‘I’ve always defied the odds’: How one fighter is making a stand in the face of unfathomable heartbreak

There’s an age-old cliche in the combat sports world: “You live to fight another day.” But in the case of Las Vegas mixed martial artist Ashlee Gambino, she needs to fight to live another day — and she’ll do that until the inevitable moment when it is no longer an option.

In 2022, Gambino, 32, saw her life change forever — then it happened again, and again, with a series of life-altering tragedies. In late November of that year, Gambino and her husband Travis Long lost their 3-year-old daughter Katana to acute leukemia cancer. It happened in the blink of an eye. Then, shortly after having to bury her child, Gambino was diagnosed with severe idiopathic pulmonary arterial hypertension, a rare heart and lung disease. Doctors gave her five more years to live, at best. But as devastating as that news was, Gambino was also 20 weeks pregnant with a baby girl. Because of the disease, she was forced to terminate the pregnancy, and almost lost her own life in the process.

Even after all of the turmoil she’s experienced, Gambino isn’t ready to throw in the towel.

“I am doing my best to keep it together because I know that I have put myself in a position to be in the public eye for a reason,” Gambino said. “I have a goal of inspiring people in a positive way and I feel like I just can’t let that go yet, even with all the trauma that we’ve experienced in this past year, and [that] I’m still experiencing.”

Gambino began training mixed martial arts in Ohio in 2012 before eventually relocating to Las Vegas. She gained local notoriety several years ago by shadowboxing, training, and even sparring tourists for tips in the middle of Fremont Street. As her legend began to grow, she gained attention from the likes of Nick Diaz and UFC CEO Dana White.

“MobWife,” as some have dubbed her, went on to have one amateur MMA bout on record and even took a short-notice pro boxing match. Just as she hoped to return to the ring, the biggest fight of her life began. It started with discovering that her daughter Katana was extraordinarily sick. Less than a month prior, the ever-energetic child spent Halloween with so much spirit and excitement that she couldn’t even sit in her wagon, marching up to each house to shout “Trick or treat!” with innocence and glee. Soon after, everything changed.

“She just started throwing up the Saturday after Thanksgiving,” Gambino said. “Sunday, she hadn’t stopped, so we brought her to the hospital that night. Monday morning, her heart stopped three times, and I was there for that. It was very, very hard to be there.”

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Ashlee Gambino and her daughter, Katana.
Ashlee Gambino

The Gambino family barely had time to catch their breath, much less truly grieve the loss of their daughter, before Ashlee was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) — which, according to the American Lung Association, is caused when the arteries in your lungs become thickened and narrowed, blocking the blood flow through the lungs, raising the blood pressure in the lungs and causing the heart to work harder to pump blood through those narrowed arteries. Over time, the heart loses the ability to effectively pump blood throughout your body. PAH is categorized as a rare, progressive disorder, meaning it will get worse over time. The National Institutes of Health say the disease is so rare that only about one percent of people globally have it.

On top of that, Gambino had to say goodbye to another child before even getting the chance to hold her.

“When I was diagnosed — almost exactly a month after Katana passed — I was 20 weeks pregnant, and I lost my daughter at that point in time, and I almost lost my life,” Gambino said. “My heart stopped when they were taking my daughter from me, and my face, they told me, was completely blue. They had to sit me up to try and get me to breathe. It was bad. They didn’t think I was going to leave the hospital. It’s really a miracle that I survived.

“I still have my husband, my [8-year-old] daughter, and my [2-year-old] son, and all my fans who have been watching me all this time. I can’t just give up on them. On any of them.”

Gambino’s story of heartbreak garnered the attention of the MMA community through a GoFundMe set up by her husband. One-time UFC and Bellator title challenger Cat Zingano shared Gambino’s fundraising page on her social media channels, and since then, the two have formed a bit of a kinship as both have dealt with unbelievable tragedy.

“I lost my husband to suicide in 2014, and that broke me in ways that I really didn’t get to show because I’m in the spotlight and have to be tough and be strong,” Zingano said. “But I just have to say that if I hadn’t had my son to get through it for, and to get out of bed for, and to open the windows for, and to shower for, and to whatever, it could have been a completely different story. And the fact she can’t even go through her own health complications with the motivation of [Katana] … and then she has to lose another child as far as her pregnancy at the time … it’s not one of those things [like] it’s a fight. A ref isn’t going to jump in and save you. You just keep having to get hit and hit and hit, and get up.

“I’m sure there’s days she wants to bang her head against the wall, and I just feel frustrated for her. I know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel in a lot of people’s circumstances, and with hers, I know she’s not sure of that, and that must be so devastating.”

Gambino’s story has even spread outside of the combat sports bubble.

American fitness influencer Liver King, whose real name is Brian Johnson, has now found himself supporting Gambino on her journey.

“Maybe the most persistent person I’ve ever met,” Johnson said of Gambino. “I think it was almost every single day — and I don’t know it verbatim, but, ‘I’m going through f****** hell.’

