In 2014, UFC strawweight Angela Hill became the first Black American woman to sign with the promotion, and on Saturday, she’ll become the first to headline a card when she faces Michelle Waterson in a Fight Night main event.
Hill’s fight was originally scheduled to be the co-main event until Glover Teixeira tested positive for COVID-19, postponing his bout against Thiago Santos. While those circumstances aren’t ideal, they don’t diminish Hill’s accomplishment, including being the first woman in UFC history to have four fights in two separate years. She’s 2-1 in 2020 after a controversial split-decision loss to Claudia Gadelha on May 16.
For Hill, the achievement comes at a significant time. She is acutely aware of this moment in history for racial awareness in the country, and she discussed why it’s so personal during a video interview with ESPN’s Alisa Harrison.
Hill’s comments were edited for brevity and clarity.
It actually came as a surprise when I found out I was the first African-American woman to be signed to the UFC. I was doing an interview for [The Ultimate Fighter 20 in 2014], and they cut us off from social media and from the outside world, and brought us into the house. And then they did a big press conference, and one of the reporters came up to me and he said, “Hey, so how’s it feel to be the first Black American woman in the UFC?” And I’m like, “Me, really?” So it was actually a surprise to me, but it’s been an honor.
And it’s also been a really hard journey. I feel like I’ve faced a lot of scrutiny. Just coming in with such little experience, a lot of people like to say that I was there because I was Black. I was there because I was filling a quota. When in reality, when I went to the tryouts and Dana White saw me striking, he said, “This is the best display of striking I’ve ever seen in all my years of doing TUF.” So it was a merit-based decision, and it really hurt me when people just assumed that I was there because I was Black and to fill a quota and to diversify the show. It’s definitely been a struggle. It’s definitely been tough being the first Black woman. I was always self-conscious about my looks, like any other girl, but I never thought that my blackness was a reason to be self-conscious.
But after I got introduced on the show, I started to notice people commenting and saying, I look like a “crackhead,” I look like a “monkey,” or a “nappy-headed hoe.” And these are all things that I’ve never been called in my life. I guess you could say I grew up in a pretty sheltered environment, because I grew up in a Black suburb, which isn’t like a normal thing, I discovered later on in life. I thought there were millions of them everywhere. So once I started venturing out into the world, I started seeing, OK, most of America is white. And most of them see me as this stereotype or whatever. And it’s up to me to kind of prove them wrong.
So when I did get introduced to that hate, just because I was Black, just because I didn’t look like the other girls on the show, it opened my eyes, but it also gave me some fuel for the fire. And I think one thing that really allowed me to push those negative comments aside was every now and then I’d get a comment, or I’d get a message, from another Black woman who’s trying to be a martial artist or trying to be an athlete or trying to break into whatever field that they’re trying to do, that they don’t normally see a Black woman doing, and for me that means the world. It really feels great to give back in that way. Even if it means that I have to be the butt of some racist guy’s joke. It doesn’t matter, because in the end I’m inspiring people who look like me, that they do have a chance to make it in whatever field they’re pursuing. And they do have a chance to be a great athlete or a great artist or a great doctor. Whatever it is that they didn’t really have the confidence in going after before. Whatever they’re passionate about, they have the confidence to do it because they saw my passion in martial arts. And they saw me bring it to the big screen.
When it comes to representation, I think one of my first big role models was my mother, Ada Albright. Just because she would tell me stories of her growing up. She grew up in Pittsburgh, where there was a lot of segregation, just natural segregation, Black neighborhoods, white neighborhoods. And she really wanted to be a basketball player. She was really good on the courts. And when she would play, the kids would call her a “spook.” They’d call her names, just to distract her or just to be mean. Because there weren’t that many Black women on the court back then. Now we have the WNBA, and it’s a whole different world.
But that was one of her dreams, and she never got to accomplish that, just because the opportunity wasn’t there yet. So just her telling me stories like that, stories of when she was working in her job, she used to do trainings for AARP, and she would go out and conduct these meetings and she’d be dressed up really nice. And she thinks she looks cute and she’s getting ready for the meeting, and then, because she’s wearing a black-and-white outfit, people would ask her where the water was, or where the bathroom was. And then she realized, “Oh, they think I’m the maid.”
