If Miesha Tate had a jump shot or a killer crossover, we probably wouldn’t be talking about her this week. At the very least, we would not be talking about her challenging Holly Holm for the UFC women’s bantamweight championship in the co-main event of UFC 196.
But fate has a funny way of doing things, and when Tate decided that she couldn’t play basketball for Franklin Pierce High School, her only other option was to join the boys’ wrestling team.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I was hooked after the first day of really getting my butt handed to me,” she said. “I thought ‘well, it can’t get any worse, so I’m only going to get better.’ I was addicted to how difficult it was. It challenged me in ways I never knew I could be challenged in. It really taught me how strong I was and I think I began to latch on to that.”
She hasn’t let go since. Back then, it was a constant, uphill battle as she not only wrestled against boys, but did so against opponents who cut weight and were still bigger than the Tacoma native, who took solace in places most wouldn’t.
“Don’t get pinned,” Tate said of one of the goals she had when wrestling bigger, stronger athletes who had been competing for years before she ever stepped on to the mat. “I always found victories in the small things.”
Soon, as she discovered mixed martial arts in college, the victories got bigger and bigger, as she became a pioneer for women in the sport, a Strikeforce champion, and then a UFC contender.
“There’s definitely women that were before me that really had it even harder than I did, but I think that I made some roads for women in mixed martial arts because I know when I started that it wasn’t where it’s at today, and I think I’ve been a part of that. I’m really thankful that I got to experience it at that stage and at the stage where I’m at now. I’ve really gone from the bottom all the way to the top, and it’s been an amazing ride.”
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The ride isn’t over yet, and on Saturday, she can win the biggest prize of all. Yet while she has progressed as a fighter skillwise, the key for her toppling Holm may come down to what she learned on the mats as a teenager, and that has nothing to do with throwing a perfect left hook or locking on an armbar.
“Toughness plays into every fight, unless you're just drastically better than somebody and can just beat them,” said UFC contender Bryan Caraway, who just happens to be Tate’s head coach and boyfriend. “But when you get to a high level, toughness definitely comes into play, as well as cardio and conditioning. All the factors come in at the pinnacle of the sport. So that can definitely be the straw that breaks the camel's back, being tough and gritty. I watched some videos last night of some old school rivalries, and Buster Douglas was a 50-1 underdog when he fought Mike Tyson and nobody thought he could do it. He actually went out there, got dropped and hurt bad and then came back and was able to win the fight. That right there shows the toughness that can win big fights like this, and Miesha has absolutely showed that she's one of the toughest fighters - male or female - in the sport and her willpower to win is second to none. So that can definitely be a big factor. You get in the later rounds and the fight gets grimy and you get those close rounds, that toughness, grittiness and experience may very well be the difference.”
Tate has been to those dark places in fights, yet while her career record isn’t perfect, she was always able to walk out with her head held high, knowing that she showed up to fight and did just that. Saturday is the latest test, and if it’s going to come down to a battle of wills, don’t count “Cupcake” out.
“I’m always looking for that edge,” Tate said. “Sometimes in these high level fights, the winner comes down to a hairline decision that you made during your training camp that can give you that one percent extra margin.”
Sometimes that’s all it takes. And from that, champions are made.
“I put so much into this sport that becoming the champion means more to me than just having a shiny new belt,” she said. “That belt is symbolic of every day I’ve gone to the gym and put sweat and tears and blood into this sport. And all that energy and all that passion and all that love and all that drive, that’s what that belt means.”