“I could feel what she was going through and I’m like, ‘What kind of piece of s*** am I going to be if I’ve been blessed enough to be able to offer blessings back, and so I can do something and I’m not going to?’ How can I sit down at the dinner table with my boys and talk to them about growth and contribution if I don’t even model it? It was a great opportunity to jump in. I knew it was the right thing to do.”

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Ashlee Gambino and Liver King (Brian Johnson).
Ashlee Gambino

When Gambino was trying to accomplish her dream of being a pro fighter and world champion, her day-to-day was certainly much different than it is today. But from readying for a fight to now living with one every second of every day, Gambino still uses the same discipline she learned in the gym, just translated to a completely different setting.

Although most would find what she is going through to be full of darkness, Gambino has found silver linings through her loved ones and other avenues of creativity.

“I have to make adjustments to survive at this point,” Gambino said.

“I’m on a life-sustaining medication, a few of them … [and] if you don’t mix your medicine [correctly], you’ll pass away. So it’s not a question. I have to do it. It doesn’t matter if I’m tired, and you have to do it in a very sterile way. You might as well be doing a surgical procedure because I’m sending this medicine directly to my heart, so I have to be very careful with the way I do things, same thing with my dressing or what not.”

Gambino says she has to be careful when it comes to activity that may result in the cord being ripped out of her chest. She was told “horror stories” by her nurses, so it is imperative that she is gentle around that area. She has to wear oxygen at night, although Gambino says her levels are still at an unacceptable level, and she also must bring an emergency mix kit wherever she goes in case something goes array.

Despite all of these changes to Gambino’s daily life, she won’t let it effect the fact that she’s still a mom to two other children, a wife, and even a teacher. She home-schools her daughter, and wants to continue to uphold those responsibilities.

“To go from being a professional fighter and training to get my energy out, and [to] not be able to do that anymore, to having to be wheeled around in a wheelchair has been such a change in dynamic,” Gambino said.

“But I’ve got my children. Now we have a little emotional support doggie, a little chihuahua now, he’s so cute, his name is Prince Vegeta. And I love to paint. I have started making paintings for people since I left the hospital, and I just really enjoy doing that a lot. I have always loved art. When I was a child, I wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t know I was going to grow up to be a mixed martial artist. I was showing my art in the form of martial arts, and now I have to use my art in a different way, but I can’t just give up on that art, right?”

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Ashlee Gambino

Losing a child is one of the most devastating and difficult things that can happen to a parent, let alone losing two children in a matter of months.

On top of that, the fear that comes with living with an unpredictable disease that has no cure, not knowing if today will be your last day, but still having to do everything in your power to hope and prepare for the best, surely carries an unimaginable weight.

In truth, Gambino hasn’t had time to grieve the loss of her daughters, or even truly digest the road she is traveling. Emotionally and mentally, she can’t get there for completely unselfish reasons. Physically, she can’t get there, because if she does, it could be catastrophic.

“I feel like I was holding it in so much because I knew that my survival depended on it,” Gambino said. “I knew that I had to be here for my husband and my children, mostly of course, and everybody else that’s watching me too. In order to do that, I had to be as stoic as possible, because if I just let myself keep falling into these [emotional] tents where I’m crying and just heaving because I miss my daughter so much and the way that I lost her, and I lost my baby that I was pregnant with, my own diagnosis, if I just let myself get to this point [too] much, it’s going to put stress on my heart.”

Although it seems unimaginable to not be able to grieve these horrific losses, Gambino says she has been able to bring her heart back down to a “pretty decent size,” including the right side of her heart, which was twice the size it should’ve been when diagnosed. It has now receded back to an almost normal size, which didn’t seem possible once this all began.

With obstacle after obstacle being navigated with positivity and the ability to believe that nothing can defeat her, Gambino simply won’t accept that there isn’t a cure for her disease, and that at some point, putting up a spectacular fight just won’t be enough to contain it.

“I’ve created my own chance. I wasn’t even supposed to make it out of the hospital,” Gambino said of her survival. “I was in there for almost a month. They definitely didn’t think I was making it out. It’s a miracle I’m still here doing as good as I’m doing.

“The doctors told me that my condition was found so late and at such an extreme stage that I’m in a very high-risk category. My heart was at an extreme high risk, especially when I was released from the hospital when I was diagnosed. It’s doing better now, but I’m still at high-risk, so it’s possible I could go into random cardiac arrest at any point in time, but I have always defied the odds.

“The medicine that I’m on is life sustaining medicine to just ease symptoms as much as possible until this disease eventually takes me out. But I’m not that easy to take out.”

Gambino’s GoFundMe is set up to assist in dealing with the emotional and physical toll the last year has put on her and her family, along with funds to buy Gambino a car so she can earn extra income as an Uber driver since that’s all she will be able to physically handle.

Additionally, Gambino travels out of her home state of Nevada to seek medical care, as there are few doctors in the country who specialize in her condition. She hopes to purchase her expensive medicine that insurance doesn’t fully cover, an apartment in a better neighborhood for the family, and to just have a bit of a break to have the chance to mourn, reflect, and prepare the household for what is likely to come.