Then when she got up on stage and started teaching them stuff, everyone’s like, “Oh, OK.” So just little stories like that always gave me confidence in just believing in myself, and that drive to prove people wrong. If somebody assumes that you couldn’t possibly be the person leading the meeting, you couldn’t possibly make it as a pro athlete, just that assumption, being able to prove them wrong is a really big driving force for me. So seeing women like her, women like Serena and Venus Williams when I was a kid, they were huge just because they were breaking into this sport that was dominated by white men. And then you have these superstars and the Williams sisters, and it became a movement. People embraced it. And it was really cool to see that. You realize that the Black community was starving for stars.
And when we have someone who is positive, who we can look up to and say, “These women are working hard. These women were able to beat all the odds and actually get somewhere with it.” Despite all the things that were put in their way, despite that the fact that it wasn’t an even playing field for them. They had to work three times as hard as everyone else. The fact that they still made it, it gave so many Black women hope, so many women of every background hope. And it’s just really inspiring. So being able to see people like that, who are able to perform against the odds, has definitely kept me going when times get tough.
Even in my first career, when I was an animator. It’s a field that you don’t see that many people of color in, especially women of color. So representation is really important all across the board, just because it gives people that hope, that even though things are really hard and it feels like with every step forward, it’s two steps back, if you keep grinding and if you stay passionate, then you can eventually reach that goal.
I always say a lot of people in my position would have quit by now. Because I’ve had so many ups and downs in my career. I’ve had so many losses on the big stage, where people were telling me to quit, telling me to go do something else. Not people that I know personally, but haters. And my advice is just, don’t listen to the haters. You have to rise above. You can’t look down and see the people that are trying to drag you down with them and never really accomplished anything in your life.
It’s amazing being in the main event, and it does suck that the reason is because the original main event was canceled because of the COVID tests. But aside from that, I’m excited. I was ecstatic when I was co-main event for the second time in my career. And now that it got moved up to the main event, I’m overly excited. I’m ready to put on a show. It’s something that I felt like I was on the cusp of for a really long time. And the fact that it’s finally happened, I’m just embracing it. And I’m really happy to be having that type of exposure. Because a lot of times my best fights still end up on the prelims, or in another promotion and Invicta, and people don’t really see how good I can be.
And then once I do get to the main card, sometimes I let the pressure get to me. But this time I just feel totally supported by the fans. I feel a lot of people who saw my last fight are even more excited to see this fight. Just because they know that I’ve been under the radar for a long time. So this is going to be my coming out party, I feel like. And a lot of people who’ve been following me forever, who’ve been waiting for the bubble to burst in the same way I have, I’m excited for them as well. They get to put on their Angela Hill shirts and cheer for me. And yeah, I’m just ready to get out there.
I thought it was a huge step to see all those huge sports protests, for the athletes to walk away, to say we’re not going to entertain until you guys entertain our rights as human beings. And I think it was such an amazing display of unity. I was speechless when I saw that. I was just like, “Wow, this is amazing.” And I think I was so surprised just because of the reaction that Colin Kaepernick got and all the players would get when they would kneel. The people would get angry. They’d say, “Don’t kneel, you’re disrespecting the flag.” When it had nothing to do with the flag. The owners were threatening to penalize the players who were kneeling as a peaceful sign of protest. And I never thought that all the teams would get together like that and just say, “Hey, we’re not going to play.” I think that was amazing. I was really proud of them. It was a very brave move for all the players to do. And I totally, 100 percent respect that, and I’m happy they did it.
It’s really important just because it keeps happening. The whole Black Lives Matter movement was sparked because of violence, because of police brutality. And I remember when I was on TUF five years ago, they took away all our social media. We had no connection to the outside world. We didn’t know what was going on in the news or whatever. And when I got back out, I said, “Hey guys, what did I miss?” And they’re like, “Well, cops are killing Black people.” And I’m like, “What?” And I think there were maybe two or three incidents that happened. And it was just, when you have them in succession like that, it just shows you how often this thing happens that doesn’t make the news. It doesn’t go viral. There’s no one to record it.
