For Rachael Ostovich, training to fight Paige VanZant has been the easy part

Photo of For Rachael Ostovich, training to fight Paige VanZant has been the easy part
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NEW YORK — Rachael Ostovich took a fight against Paige VanZant and — through unfortunate circumstance and a coincidence in booking — ended up tied at the hip with polarizing NFL-player-turned-UFC-heavyweight Greg Hardy. It’s been a completely strange and harrowing lead-up for the Hawaiian flyweight, who has dealt with more than anybody should ever have to in a fight camp.

In November, she was allegedly assaulted by her husband, Arnold Berdon, and suffered multiple injuries — the most severe of which being a cracked orbital bone, which nearly knocked her out of the fight. She has since filed for divorce. Berdon has been served a restraining order and is set to go on trial for felony assault next month.

Then the correlation began.

Upon gaining medical clearance, Ostovich opted to stay on this Saturday night’s fight card in Brooklyn — the first in the new ESPN era — a decision that only served to magnify Hardy’s past transgressions for domestic abuse. Back in 2014, Hardy — then a Pro Bowler for the Carolina Panthers — was found guilty of assaulting his ex-girlfriend, and throwing her onto a pile of guns. Though the charges were dismissed on appeal when the victim failed to show up and testify in court, the incident ultimately led to a suspension and his eventual banishment from the NFL.

Because they ended up on a high-profile fight card together, the UFC came under scrutiny for allowing it to happen. The most thrown around word during fight week so far has been “tone deaf” — as in, the UFC should know better. But as much as it has bothered some fans that the UFC opted to keep Ostovich and Hardy on the same card, it hasn’t bothered Ostovich nearly as much.

“From the day my incident occurred until now, everyday it’s been a new thing,” she told MMA Fighting at the UFC on ESPN+ media day Thursday. “But the Greg Hardy one was a big one. I was like, why is this blowing up? What is going on in the world? It was so weird.

“I was trying to do my research via Twitter — probably not the best — but I was like, OK, I have no control over this. This is not my card. Bottom line is I’m happy to be here, happy to be on the card. It doesn’t bother me at all, because I have my own situation. My own problems that I’m dealing with.”

In fact, Ostovich felt compelled to introduce herself to Hardy when she saw him for the first time on Tuesday in New York. Given that they have been mentioned in the same breath for the last couple of months, she wanted him to know that she was willing to try and make this weekend a positive experience, rather than a morally questionable one.

“I approached him because it had been weighing on my heart ever since it got brought up in the news,” she said. “I kept thinking, we’re fighting on the same card. I’m going to see him eventually. I’m not the type that wants things to be awkward, I wanted to get it out of the way. So I seen him and I was like, I have to go say hi to him, I knew I had to.

“I said, ‘Hi, I’m Rachael, it’s nice to meet you. I just want you to know that there’s no negative feelings between me and you, that the media can say this and that and blow it out of proportion.’

“I told him, hey, let’s use this and work together. Let’s turn these negative issues into positives on both ends. And I feel like that’s the best thing we can do. If more people focused on that, it would be a lot better. He was very genuine, very gracious. I felt like he was grateful that I came up to him, and I felt like the relief was off of both of our shoulders.”

A couple of months back, when Ostovich got the fight with VanZant, it looked like nothing more than a chance to prove herself as a fighter against a UFC commodity on a very big platform. As she navigates fight week, though, Ostovich has morphed into a survivor of domestic violence. Not only that, but she knows that she is looked upon as an inspiration to her fellow survivors of abuse, and — somehow, in between training and recovery and the whole nexus of emotions — has made her peace with it.

“I was in shock at the amount of messages I’ve received just on Instagram,” she said. “I can’t even get into Facebook and Twitter and all of that, there was so much, but just on Instagram I was getting flooded with messages. Things like, ‘hey, I was in an eight-year relationship and finally got out, stay strong,’ or, ‘I’m still in a relationship.’ Those are the ones that are hard for me. The ones who are still stuck in their relationships, and they have nowhere to turn to, no support. Some of them have kids and can’t support themselves financially. This is a worldwide problem. It doesn’t just happen in Hawaii. It happens to everyone.”

“So I’m trying to let them know it’s not OK.”

It’s been one hell of an undertaking, and not one that Ostovich could have ever saw coming. One minute she’s a fighter, the next minute she’s a fighter. One minute it’s her versus VanZant, the next it’s her against Hardy. Or her against the UFC’s decision making. Or her against her own emotions, having to deal with the complexity of a dangerous relationship in public.

People want her to speak out against everything at once. But Ostovich says she can’t, because the fight is nearing. And that fight is actually the thing that has kept her grounded through the process.

“The fight itself has been more a sanctuary,” she said. “I’ve been able to take all my frustrations out in training, anything that’s stressing me out. Taking the time out to focus on training or whatever I need to do. Finally getting it to this point has been just a relief. I’m so excited to fight.”

The one thing that Ostovich isn’t doing is walking on eggshells as she discusses the problem. Even though she admits she would rather be talking about her fight and bouncing back after losing against Montana De La Rosa last July, she not only tries to humanize with the elephant in the room (Hardy), she tries to empathize with the media.

“I understand the obligations of media,” she said. “And I understand that things are a lot more intensified because of the situation that happened in my personal life. To handle it so publicly, it’s hard. I’m not going to lie. It’s hard to deal with all of these emotions.

“But, the silver lining is that it would be almost ignorant of me not to use it to help others. And that’s what I want to do, and that’s what we all should be doing. Helping each other, sharing our stories. There are so many sharing their stories with me, and I’m so grateful for that. Because it made me feel like I’m not alone. So to help someone else and help them be strong and find that motivation and strength to leave those toxic relationships, then so be it.”

It’s been a memorable fight camp, even if it’s one she’d rather forget. But Ostovich has managed to keep pushing forward. On Thursday she had many reporters around her, many cameras, and many fighters. Everyone wanted to know her feelings. She answered the best she could.

Which is to say, she tried to explain a series of events that are difficult to understand, even for her.

“When I first was going through it, I was upset,” she said. “I was struggling a bit. I was asking, ‘Why, why?’ Just adjusting to having my personal, private business plastered out there publicly. It wasn’t just on the island, it was worldwide. It was on major news sites. So that was something that was hard to deal with. I was hurt, confused, feeling just…it’s a crazy thing. You never understand it unless you’re going through it.”

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