Of all of the things the fundraising can accomplish, there is one specific thing that would mean the world to Gambino, and perhaps give a small bit of closure to all of the loss she has had to take on — a custom headstone for her daughter Katana, one that has been a part of Gambino’s life for many years through an unbelievable vision.

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Ashlee with the headstone she hopes to buy for her daughter, Katana.
Ashlee Gambino

“When I was pregnant with my first daughter and living in Ohio, I would walk back and forth to work every day,” Gambino said. “I worked at a Wendy’s, and when I was walking home one night, I saw what I thought was a little girl standing at this grave marker. I hadn’t had any children yet, and so I took a double take because it was late. I was on the closing crew, and I was like, ‘Why is there a little girl out here?’ I look back, and there’s nobody there. At the time, I was really scared that it was my daughter looking at that marker for me like I had passed away. I don’t know, I know a lot of people don’t believe in things, but I get these feelings … but that’s the one I want for her.

“It’s pink, it’s a giant heart, and it looks like there’s mountains around it, which, she loved climbing in the mountains. Little stinker scared the crap out of me last time we were in the mountains, she was just climbing up things all by herself. So that is a big thing that I’d like to do for her is place that specific grave marker, and the GoFundMe is going to help us get that.”

At the time of this posting, more than $37,000 has been raised for the family, with the goal of $100,000 still to hit. In these trying times, Gambino is amazed the community surrounding her has been able to come through the way that they have.

As important as the financial charity has been, the graciousness of everybody who has lent a helping hand has brought a different kind of energy to Gambino, and a hunger to pay it forward in other ways.

“It is so meaningful for all this energy to be circling around us and I am so grateful for it,” said Gambino.

“I don’t have words to express how grateful I am for the love that has been surrounding our family since all of this happened because we’ve really needed it. It’s the most traumatic thing. I feel like I can’t even write a book like this. I am thanking you all from the bottom of my heart. … I just want you to be inspired by my story and know that even though things are going to get hard — because they will, things happen in life; maybe not as traumatic as ours, but things are going to happen to you — you have to never give up. It is so important to never, ever, ever give up, and to keep moving forward. And even if you don’t have a family that’s surrounding you, for yourself, you have to move forward and care about yourself in order to care about anything else.”

Zingano has been able to get to the other side of her personal demons and hardship, and seeing Gambino’s brave and heroic attitude has continued to motivate her.

When Gambino says that she’ll find the power to create her own destiny, Zingano believes her, and also believes that attitude could keep the fight heading into the proverbial championship rounds and beyond.

“I really believe in manifestation, and I think that this energy she’s putting into herself and her words and her effort and her actions, I really do hope that she’s buying herself the right amount of time,” Zingano said.

“I just really hope that [a cure] comes up for her so that she is able to raise her kids, and be here as long as possible, and live out her legacy as somebody that healed from this. That’s what I hope for her.”

Forming an ongoing friendship with Johnson has also helped give Gambino reasons to fight for her family. Just having him in her life as a helping hand for motivation, or even just another person who has had ups and downs to talk to, may have been enough. However, Johnson has learned so much from his short time of getting to know Gambino, that while speaking to MMA Fighting alongside her, he made the choice to take things a giant step further.

Johnson said he told White of Gambino’s story and revealed that Gambino hadn’t attended a UFC fight card. According to Johnson, the UFC CEO didn’t even let him finish his sentence before proclaiming that they can go to any event they want, on the house.

On top of that, after having a conversation with his wife, and also needing to be in the same room as Gambino to “feel the energy of our hearts,” Johnson came through with the greatest gift of all to give Gambino a break, and some much needed weight off of her shoulders.

“You’ve just blown me away, and so, we want to make the donation to get us to that goal today,” Johnson told Gambino. “I know what some of your medical bills look like and I know this doesn’t get you where you need to really go. I know this is going to help, but I don’t want anybody receiving this message to think, ‘OK, we hit the goal, now we’re done.’ We’ve got a lot more to do. … I hope that you can always be running up the mountain to no end. This was your whole message, is never stop no matter what. So never stop, and raise the goal, raise the aim, raise the objectives, and it’s a small part that we can play.”

“Oh my God, thank you,” Gambino replied.

Thanks to Johnson, along with the UFC’s generosity, Gambino will get to check off the bucket list item of attending a live UFC card with her husband. The event she chose? The loaded UFC 299 fight card, which takes place March 9 in Miami, and will be headlined by Sean O’Malley vs. Marlon Vera for the UFC bantamweight title.

Although an extremely generous donation from Johnson helped Gambino and her family to meet their fundraising goal, the work is far from done. Considering what the household will have to deal with in the future, hitting that $100,000 mark — while incredible — is merely a Band-Aid for what is still to come. If you would like to donate to the Gambino family, you can do so at this link.

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Ashlee Gambino and her two living children, Carmine (2) and Carmella (8).
Ashlee Gambino

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