And it just brings to light what has been brushed under the rug for so long. So, it’s really important because that was 2014. And it’s still happening. When you say the NBA players, the NFL, the NHL, when they decided not to play, that was because it just happened recently, when Jacob Blake was shot in the back for simply walking away. And it’s really hard when you see videos of the same incident, where a white citizen is allowed to not comply. They’re allowed to walk away. They’re allowed to say I have rights. And when a Black person does comply and follows all the rules like Philando Castile, or all the other people who have tried to do exactly what they were told in order not to get hurt, and then they still ended up dead, it’s heartbreaking.
“So when I did get introduced to that hate, just because I was Black, just because I didn’t look like the other girls on the show, it opened my eyes, but it also gave me some fuel for the fire.”
And it’s hard when it happens to people in situations that you find yourself in daily. I go running every week. And if that could happen to Ahmaud Arbery, it could happen to me. It’s really upsetting to think of all these cases where people were just minding their business and then their lives were ended. And I feel like you don’t have to be Black to feel for people. You don’t have to be Black to support Black Lives Matter or to want to support it. Because if you’re human, you understand basic human rights. You can see yourself in any person whose human rights are being abused and whose lives are being taken from them unjustly.
I’ve always felt a level of responsibility, just because of my upbringing, just because of the way my mom raised me. She would always tell me that she named me after Angela Davis. So that was always a big thing. And I always felt like I had big shoes to fill. But I’ve always tried to make myself very aware of what’s going on. Or at least when it comes to people facing injustices. Whether it was something that directly affects me or not, I’ve always tried to speak out and support groups that are being taken advantage of.
When I became an athlete and people actually started seeing my opinions, [people] that weren’t in my circle, I felt even more responsibility. Just because I was speaking to a group of people who wouldn’t normally hear my opinion. And I felt like I couldn’t not say anything. And it’s good that I already had that upbringing. Because it feels authentic, I’m not forcing it. I’m not trying to seem, I don’t know, more conscious than I’ve been my entire life. I just feel because I have this platform, I can actually make a little bit more of a difference just by saying, “Hey, there’s a huge group of people who feel this way, including me.”
And I think it’s important… And whenever I do speak out about certain issues, it’ll just be a post on Twitter or a post on Instagram. And just me saying, “Hey, this is wrong. This is why I think it’s wrong.” Or, “This is offensive, blah, blah, blah.” It really makes me feel good. Even though I know I’ll get attacked for it online. It really makes me feel good when people say, “Thank you, I’ve been waiting for someone to say something about this. And I really appreciate you doing it.” And sometimes it can be hard to speak out when your opinion is going to be judged and picked apart. But at the same time, I just think about what my former self would want me to say. If little Angela with no muscles, saw big Angela saying that, would she be proud of her? And the answer is always yes.
So yeah, just try to stay authentic to my old self. And make sure that when I do say something, I pick my words wisely, so that I’m not turning people off who could somehow understand my point of view. But also representing the people who are sick and tired of just facing the same hardships every day and are waiting for someone to just voice it for them.
I’ve been wanting to protest hardcore for a long time. But just because I’ve been in fight camp, I’ve been trying to stay at a distance of six feet, just stay quarantined, well not quarantined, but just try not to catch it, as much as possible. But we did get to do a motorcade protest in San Diego. And that was really nice just because when I decided to go, I didn’t know how many people were going to show up. I didn’t think it was going to be huge, like the ones in Oakland and the ones in New York. But I was like, it’s going to be really nice to be able to distance, but still participate in a protest. And when I got there, I was just amazed by the amount of people who were there in support of Black Lives Matter.
So it was really cool to see that. It was really cool to see people from all walks of life. Just everywhere you just saw signs of different people supporting. And it was really awesome. So I would love to be able to just go to a peaceful protest like that after the fight. But I feel the best thing that I could do right now is just win. Just go in there and just beast out and win. Because I mean, people listen to winners.
I was really upset about my last fight, just because I wanted to dedicate that one to Ahmaud Arbery, that had just happened [the video of the incident surfaced on May 5, 11 days before her fight, and arrests were made on May 7]. I really wanted to dedicate that win to him. And unfortunately I didn’t get to. But I think a win on this card will be dedicated to the recent victims of police brutality. And I just hope that that can make some sort of difference. I hope the President is watching, because he’s been watching a lot of the fights recently. And I would just love to dedicate a win to them.