Resting on her forearms and knees while looking down at the hazy red spot beneath her, Miesha Tate struggled to get her bearings. She wasn't quite sure what the spot was. Truth be told, she wasn't even all that sure what was happening.
Then, in the middle of unfamiliar violence, she experienced a moment of clarity.
Tate realized that the growing red spot was blood. It was her blood. And more importantly, at least in relation to her current situation, the blood was streaming from her nose. Her badly broken nose. She jolted with the realization that she was in a fight.
This wasn't a wrestling match.
Wrestling, she was used to. This was different.
The girl attached to her back had already hurt Tate; the blood pouring from her flattened nose was all the evidence she needed. More importantly, her opponent was still trying to hurt her—to choke her out.
To beat her.
That made Tate angry. She didn't like losing, not in the slightest. She grabbed her opponent's leg, removed herself from the precarious situation and stood up, which put her opponent on her back. Tate arched her back, pulling her clenched fists behind her in what felt like slow motion.
This wasn't wrestling. This was a fight.
She knew this now.
Born Aug. 18, 1986, Miesha Tate's childhood set a familiar pattern for the rest of her life. From an early age, she straddled two worlds. She had the plastic pink Barbie car that so many young girls wanted for Christmas, and she would putter around the house in it. She owned Barbie dolls just like other American girls, playing with them and imagining the things that American girls imagine when they play with Barbie dolls.
She would also fight those Barbies against a Barbie controlled by her mother, often until one or both of the heads popped off.
She drove the car outside, in the dark brown mud created by the Puget Sound and the ceaseless Tacoma rain, underneath the trees that thrive in the shadow of Mount Rainier. As she would be in adulthood, she was a child of two worlds: beauty and brawn.
"Miesha was quite the tomboy," says her father, Rob.
"Most of my friends were boys," Miesha says with a laugh. "I just got along better with them."
She didn't much like wearing dresses. Not early on, anyway. Her mom would get angry at her for going down the slide while wearing them.
"How else am I supposed to go down the slide," she would ask her mother. "Put me in some pants, please."
Finding her at the end of each day was never an easy task for her mother and father, and it was made even more difficult by the fact that Miesha didn't want to be found. She loved the outdoors and the way that Washington's vibrant green never gave way to the colors of fall or the dreary dead of winter. She wanted to stay outside.
"She would climb every tree," Rob says.
Perhaps it was the tomboy inside, but she was competitive. Boy, was she ever. In fourth grade, she attended Harvard Elementary school, which led to all sorts of jokes later in life about graduating from Harvard. The school had one of those gyms with massive ceilings; in reality, they were normal ceilings, but to young Miesha, they appeared roughly the same height as the Space Needle.
That gym had a wall of fame. To get your name on it, you had to climb a length of rope that ran from floor to ceiling. Not just once but three times, and you had to do it without allowing your feet to touch the ground.
If it sounds like one of those things that adults dream up in a misbegotten attempt to teach youth about the power of perseverance, that's because it probably was.
Lesson or not, Miesha persevered. Her competitive nature mixed with her athleticism, and she was successful. Her name went up on that wall, joining the other Tommys and Joes and Stevens who had made the climb before.
It was the first time her competitive and athletic sides melded. It would not be the last.
From sixth grade on, Miesha's mother encouraged her to pursue sports, mostly because her boundless energy never went away.
But in high school, she had difficulty finding things to keep her busy year-round. The summer and fall months were fine; soccer satisfied her competitive urges. Running track and cross country helped curb her crackling energy levels.
But the cold and dreary Tacoma winters were different. Only two winter sports were available to Franklin Pierce High School students. One was basketball. Miesha hated basketball, and she was bad at it.
It was a problem. A small one, but a problem nonetheless. But then Miesha's friend, Sharon, offered a solution: Why don't they try out for the wrestling team?
"I don't know. That's weird," Miesha told Sharon.
And it was weird, because Franklin Pierce had no girls' wrestling team. There was a boys' wrestling team, but it would be more than two years before girls' wrestling would become an official option in the Washington educational system.
Despite her misgivings, Miesha liked the idea. She told Sharon she wanted to ask permission from her mom. She went home and asked that very night.
"I don't think you're gonna like it. But I'm not going to tell you that you can't do something you want to do," her mother said. "But let's just not tell your dad, OK?"
Miesha and her mother had good reason to avoid telling her father about the whole wrestling thing.
"If I'm totally honest, I was not supportive at all. Today, I kinda...," Rob says before pausing. "No, not even 'kinda.' I regret it. I don't think any father wants his daughter out there rolling around on a mat with a bunch of dudes."
And so Rob did not support Miesha in her wrestling endeavor. He didn't give her any words of encouragement, and he did not go to her matches. He told himself that she was going through a phase, which would eventually go away.
