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A few weeks back, the MMA world’s collective support was squarely behind Tyron Woodley in his bid to beat YouTuber-turned-boxer Jake Paul, the biggest draw in combat sports this side of Conor McGregor.
At least Paul had Sarah Alpar on his side before earning a victory by decision. But that’s to be expected when the influential star took up the UFC flyweight’s cause at the beginning of the summer.
“Jake, he helped me,” Alpar, who will face Erin Blanchfield during the preliminary portion of a UFC Fight Night card Saturday afternoon at UFC Apex in Las Vegas on ESPN+, recently told The Post via Zoom. “And I’m gonna support him. I think he’s great.”
That aid came in the form of a $5,000 donation to Alpar’s GoFundMe drive, dubbed “Help Sarah ‘Too Sweet’ Become a UFC Champ,’ and the publicity from Paul spreading word for her cause helped catapult her past the $30,000 she sought. One donor pledged $25,000, while 143 others chipped in an extra $5,127 on top of the goal.
It’s natural to ask: Why does a professional athlete require a GoFundMe? In Alpar’s specific case, as she tells it, it has a lot to do with bad timing and bad luck.
Alpar (9-5, three finishes), who secured a UFC contract with an August 2019 victory over Shanna Young on the feeder promotion Dana White’s Contender Series, was scheduled May 22 for her second bout with the big show. But her opponent, Stephanie Egger, contracted COVID-19, forcing a cancelation. Although she says the UFC attempted to find a replacement and keep Alpar on the card, it didn’t work out, and she was forced off the event.
While holding no ill will toward Egger, it left Alpar, aptly nicknamed “Too Sweet,” with the problem of figuring out how to make up for the loss of income. In preparation for that fight, she had taken on a reduced schedule from her other job as a barista at Starbucks, for whom she has worked for three years, meaning less money coming in otherwise to help support her son alongside her husband.
“My check was cut in half, and I was just like, what am I going to do?” Alpar recalls. “Everything I had saved up in getting ready for this fight and everything, it was just … I was in panic.”
With teammate and training partner Kristina Williams injured as well, the Oklahoma City resident’s coaches at Southside Kickboxing in Moore, Okla., which she joined in January, recommended they travel to other gyms to sharpen her skills in preparation for her September fight. They traveled to notables Fortis MMA in Dallas and Jackson Wink MMA Academy in Albuquerque, N.M., among others.
Even by merely driving instead of flying, as they did, the expenses add up. Factor in doctor visits, chiropractic care, massage therapy, too. Plus gym as well as strength and conditioning fees. The same goes for the costs of supplements and food, which are pricier when looking to maintain professional athlete-level nutrition. Alpar says precision in her diet is crucial.
“I can’t go out and eat a Dollar Menu [meal] at McDonald’s, you know,” Alpar said. “It needs to be things that are organic or all-natural, and that’s gonna rack up the bill, too. Eating healthy is not cheap.”
With sponsorships hard to come by, and a falling out with a nutritionist sponsor that led to a visit to the UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas — another expense — Alpar reached out to friend Janelle Nightingale, who works in marketing, for help securing financial backing to get through her fight camp for this weekend’s bout. Nightingale suggested the GoFundMe, an idea of which Alpar was initially leery.
Even after overcoming her hesitancy for going that route and crowdsourcing assistance, Alpar was surprised at the $30,000 figure Nightingale set as the goal. In the fighter’s mind, $2,000 to $5,000 would have been just fine, giving her “just enough to get me through” the fight camp and make up the difference in Starbucks shifts — as well as her husband taking on a second job to help support the family and her career. Nonetheless, Alpar went with the plan, creating videos to explain why she needed help.
The GoFundMe launched June 27. Two days later, it had far surpassed her $1,000 July 1 target and adjusted that up to $3,500.
“And the next thing I know, I had a message from Jake on my Instagram,” Alpar said.
