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A Tough Kick

Billie Sherwood-Bakhshi and Serena DeJesus

A Las Vegas mom and daughter sat down with StoryCorps to talk about how mixed martial arts helped them cope with autism

Billie Sherwood-Bakhshi always knew her daughter, 30-year-old Serena DeJesus, would be a fighter. She recalls how, even in the womb, Serena had a tough kick. However, Billie wouldn’t realize how much of a fighter her daughter would have to be until later, when Serena was diagnosed with autism as a young child. The mother-daughter duo sat down with StoryCorps Mobile Tour facilitator Sarah Padgett in October to reflect on Serena’s autism diagnosis, how it led her to mixed martial arts, and her plans to become the first autistic female UFC fighter. Here’s part of their conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Serena, what was it like to receive an autism diagnosis and how did that happen?
Serena DeJesus: Because I was misdiagnosed, I was put on medicines that didn’t really help me. When you put somebody who is not psychotic on antipsychotic meds, you make them psychotic. And it landed me in a residential treatment facility. So, at this point, I ran through pretty much all the diagnoses and all the different med combos you could shake a stick at. And one therapist is like, “I want to see her off the meds, and I want to observe her for a week.” It was the first time in my life since I was four years old that I was off of any type of medicine like that. And she observed me, and she gathered my parents, my treatment team, myself and said, “She’s not any of this; she’s autistic.”

Did it take a long time to process that?
SD: It took me some time because I didn’t know what autism was. I was very confused. But the more treatment I got, the more I learned about autism and actually how prevalent it was, despite it being a new diagnosis at the time.

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So how did you get into fighting?
SD: My dad would get UFC (on TV), and it was still relatively new at the time. But then I came down one night, and I saw one of the MMA matches on that video. And I’ll never forget, it was Paul Herrera versus Gary Goodridge ... And I’m like, “Oh my God, that’s so cool.” It’s like everything I’ve watched and played was real life ... Fighting really gave me an outlet. It was the first time I felt equal to my peers, while fighting, because I put in the same work, I put in the same time as everybody else ... It’s a great outlet for me because all my discontent, everything I feel from day to day just trying to survive can be let out safely on the mats ... There’s still some mutual respect.”

Billie, what was it like for you seeing her drawn to MMA?
Billie Sherwood-Bakhshi: The magical part for me was seeing my tiny little daughter and her little blonde pigtails snuggled up to Dad watching these fights. And among some of the fights was Marvin Eastman ... He’s a UFC pioneer. And she got so excited in her little girl way. And fast forward all these years later, he’s her head coach. So, from Philadelphia to Las Vegas, from being a little girl in pigtails, watching him on a VHS tape to training with him in real life — you want to talk about a miracle!

When did you know that Serena was meant to be a fighter?
BS: Once she finally started standing up to bullies. I always had a lot of fights myself with the school district with her teachers and the principal, because it seemed like she was always getting picked on, always getting bullied, and that often spilled into physical stuff. And they always tell you nonphysical is the way to handle conflict — only she kept getting physically bullied. And one day I was just like, “You know what, Serena? They put their hands on you. Go for it.” And she did. And that solved the bullying problem.

I’m wondering if this experience has changed your relationship to one another at all?
BS: We’ve always been close. Serena is only 18 years younger than me. It’s almost like we grew up together. And it’s definitely gone from me being mom teaching to being mom cheerleader, because her training wheels are off … And at times, it’s hard because there’s nothing as nerve-racking as watching your kid get into a cage with somebody who wants to kill her. But it’s not my life; it’s her life. And this is her passion, and this is where she wants to be.

What are you most proud of ?
SD: I’m most proud of being that role model that I always wanted to be for other people. There’s actually now a new slew of autistic fighters coming out, and I’ve had a lot of them reach out to me saying that I inspire them, which is something I never thought I would do in my life is inspire other people … It means a lot to me. ✦