Miesha Tate (right) found mixed martial arts by chance. | Photo: Dave Mandel
When Marloes Coenen submitted Liz Carmouche to retain her Strikeforce women’s welterweight title on March 5, one observer watched with what must have been mixed emotions.
Originally slated to fight Coenen at the event, Miesha Tate tore a ligament in her knee just two weeks before the bout, forcing her withdrawal. Carmouche, an unbeaten and largely unknown substitute, gave the champion all she could handle before getting caught with the fight-ending armbar in the fourth round.
Tate’s injury occurred during an otherwise innocuous training session.
“I was doing MMA, but it was the wrestling that got me. A guy shot in on my leg, I went to sprawl and, basically, his forehead was on my knee. I went to the right, he went to the left and my knee went in the opposite direction of my body,” Tate tells Sherdog.com. “It was so close to the fight that the doctor wouldn’t recommend me fighting. I could have torn it the rest of the way and required surgery and all those things. I decided at that point and time it wasn’t worth [the risk].”
Past experiences had supplied an enduring and valuable lesson for Tate: hard work and perseverance can overcome almost any obstacle. As a freshman at Franklin Pierce High School near Tacoma, Wash., she looked for a winter sport in which to compete but did not want to play basketball -- and for good reason.
“I suck at it,” she says, laughing.
As a tomboy who socialized with the boys in her neighborhood, the wrestling room seemed a much better fit, at least in her mind, if not everyone else’s at the time. In grade school, while girls were participating in girly activities, Tate joined the boys, flinging herself off swings to see who could go the farthest, climbing trees after school, roughhousing and playing hard. Wrestling just made sense.
“I got my butt kicked pretty hard for the first few weeks. I had no idea what I was doing, like a fish out of water,” she recalls. “I think the first part of the season, the coaches and guys speculated that I wasn’t there to stay: ‘She’ll quit. She can’t hang. Let’s make it hard on her, so she’ll want to leave.’ That was only more motivating. I guess I’ve always loved a challenge. My friends were mostly boys. We’d climb trees, make up games and I kind of had that mentality. It didn’t bother me to get roughed up by the guys. I was used to it.”
She stuck with it, finding considerable mojo in the months and years of toil that followed. After winning a state girls’ title in 2005, she enrolled at Central Washington University. However, the school had recently cut its wrestling program, and Tate’s competitive fire was still there. Urged on by a friend, she checked out a local mixed martial arts club. The hook was set.
“I went there, and it really was a bunch of wrestlers. I fit right in,” she says. “I started learning some basic jiu-jitsu and picked it up really quickly. At that point, I had no interest in fighting. I told guys I didn’t want to get punched in the face.”
That soon changed. After seeing a local show in which training partners competed, Tate decided to accept her first amateur bout. Matched against a muay Thai stylist, it seemed to be going well but was fairly uneventful, as Tate took down her opponent and held her there for the first round. She did not punch, prompting her corner to remind her that she could, in fact, hit the opponent. Then she came out in the second period, and all hell broke loose.
“I went out there, threw a few one-twos, and she put me into a Thai clinch and kneed me in the face twice,” Tate says. “It busted my nose [and] blood [went] gushing down my face.”
After her next takedown attempt was stuffed, Tate fought off a rear-naked choke and returned to her opponent’s guard, “whaling down punches,” she says, until the round ended. The bout was stopped when they would not let Tate go back out for the third period, but at that moment, she learned something important about herself.
“When I get hurt or damaged, I fight that much harder,” she says. “I don’t have any inkling of wanting to break or quit, so I learned that I was definitely cut out for this sport.”
Tate went 5-0 in the rest of her amateur career.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself in all of my losses,” she says. “They are what made me the fighter I am today; not my wins, but my losses.”
Relegated to watching Coenen defend her title, she did the next best thing, taking studious notes on the champion’s tendencies and, Tate believes, openings she can exploit.
“There were things I suspected about holes in Marloes’ game that proved to be true. I just feel like she doesn’t have much wrestling ability at all. She’s not a scrambler on the ground, and that’s how I got my start,” Tate says. “Anytime I have a hold of her, I’ll be beating her to whatever position we’re battling for. I think she’s too content on her back, doesn’t try to get up; too much of a traditional jiu-jitsu player in that respect. That’s not a good game plan for MMA, and that never fares well with the judges.”
While the classical jiu-jitsu stylist can often camp too long waiting for a submission that never comes, absorbing punishment and falling behind on points, fighters with that kind of mindset do it for a reason: supreme confidence in their ability to find the submission that ends matters. Coenen did precisely that, turning a one-sided bout on its ear with the dramatic armbar on Carmouche in the fourth round.
“I knew if Liz wasn’t careful she’d get submitted. Marloes has a couple things she’s really good at from guard: a triangle and armbar. She’s very patient, and when she shifts, it’s fast and sharp,” Tate says. “I’d noticed Liz getting out of position and thought, ‘If she keeps this up, she’ll win the fight, but she’s letting herself get a little extended.’”
As one of Strikeforce’s better-known female fighters, Tate has experienced a definite uptick in recognition since 2009, when she lost a decision to Sarah Kaufman. Putting together five wins in a row, including two to win a one-night Strikeforce contender’s tournament in August, she now finds herself in position to capitalize against Coenen, a clever veteran with a blend of patience, savvy and seemingly unshakable reserve. For despite being constantly mounted by Carmouche and hit readily, Coenen never really seemed to panic. It now falls on Tate to apply that kind of pressure while not making a simple mistake that could skewer her hopes.
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