Except it didn't.
"When she wants something, she really goes after it," Rob says.
Miesha and Sharon's presence on the wrestling team presented a problem for some of the boys, who at 15 years old were not used to girls encroaching on their territory.
Girls on the wrestling team? That wasn't right.
And so the boys went about the business of trying to make her quit, and in this pursuit they were relentless.
"Other girls had tried to do what I was doing, and they all quit almost immediately," Miesha says. "They were on a mission to get us to quit. They put us through hell and high water."
It was more hell than high water. As her first practice drew to a close, she was tired and sore but undaunted. The boys on her team had given her no quarter, and she'd taken everything they had without uttering a peep. She took solace in the fact that she was still standing, but most of her inspiration came from the fact that, when it came to actual wrestling, she was terrible.
"I was awful. I knew I could only get better," she says. "God, I was so horrible. I left that wrestling room daily with mat burns on my face. It was embarrassing."
Miesha was downright determined not to be terrible at wrestling anymore, and so she worked. Hard. She kept returning to that Franklin Pierce wrestling room to wrestle the boys. She loved the conditioning and the competitive nature of wrestling, but mostly, she just wanted to get better.
"I never thought about quitting. I'd never experienced anything that challenged me or pulled the most out of me like wrestling did," Miesha says. "So it was intriguing and interesting. I wanted to get better."
The work paid off. She got better.
During Miesha's junior year, Sharon quit the wrestling team for personal reasons. Miesha was alone, but things were much different than they had been two years previously. The boys no longer resented her. She was a welcome member of the team, and other girls around the state were following her lead and joining wrestling squads. The State of Washington finally incorporated girls' wrestling into the curriculum.
For the first time, the Franklin Pierce athletic department held a separate tournament for girls to compete against one another at the yearly Cardinal Classic. The State of Washington would also decide its first women's state championship. There weren't enough female competitors for an elimination tournament, so the state held a round-robin tournament for the ladies during breaks in the men's tournament.
But it was a start, and Miesha was thrilled for the opportunity to prove herself on a level playing field.
But then, heartbreak. Two weeks before the state tournament, she was preparing in the wrestling room. A male counterpart shot for a double leg on her, and in the ensuing scramble, she felt a jolt of pain and looked down. Her ankle was turned around, completely backward. It was broken, and she was out of the tournament.
"But then I came back my senior year and won it," she says with a smile.
Miesha left home the next year, heading two hours up Interstate 90 to Ellensburg and Central Washington University. She entered college without any real notion of what she wanted to do with her life, so she did not declare a major. She'd always been interested in speaking foreign languages and, in turn, thought that might be something to pursue. But during her freshman year, she took the basics and got used to college and living in the all-girls dormitory that her parents had insisted on.
She wanted to stay involved with sports. But college sports being what they were, she couldn't play on the school teams simply because she wanted to. In order to keep playing, she had to join one of the many intramural or club teams on the CWU campus. She thought about rugby, but only fleetingly.
And then one day her neighbor, Rosalia Watson, dropped by Miesha's room. Rosalia was a high-level black belt in karate and had been active in martial arts her whole life. She had a proposal for Miesha.
"I found a mixed martial arts club," Rosalia said.
"I don't think so," Miesha responded. "I don't do karate. I'm a wrestler. And I'm not going to wear those pajama-looking things."
"Just come with me," Rosalia urged.
And so Miesha went, dragging her feet the entire way. She wasn't happy about it, but Rosalia needed some company, and Miesha wanted to be supportive.
Bryan Caraway and Tommy Truex were looking for training partners.
Both men trained at Yakima MMA, a groundbreaking facility 40 minutes from the CWU campus. These were the days before the first season of The Ultimate Fighter—before mixed martial arts and the UFC morphed into something resembling a mainstream sport.
Caraway and Truex took fighting seriously, or at least they wanted to, but it was tough to find decent training partners when few people knew what mixed martial arts even was, much less had any desire to participate in it.
Bryan and Tommy came up with an idea: They'd start a mixed martial arts club at Central Washington University. It was a bit of a drive from Yakima, to be sure. But the way they saw it, the CWU campus represented a pool overflowing with potential training partners. They would use the MMA club as a way of separating the wheat from the chaff to end up with a few more faces to punch and bodies to throw around.
In order to gain board approval for the club, however, they couldn't market what they were actually looking for. They couldn't go in front of the board and tell them they wanted to start a cage-fighting club on campus—they would've been laughed out of the room and perhaps even thrown off campus.
Bryan and Tommy needed a softer angle, and so they came up with the idea of promoting their idea as a vague mixed martial arts club. At the time, the term "mixed martial arts" was mostly unknown and confusing at best, and so the idea worked. They went in front of the board and said they were mostly looking to teach self-defense and classes that would help the women on campus feel more secure.