At first, Alpar says she didn’t know if the direct message she received from Paul a day later was real, although the checkmark next to his handle helped affirm its validity. Still she couldn’t fathom why the content creator, who’s personality quickly made him a lucrative pay-per-view draw as a boxer despite being little more than a prospect in the sport, would even know about her. Even hardcore MMA fans might have a hard time picking her name or face out of a lineup this early in her UFC career, which began with a loss to veteran Jessica-Rose Clark nearly one year ago on Sept. 19.
The assistance provided by Paul, his former promoters at Triller and the rest of her donors left Alpar taken aback.
“They changed my life,” says a grateful Alpar, who repeatedly thanked God for finding herself in a better situation than she imagined. “They changed my camp. They changed … to help me be able to train like I am right now. And it’s been great. Like, man, I’m just so blessed.”
Since the whirlwind experience, which drew headlines and thrust her into an unexpected spotlight, she had an opportunity to Zoom with Paul, whom she described as “super nice” and “a goofball.”
“I’ve really learned [not to] judge somebody based off of social media or anything like that,” Alpar says of Paul, who has become a lightning rod both in combat sports and among content creators. “Talk to them in person, get their story, get to know them who they are. Again, a whole lot of respect for him.”
Alpar’s situation aligned with Paul’s criticism of the UFC’s athlete pay structure. He has called out UFC president Dana White on several platforms over what he told MMA Fighting is an issue “UFC fighters can’t talk about” over fear of reprisal. Each of Paul’s past two boxing opponents are former mixed martial arts champions — Ben Askren and Woodley — who wrestled at Missouri before shifting to MMA and had never previously competed in boxing. But each made a relative windfall for simply stepping into the ring, especially compared to what the majority of UFC athletes are paid — a disclosed $2 million purse in Woodley’s case, according to the Ohio State Athletic Commission.
For her part, Alpar isn’t very comfortable being a part of the UFC pay structure conversation, preferring to “stay neutral.” Contracts earned through the Contender Series frequently have started at $10,000 to show and $10,000 to win — before taxes and percentages to coaches and management. She finds herself on such a deal, which she professes is a lot better than what she was earning on the regional scene; she estimated her biggest total purse from competing at noteworthy regional promotion Legacy Fighting Alliance was $3,000.
“I wasn’t trying to attack UFC. I was just trying to get [my] fight camp going,” said Alpar, who had not spoken to White or any other UFC representatives about the GoFundMe or the attention it brought regarding fighter pay. “I hope they can see that. I never blamed UFC for anything.
“The whole thing kind of opened my eyes, like, oh, there’s stuff going on, and it’s getting bigger and bigger. It’s kind of like, wow, what are the chances of me setting up a GoFundMe when all of this is happening?” she added, punctuated with a bewildered laugh. “I’m under a rock or something.”
When her story was amplified, Alpar admits concerns sprouted about what the increased attention on fighter pay might mean for her future with the top MMA outfit. But with no signs of reprisal through 2 1/2 months, the 30-year-old is at peace with whatever may come.
“I was pretty worried that there’d be some backlash or something would happen, but, if that’s the way it is, there’s better things for me,” Alpar said. “I feel when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. … If that was to happen, there’d still be more for me out there.”
Alpar feels a responsibility, once she gets through her fight against 22-year-old prospect Blanchard (6-1, three finishes), to “pay it forward” and pass along the kindness she received from her GoFundMe experience. She’s mulling ideas such as a scholarship or even picking up the gym fees of a teammate. She hopes to speak at schools and share her story with kids, talking to them “about their self worth and who they could be.”
Just don’t expect Alpar to go for round two with GoFundMe. She’s more interested in finding sponsors and working together for mutual benefit, as much as she appreciates her good fortune this summer.
“I would rather be able to work with a company and to switch business for business and to represent and to do it that way,” Alpar said.
“I would definitely rather promote someone’s business and work with somebody and grow [the] community and be a part and just have support, support local businesses and do something like that.”