BRIGHTON – Alesha Zappitella is a nerd.
No worries. It’s safe to call her that without needing to duck for cover.
She freely admits it.
Among Zappitella’s escapes from the brutal profession she has chosen is playing Magic: The Gathering, a collectible strategy card game in which players summon creatures, cast spells and activate abilities with the goal of reducing their opponent’s life total to zero.
“She’s a quirky person, that’s how I would describe her,” said James Gray, her mixed martial arts coach at Scorpion Fighting System in Brighton. “She’s not afraid to do her own thing. When she went to fight in Japan, she dyed her hair pink and purple. She’s one of those people who is not afraid to be who she is. She follows her own intuition without thinking about how the world will look at her or judge her.”
It was while embracing her inner geek during a game with some friends that Zappitella received a life-changing call.
“I got a call from my coach, James Gray, and he’s like, ‘This is going to be the coolest day of your life,'” she said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, what’s going on?’ He’s like, ‘You’ve got a title shot.’
“Honestly, it was surreal. It didn’t feel like it was actually happening until about a day or two later it hit me. I just started crying because I realized, ‘Wow, my dreams are coming true. They’re coming into fruition right in front of me.’ ”
When Zappitella isn’t playing games, meditating, reading, painting or working with special-needs children, she trains to become one of the top women’s MMA fighters in the world.
The Pinckney resident who grew up in Ohio will get the opportunity to achieve her goals Sept. 17 when she fights Ashley Cummins of California for the vacant Invicta Fighting Championship atomweight world championship in Kansas City, Kansas.
The fight headlines a six-bout card that will be available on UFC Fight Pass. Invicta FC is an all-women’s MMA fight series.
Zappitella has a 7-2 professional record, earning her title shot by winning a split decision over Lindsey VanZandt on July 2.
“The atomweight title had just become vacant,” she said. “Rumor was that if I won my next fight, I got a title shot, but I wasn’t sure how soon that would be or even if it was for certain, but I guess it was.”
The 4-foot-11, 105-pound Zappitella will have the opportunity to realize a dream that formed the moment she met Gray at her first amateur fight five years ago in Southgate.
“He came up to me and told me if I kept on and I got on the right track that I could be a world champion one day,” she said.
“When somebody tells me something like that, especially when I’m branching out and I’m doing something I’ve never done before, it is very motivational. I didn’t know who James Gray was. I didn’t know much about mixed martial arts. All I knew was that if I put my mind to it that I could do this, because that’s what I did with wrestling. I wasn’t supposed to be wrestling, but I became one of the best.”
Gray remembers seeing a raw, young fighter with tons of potential.
“She didn’t have a lot of training outside of her wrestling background,” Gray said. “She fought with so much heart and so much tenacity. There’s a certain aura or energy you look for in people. Some people have ‘it’ or a fire in them; it was a rare thing. She was 20 years old, which is extremely young. You see this really fired-up, motivated, ready-to-take-on-the-world type of woman with a wrestling background. If she can channel that energy, that’s what it takes to be a world champion.”
Zappitella, 25, began wrestling while tagging along at her brother’s practices when she was 5 years old. She was the only girl on the Conneaut High School wrestling team in Ohio and placed sixth in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials.
She came to Michigan on a college wrestling scholarship, but “I figured out college wasn’t for me. School didn’t fit me. I always watched fighting on TV, so I thought I’d give it a go. The first practice I went to, I was absolutely hooked. I stayed here ever since just to train.”
Zappitella began fighting at the amateur level in January 2015 and had her first pro fight in October 2016. She won her f…
BRIGHTON – Alesha Zappitella is a nerd.