01 Jan WNBA star Kelsey Plum talks playing UFC matchmaker, clowning ‘Cowboy,’ and fans wanting her to fight
Kelsey Plum couldn’t have known that a little playful pot-stirring would have led to her having a hand in the fates of some of the UFC’s biggest stars.
Earlier this month, the WNBA standout had the opportunity to sit in on a UFC meeting after sharing a story on Instagram in which she nearly had lightweights Kevin Lee and Michael Johnson ready to throw down at the UFC Performance Institute. That impromptu piece of matchmaking led to Plum receiving an official invite to share her thoughts with UFC President Dana White, UFC executive Hunter Campbell, and matchmakers Mick Maynard and Sean Shelby, an event that was documented by the UFC.
Add @UFC Matchmaker to @kelseyplum10’s resume!
Talk about speaking things into existence. A huge shoutout to @danawhite for making this happen! Check out how KP became a matchmaker for #UFC258 and #UFCFightNightpic.twitter.com/DgBfi9YwP8
— Las Vegas Aces (@LVAces) November 17, 2020
Perhaps not coincidentally, the day that the video of Plum’s adventure was released, two of the bouts discussed in it were officially announced, Max Holloway vs. Calvin Kattar and Maycee Barber vs. Alexa Grasso.
It was a fortuitous turn of events for Plum, who missed out on the most recent WNBA season due to an Achilles injury that she has been rehabbing for the better part of the last year. In her absence, the Las Vegas Aces made it all the way to the WNBA Finals where they were swept by the Seattle Storm.
Plum, the all-time leading scorer in NCAA Division 1 women’s basketball history and the No. 1 pick in the 2017 WNBA draft, has been putting in work at the UFC PI to prepare for her 2021 comeback, which has made her much more familiar with the world’s foremost fighting organization in a hurry.
MMA Fighting spoke to Plum about her experience and possible future as a UFC matchmaker, getting to know MMA’s most famous fighters, and whether she would ever consider putting on the four-ounce gloves herself.
(Questions and answers edited for grammar and clarity.)
How did you first end up working out at the UFC PI?
The Aces set me up there, we have a partnership with the UFC. It’s been great for us. My teammates were playing in the bubble this season, so they haven’t been there. I’ve been the only one in there doing stuff. Hopefully in the future that’s a place that they can go if they don’t kick me out (laughs) and we can continue to train there because it’s a great environment, a great facility, a great resource for us.
How did the Kevin Lee-Michael Johnson matchmaking incident come about?
It happened that one day I was joking around with Kevin, he’s one of my friends, and basically I was just like, “Yo Kev, what’s up with Mike? Can you take him? What’s the deal?”
And Kev was like, “I’ll beat that ass.”
I was like, “Yeah, alright,” and then I started joking and I kind of made my way over to Mike while we’re all lifting and working out, I’m like, “Yo Mike, word on the street, it’s not looking good for you, bro. That’s just what I heard.” You’ve got to get a fighter going, he’s like, “What are you talking about?” I said, “I don’t know, I just heard that if you and Kev were to scrap, life would not go well for you.”
He’s like, “Naw, I’d kill him.”
I started getting them riled up, completely just joking around and then later in the workout I see them eyeing each other and I’m realizing, oh my gosh, this is what matchmakers do. So that’s when I had said life after basketball for me will be matchmaking, as a joke, and then for Dana to reach out and for all this to happen it was just one of the coolest experiences ever.
How has it been interacting with fighters at the UFC PI?
I’ve got to meet so many fighters. And what’s so interesting—and I don’t mean to sound ignorant—but I’m so new to the UFC, I don’t really know who anyone is, I don’t know how big-time people are. I remember I’m in PT one day, getting treatment, and there’s a guy next to me and he’s like, “Who are you?” And I looked at him, I’m dead serious, I’m like, “Who are you?”
All the trainers are laughing and it turns out it’s [Donald] “Cowboy” [Cerrone]. I’m like, was I supposed to know who that is? We just had so much fun with it and of course, I go home, I look these guys up, I look at their highlights, and then I never ask them again who they are. I’ve run into a ton of heavyweight champs, all these guys, and women too, and I’ve got to watch them train. It’s been really, really fun, just so much fun. Like a new community of people. I wouldn’t trade it for anything to be honest.
Kelsey Plum (pictured, left) was the No. 1 pick in the 2017 WNBA draft after breaking several records, including the most career points in NCAA Division-I women’s college basketball history
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images
What was the matchmaking meeting like and how involved were you with the actual process?
Being completely transparent, when they asked me to go to this meeting obviously I’m like, wait a second, I have to do my homework. I can’t come in empty-handed. So I basically went around to anyone from Forrest Griffin to (UFC PI director of strength and conditioning) Bo Sandoval, like all these different people that work at the UFC, and I was like, “Yo, talk to me, what’s a matchup you’d like to see and why?” So I basically just picked everyone’s brain, I stole everyone’s stuff, I wrote it all down and went into the meeting and Dana was like, “What you got?”
It’s obviously clipped to be formatted for Instagram and social media, but I definitely went up, ran off some fights, and we talked about it and there were a lot of ones that they really liked and I think it was one of those situations where I actually had said matches that they had made but hadn’t announced. I’m not going to give myself all the credit here because really technically I was just stealing but they were like, “Wow, that’s crazy you said that. We haven’t announced that. This is what we were thinking as well.”
Do you want to get involved in matchmaking or perhaps another branch of sports administration in the future?
I’m not really sure. I think that I’ve been really blessed to be able to get a ton of different opportunities in different forms, whether that be commentating or sideline analysis or even this UFC thing, and just learning the processes. People don’t really understand behind the scenes how much goes into certain decisions that are made, how things are done, so just being able to learn a lot and learn in a lot of different spaces for me has been super eye-opening.
So I don’t know necessarily know exactly what I’d like to do, I just like to continue to try things and learn as much as I can and I’m sure that when the opportunity presents itself later down the line when I’m done playing, I’ll ready to be able to step into whatever role that fits me best.
Anytime fans hear that a high-level athlete is even tangentially interested in MMA—and you just so happen to have listed measurements that would put you in the featherweight or bantamweight range—one has to ask, is there a chance that you’d consider getting into fighting yourself?
As soon as people heard that this was happening in terms of the matchmaking, that’s all the questions that I got. I was joking around with some of the PT trainers at the UFC and there were people taking bets if I’d make it out of the first round. It was a free-for-all, everyone had their opinions. “You might be able to run around for a round, you’re pretty quick.” But people that fight at 145 walk around at, like, 165. Problematically, I would really need to step it up in terms of the LBs that I put on.
They’re like, “If you’re 145 right now, you’re probably fighting 125.” I can’t imagine trying to lose 20 pounds. So to be honest, that’s as far as it got and it was a very, very solid no. It was absolutely a no. All joking aside, I don’t think that’s something that I would get into. I really enjoy not having a swollen face and getting my ass kicked on national TV.