Serena DeJesus loves fighting, but she’s not your typical fighter. After years of trying to figure out what was “wrong” with her, she was diagnosed with autism at age 13. She realized as she got older that training kept her calm, and it’s paid off. Now, at age 27, she’s set for her Invicta FC debut on Friday and hopes not just to win in the cage, but make a difference outside of it.
LAS VEGAS – Most fighters dream of competing under the bright lights of a major promotion and hearing the roar of the crowd descend upon the cage. Serena DeJesus doesn’t.
It’s not that DeJesus isn’t interested in competing at MMA’s highest levels. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s just that DeJesus’ autism means that she is incredibly sensitive to things like heat, light and noise, making the cage on fight night a major challenge.
“It’s like overwhelming your computer with 5,000 different commands,” DeJesus told MMA Junkie. “Your computer is like, ‘(Expletive), what do I do?’”
DeJesus, 27, was born and raised in Philadelphia. Early in her childhood, her mother knew something was amiss, with Serena non-verbal until she was almost 6 and painfully shy, often distracted and disappearing into her own world. Unfortunately, understanding of the autism spectrum disorder back then was quite distant from where it stands today, and DeJesus was subjected to one psychotropic drug after another following a seemingly never-ending series of misdiagnoses such as attention-deficit disorder and ADHD.
DeJesus remembers it as a very frustrating time.
“I didn’t get some of the social issues,” DeJesus said. “Like, why does it have to be this way? Why is the way I want not acceptable? Why do I have to go play outside? Why can’t I just chill with myself and enjoy playing with my Legos? Why can’t I just chill and enjoy a book, you know? Why is it I have to be playing with a whole bunch of kids all the time in order to be perceived as ‘normal’?”
‘I didn’t even need any damn fixing to begin with’
The drugs only served to exacerbate her symptoms, making her more prone to distraction and – when provoked – more violent. That came to a head at age 13, when DeJesus was confronted by a bully and admittedly snapped, throwing the girl off the top of a 16-foot jungle gym.
DeJesus was kicked out of school, and her mother and stepfather were again left searching for answers.
Fortunately, a brief stay at Philadelphia’s SeaShore House, a top children’s hospital, led doctors to take her off all medications in hopes of a more accurate assessment.
That’s when she was diagnosed with autism.
“When I was diagnosed with autism, it was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t even need any damn fixing to begin with. That was a total waste of my time, energy, emotions, and it hurt me a lot,’” DeJesus recalled.
With the help of a caseworker, DeJesus spent the next seven years learning coping skills and integrating herself better into the world around her. Then, while attending Montgomery County Community College, she found an opportunity to train Brazilian jiu-jitsu and muay Thai, and she jumped at the chance.
MMA and the struggle to make it work
“I watched UFC with my dad on VHS because my reward for doing well in school was to take me to the video store,” DeJesus said. “I got a whole bunch of anime, and my dad got UFC, but I also loved fighting video games, like ‘Street Fighter’ and Tekken. I still have the original ‘Tekken’ on PS1. That’s how much I love it. So I came downstairs one day, and I’m seeing Gary Goodridge in that infamous crucifix, bashing Paul Herrera to death. I thought, ‘Holy crap!’ The whole transition looked like something out of Tekken, like when you execute a grab combo on somebody, so I’m like, ‘This is so cool.’
“When I was a kid, my parents also had me in taekwondo. And training in general, they found, kind of mellows me out. So everything just fit in place. I had no athletic activities in high school, so I jumped right into muay Thai and jiu-jitsu and all that, and it worked. My stimming – I didn’t shake as much, I didn’t feel as overwhelmed. I didn’t have too many outbursts from sensory stuff, so it just worked for me.”
DeJesus was hooked, and she eventually left school to pursue her dream of building a career around her new passions. She made her amateur MMA debut in 2013, eventually building a 5-2 record, even as the lights and noise of fight night wreaked havoc with her sensory overload. Still, she found that once the fight started, she was completely in her element.
“There are extra little things that I have to do,” DeJesus said of her fight night experience. “I have a lot more CBD oil in my system than normal just to help me with the sensory issues. I keep my hat on. I keep my headphones on pretty much until I walk out. I keep my glasses on until it’s time to actually step in the cage.
“I’m very big on routines, so I just try to stay as close to my routine as possible, and I just go out and try to do my thing, just execute everything I’ve learned in training, and try and keep my nerves down – the same nerves that everybody gets – and that’s it.”
Leaving everything behind for a dream realized
As DeJesus continued her training, she became a fan of Roxanne Modafferi – identifying with, in her own words, an athlete who “was someone like me, a fighter, but also a nerd who was into Japanese anime.” DeJesus reached out to Modafferi via Facebook, asking if she could come out to Las Vegas to train alongside “The Happy Warrior,” who was, at the time, competing under the Invicta banner.
The two quickly formed a bond.
“Between our love of anime and nerdy things and fighting, we just became best friends,” DeJesus said.
DeJesus eventually moved to Las Vegas to train full time alongside Modafferi at Syndicate MMA.
“With my mom’s blessing, I left everything behind in Philadelphia,” DeJesus said. “I had two giant duffle bags to my name at first, and I made it work.”
The investment paid off.
On Friday, DeJesus (1-0) takes on fellow women’s bantamweight Taneisha Tennant (1-0) at Invicta FC 38, which streams live on UFC Fight Pass from Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kan.
Bigger than fighting
It’s a huge moment for DeJesus’ professional career, fighting for one of the sport’s premier organizations. But “The Southpaw Outlaw” readily admits she doesn’t just view fighting as a selfish endeavor.
“I just really want to be that good, influential figure that’s like, ‘Hey, she’s autistic, and she’s doing things,’” DeJesus said. “I’m hoping for other people to be like, ‘Just because I have this going on with me doesn’t mean I’m limited to one side of life.’
“We live in a society now where we know what autism is. It’s different than when I first got diagnosed. Back then, nobody knew what it was. But I want to show that autism is not portrayed by the stereotypes – that you’re either a savant, like you see on television, or you’re a kid or adult banging your head against the wall. That’s the kind of stuff I’m trying to show people – everyday people like our neurotypical peers, meaning people without autism, but I also want to show other people who may be discouraged because of said stereotypes and other things that they can do what they want, too.
“Everybody’s story on the spectrum is different. I’m not saying that every autist is going to be a fighter or every autist is going to do this, but I would hope that me being here means it would not be so terrible for all.”
The bright lights will be on. The cameras will be rolling. The roar of the crowd will certainly be heard, especially if DeJesus is able to put on the “banger of a fight” she’s expecting.
For DeJesus, every one of those elements presents a special challenge, but it’s one she takes on with a purpose in mind. She hopes that, through fighting, she can continue to advocate for others on the spectrum. But she also wants to prove that she simply belongs.
“I just want to show that I’ve earned my spot here,” DeJesus said. “I’ve trained. I’ve worked a lot, and I just want to prove that I belong there and make a general statement that I’m finally here.
“A lot of people have been looking forward to me being in Invicta, so I need to not let them down.”