors’ offices because she couldn’t drive herself,” Melendez said. “She was close to almost damn near dying when I was 15. A weird accident where she started throwing up blood one day at work.”
“It took countless doctors and they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her. They did a lot of CAT scans, lung scans, and everything to figure out why was her system shutting down.”
“No one could find a reason. We drove all the way to Jacksonville’s Mayo Clinic, and they couldn’t even conclude what was wrong with her. Thankfully, she’s on the right medication to tame the bleeding of the lungs now.”
In her junior year of high school, Melendez and her mother moved to Puerto Rico after living in Daytona. Financially, times were rough for them in Puerto Rico. Though, it brought Melendez and her mother closer.
Melendez was home-schooled by her mother which allotted time for her to be part of Puerto Rico’s national surfing team. She competed at Nicaragua’s ISA World Championship and placed 40th in the 18-and-under division.
“It just being us, we had no family over there at the time. She wasn’t working when we were in Puerto Rico, she was getting government checks,” Melendez said. “We did what we could to survive off the small checks that she was getting.”
“You’re not thinking like a teenager anymore when you’re trying to figure out what to eat that night and you see your mom trying to figure it out. She sacrificed a lot so I can be a part of that surfing team, get that experience and go to Nicaragua and represent a whole country for surfing.”
Melendez didn’t take her mother’s sacrifices for granted. Seeing the struggles gives her the mentally to “always go above and beyond.” She was in bed getting ready while other teenagers were up late at night partying, she added.
Melendez moved back to Florida in 2017, as her mother stayed in Puerto Rico. She started working at the Quiet Flight Surf Shop, and that’s when “everything started to unfold.”
While working at the surf shop, she bumped into MMA fighter Anderson Hutchinson and noticed his shirt.
“Where do you train?” Melendez asked. She always wanted to try out the sport, and so she visited Pete White Boxing gym where Hutchinson trains, she added.
Back in August 2018, she competed in her first and only boxing match. The whole ambiance of fight week confirmed what she wanted to do with her life – simply fight.
“As soon as I stepped in that boxing ring, that was it… I wanted to keep doing this, I wanted to do it more,” Melendez said. “My opponent didn’t show up to the weigh-ins, which was kind of nerve-racking. They told me that she would for sure be at the fights the next day.”
“On fight day, we go over to the rules meeting. The whole time I’m like, ‘wow, this is freaking cool, going backstage and everyone getting crowded in the stadium. This is kind of what rock stars feel. I was never nervous – getting my hands wrapped. I was just focused on what I wanted to do. People knew that when my headphones were in, that was it… I was ready.”
The Floridan tried out different gyms, but none of them had the skill set that she needed to compete as The Jungle offered.
“I visited Jungle and did one class with them. Afterward, Jiu-jitsu coach Brian Fisher sat down and talked with me,” Melendez said. “He told me ‘we are going to take your skill level higher; you just have to trust us.’”
“I told them that I’ve been to multiple gyms and had no luck in being able to find a good spot. Everybody was taller than me, bigger than me. Or, they didn’t want to match me up. I was a stepping-stone for their gym’s superstars.”
From a single boxing match, Melendez transitioned to her MMA amateur career. She took the one boxing fight to see if combat sports are something that she really wanted to do. Boxing just became a test of contact, thus pursuing MMA was her main intention.
Melendez trained two years before her first amateur fight. The training was on and off, as she contemplated what she “really” wanted to do.
“You have your family telling you to go to school, you have your job, you want to do this, you want to do that, but in reality, you want to be a fighter,” she said. “I had to juggle what I wanted to do. After my boxing fight, that signified that I wasn’t going to finish my associate. I was going to train and work.”
Melendez attended vocational school to become an EMT on a four-month course. She didn’t put a glove or hit a bag during the course.
“Everyone wanted me to do something with my life other than fight. I completed the certificate for the EMT program,” she said. “I hated not being around the gym. I still ran and stuff like that, to kind of stay active because it’s such long hours in studying and doing clinicals.”
After walking across the stage and getting her certificate, she knew this is something that she didn’t want to do. Melendez sensed that she was meant to do a little bit more than just do a nine-to-five, she added.
Despite a split decision loss to Tia Rahmoun, the Floridan got introduce to the MMA world in her first amateur bout. Appearing on King of the Cage: Territorial Conflict in Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino became an experience within itself.
“It signified someone sees something in me. They want to give me a shot. They want to fly me out all the way to New York and put me on a pro-amateur show,” Melendez said. “Where they can put another professional on there.”
“That shows my hard work alone. Training six days out of the week with no upcoming fights went noticed.”
Melendez will fight Naomie Young in a strawweight bout at Combat Night: Orlando on Feb. 1. She’s coming off a second-round knockout victory over Katie Bovett at XFN 25.