The board approved the idea, and the MMA club was born.
Miesha had just one thing on her mind when she walked into the MMA club with Rosalia: She did not want to punch anyone, and she certainly didn't want to get punched.
Bryan wasn't surprised to see two girls show up at the club. He'd known that was a possibility when they went in front of the board with their self-defense pitch.
Miesha intrigued him, though.
"To find out she had a wrestling background and had wrestled in high school, that was pretty unique," Bryan says. "You didn't see a lot of girls wrestling back then. And she was a cute girl as well, so that was an add-on to the wrestling."
Jiu-jitsu was a revelation for Miesha. Here was a martial art that resembles wrestling, except it had submissions. It was a completely new experience; she'd never even heard of mixed martial arts, the UFC or jiu-jitsu until she joined the club, and the excitement of discovering something that she was already halfway decent at spurred her to return every Tuesday and Thursday.
"It was wrestling—which I knew—but with choking people," Miesha says. "It was exciting!"
It was not exciting for Rosalia. As a lifelong karate practitioner, she hated jiu-jitsu and grappling, and so she quit. But much like her beginning days in high school wrestling, Miesha wanted to get better, and that desire drove her to the club again and again.
"I still didn't want to get punched, though," she says. "It was a typical girly reaction."
In early 2006, Miesha attended her first amateur fight card in Yakima. She'd continued with her jiu-jitsu training, although she still resisted the idea of striking. But what she saw that night changed everything—both personally and professionally—and would set her along the path that she walks to this day.
"It just wasn't what I expected. It was totally inspiring and so cool," she says. "It was beautiful. I was blown away by the passion."
She was so affected by what she saw, in fact, that when one of the night's referees stepped in the ring to advertise his own mixed martial arts event, Miesha listened intently. He said he was putting on an all-female amateur fight card in three weeks in Wenatchee—a small city just under two hours away from Yakima—and if any women in attendance were interested in fighting on the card, they should make their way down to ringside to get more information.
"I felt like the stars aligned," Tate says. "I'd sat there watching all of these competitors, and I thought, 'If they can do it, why can't I?'"
And so she made her way to ringside and volunteered.
Three weeks later, she stood in her locker room at the Wenatchee Convention Center, warming up for her first amateur fight at the Wanted Fighting Challenge. It was Saturday, March 26, 2006.
Strangely enough, she wasn't nervous at all. After volunteering to fight, she began going to Yakima for daily training sessions. She'd finally started doing stand-up training, although few could be expected to remember much of anything after just three weeks of lessons. Her sense of inner peace was especially strange when you consider she would be facing Elizabeth Posener, a Muay Thai specialist from Canada.
But Miesha was undaunted. Posener come out in a very high Muay Thai stance. Miesha took her down easily.
"It was like slicing through warm butter," Miesha says. "I took her down immediately. It wasn't very exciting, though, because I'd forgotten you could even punch on the ground."
After the first round, Bryan and Tommy reminded Miesha that she could, in fact, punch Elizabeth while on the ground.
Good to know.
The second round began. Miesha surged forward and threw her 1-2 and then shot for the takedown. She didn't get it. Posener secured her in a Thai clinch, and Miesha was lost. She had no idea what the position that she was in was even called, much less how to defend or escape it.
Posener drove her knees into Miesha's face, and one of them crushed her nose. Absolutely flattened it. She tried for another takedown, but Posener sprawled and then took her back.
Perched on her forearms and knees, Miesha looked down and saw a steady stream of blood pouring from her nose and spreading across the canvas. Posener punched her in the ear. It hurt more than the broken nose, but it also pissed her off. She violently shook Posener off her back and started—for the first time in her life—to fight another human being.
When Miesha came back to the corner at the close of the second round, her coaches decided they'd seen enough. Bryan wanted to allow Miesha to continue, because she'd shown an instinct to fight and he believed in letting a fighter determine when she's out of the fight. But Miesha's nose was crushed to the point where it was nearly flat across her face. She was covered in her own blood; Posener wore it as well. They stopped the fight, and Miesha took a loss in her first amateur fight.
Driving home later that night, she cried. She was inconsolable. Losing was bad enough. The broken nose hurt like hell, but it would heal. The worst part was having to go home and face the rest of her family. They'd told her not to break her nose, and that's exactly what had happened. Miesha's mother, driving the car while Miesha tended her injuries, looked as though she'd aged 10 years in a single night.
"I didn't want to deal with people at college or with my family. With my grandparents," Miesha says. "I'd gotten my ass kicked. My grandfather was very chauvinistic, to be honest, and he already believed women shouldn't do that sort of thing. My dad was embarrassed, too. My nose was flat. My eyes were black. It was the worst."
Her grandfather gave her a lecture, as she expected. Her family thought she'd gotten it out of her system and they'd never have to worry about it again.
