With all due respect to Clay Guida’s unruly Jesus mane, hair hasn’t really had much of a place in modern MMA until recently. There have been restrictions on hair pulling in the sport since UFC 15 in 1997 and most professional mixed martial artists have kept their hair relatively short since then, which has been both convenient for fighting and in the style of the times.
Thanks to the unprecedented growth of women’s MMA and the return of longer hairstyles for men (not to mention the birth of the divisive “man bun”), hair is having its biggest moment in the Octagon since Kimo Leopoldo’s early nineties braid became such a target at UFC 3. The stakes are a little different these days. Hair pulling is illegal now, but it can still be a nuisance in the heat of battle. Not everyone can just let it fly Guida-style. Most fighters with long hair prefer to keep it out of the way and it takes more than a simple ponytail to stand up to multiple five minutes rounds of combat.
To get a little more insight into the matter, we turned to Abraham Esparza, the man behind one of the most famous heads of hair in the UFC. Esparza has been a freelance hairstylist for the past nine years, and his extensive CV includes multiple campaigns with Ray Ban, video styling for Ke$ha and Fun., and work with celebrities like Courtney Love, Aloe Blacc, and Sofia Copolla. Most importantly to the MMA world, though, he’s been UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey’s go-to stylist for the past couple of years, and the brains and hands behind her now trademark braids.
We picked Esparza’s brain about working with Rousey, combat-friendly hairstyles, and post-grappling hair care. He also gave us tips on where to find the best hot wings-related gifts for the poultry-loving champion in your life.
Fightland: When and how did you start working with Ronda Rousey?
Abraham Esparza: I started working with Ronda two years ago. I did her hair for the fifteen year anniversary cover of ESPN. There were different covers and she was one of them. I know Blake Griffin was another. I met her that day and we got along really, really well. That was the first time that I gave her the braid and she fell in love with it. She got my number and I’ve been working with her ever since. She’s got the most amazing energy and she’s very humble, so it was very easy just to connect with her
What did you know about MMA before you started working with her?
I actually didn’t know that much about it until really working with her all the time. Ever since being with her, it’s been a whole new world that I found out through her eyes. I’m still not fully deep into it, but I know way more than I would ever know if I wasn’t working with her.
Does she have any specific requirements or requests when you work together?
Not really. I give her suggestions. Depending on who you work with, you kind of feel what their type of style is and then you can see what can go well with them. I love doing braids and crazy stuff like that with her because she’s in that MMA world, so you can do that tougher look, but still make her feminine while doing it. She’s very open-minded about suggestions for different looks.
You’ve done her hair before open workouts. Do you do it for fights as well?
Not for the fights. She does her own hair because it’s her own way of getting getting ready for the fights. It’s her own personal time.
When you’re doing her hair for something like an open workout, what’s your main goal? I’m assuming aesthetics are important, because her hair looks good, but are you also trying to keep the style functional and combat-friendly?
Yeah. It’s a way to keep it away from her face but still keep it tough yet feminine and still have a style to it.
Do you work with other fighters? Do you have any interest in working with other fighters?
I don’t work with any other fighters. I don’t know if I would, just because I love working with Ronda. Fighting-wise, I would love to be just with her. I would feel different being with someone else. If they went against each other, then it would be a weird connection between us, because they would like to know about each other and I just don’t want to be that middle person.
Do you look at other fighter’s hairstyles? Do you have any opinion on them?
I do. But everybody has their own signature look. There was one time I wanted to do certain things to Ronda and she was like “Oh, I can’t do that now, because that’s this other fighter’s style, so I don’t want to make it seem like I’m stealing her style.” It’s more Ronda knows if they do certain braids or anything so we don’t replicate it because that’s that fighter’s signature look. We just try to do our own personal look that is just Ronda.
Even though you haven’t specifically done hair for a fight, do you have any suggestions for things that fighters with longer hair can do to keep it safely and comfortably out of the way during competition?
There’s how Ronda does it. Obviously, you could do different kinds of braids and connect them in a certain way so they all become one. I like to do braids, just because it has a more fun look to it and it really does the work of taking it out of your face. I love to do corn rows, that’s the thing that I always go to first.
What about post-fight or post-training hair care? Martial arts, particularly grappling, can do a lot of damage to hair.
What I do with Ronda is I’ll give her stuff for a deep conditioning treatment. I know products sometimes cost a lot, especially bigger name brands, but what you could use that’s really good and natural for your hair is coconut oil. You can leave it on for a while, like an hour, and just wash it out really good. Coconut oil is really good for your hair to hydrate it.
On a completely unrelated note, you gave Rousey that chicken wing shirt she was showing off on Instagram after her fight, didn’t you?
I did! That was one of the few things that I gave her chicken-wise. I know that’s her thing, so I found a lot of chicken wing stuff online. I just googled “hot wings attire online,” trying to find different things that I thought would be fun and cool for Ronda. We all were very, very confident on Ronda’s winning. We already knew, so I already had this whole thing planned for her, a present to give her for her victory. I love working with her and she’s always nice to me, so I just wanted to give her something in return. The hot wings sweater was one of the last things I gave her because I knew how much she would enjoy that, but I didn’t know she was actually going to post it online. But that was a great thing.
Follow Abraham on Instagram.
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