They were wrong.
"Almost immediately, I wanted to do it again," Miesha says. "I could learn more. Train more. Get better."
She was back in the gym as soon as her nose healed.
Meanwhile, romance was blossoming between Miesha and Bryan. They went on a few dates. She thought he was cute and had all the qualities she liked. But when she began attending daily training sessions at Yakima MMA, Bryan felt like she was encroaching on his territory and trying to spend too much time with him.
And so he gave her an ultimatum: They could date, or she could train at the gym. But they couldn't do both.
"He thought I was going to be a typical girl and go, 'Oh, then we'll stop training because I want to date you," Miesha says. "That didn't work out too well for him, because I kept training."
Miesha was resolved to continue her training. It would be another year before they began dating again. They've been dating ever since.
On March 3, 2012, Miesha lost her Strikeforce women's bantamweight title to former Olympic judoka Ronda Rousey.
Miesha had come a long way since the night of her first amateur fight. Twenty months after the loss to Posener, she made her professional debut at an all-women's card in Evansville, Ind., called Hook N Shoot. It was a one-night tournament featuring some of the world's best female mixed martial artists.
She beat Jan Finney by decision after four rounds—the judges couldn't figure out whom to award the decision to, so they ultimately asked the referee to decide who won. They thought the referee had the best seat in the house, so they tasked him with picking the winner. Miesha's hand was raised, to her relief.
Miesha was utterly spent after the Finney fight, though, and was knocked out by eventual tournament winner Kaitlin Young in just 30 seconds.
Four years later, she defeated veteran Marloes Coenen to capture the Strikeforce title. She was one of the best in the world, heralded as a pioneer for women who wanted to get into mixed martial arts.
And yet her entire experience with Rousey had caused her to become bitter.
The first time that Miesha saw Rousey fight, she thought she looked awesome. She was an athletic force, to be sure. She garnered fan and media attention that helped catapult her from an unknown commodity to the hottest asset in women's mixed martial arts in record time. After just four professional fights, Rousey was given a title shot.
Miesha and Ronda met face-to-face for the first time during a public-relations tour to promote their bout.
"I didn't like her from the get-go. Her true colors started to come out. She's not an evil person, but she lets negativity fuel her," Miesha says. "She feeds into it. She feels sorry for herself and thinks she's entitled to things. She's used to getting her way, and she gets mad when she doesn't get what she wants. She gets mad at the fans for responding negatively to the things she does."
The fight came and went. Miesha lost by armbar, as every other Rousey opponent had during her amateur and professional career. Miesha refused to tap, which resulted in a gruesome injury that forced her to the sidelines.
Ronda became Zuffa's poster child for women's mixed martial arts. Dana White was enamored with her and touted her as the face of women who fight. He famously explained that he was finally allowing women in the UFC—something he'd previously sworn up and down would never happen—solely because of Rousey. She was on every magazine cover, poster and television show, and this was discouraging for Miesha.
Ronda didn't help matters, either.
"She would show up to all of these events after she beat me—and she always had to attend the ones in Seattle, which is my home area—and do little things. She'd walk close to me and be like, 'Hey, buddy. How are you? How's it going?'" Miesha says. "It would piss me off so bad. But I don't know. Maybe I learned something?"
Miesha fought once more in Strikeforce, beating veteran Julie Kedzie with an armbar of her own. She made her UFC debut on April 13, 2013, two months after Rousey and Liz Carmouche became the first women to compete in the Octagon. Ronda had a successful UFC debut, surviving an early rear-naked choke attempt to (once again) win by armbar and solidify her UFC championship.
Miesha's debut was not as successful.
She lost to Cat Zingano by TKO in the third round, squandering an opportunity to coach against Ronda on the season of The Ultimate Fighter that would begin taping in the following months. But Zingano suffered a knee injury that would keep her on the sidelines for the filming, and so the UFC called in Miesha as a replacement in a moment that left Ronda, not for the last time, in tears.
The Miesha who entered The Ultimate Fighter gym on that first day was far different from the one who lost to Rousey in Strikeforce. She'd finally realized that it was not Ronda's fault that she'd lost the fight; Miesha had allowed herself to get caught in the armbar and refused to tap.
She grew tired of being angry. Bryan told her it was time to "be better, not bitter," and that's what they focused on. Before the Zingano fight, Ronda had even started acting somewhat cordial, telling Miesha that she believed she would beat Zingano.
When filming began, Ronda was respectful and nice. She told Miesha she was glad she replaced Zingano, because it would make for a better season of television. In the early days, Ronda treated Miesha completely differently than she ever had in the past.
"There were no mind games at all. There was one day, when we both left the TUF gym at the same time, that she even nodded at me and waved goodbye," Miesha says. "I was actually starting to get concerned that we might get along."
This concern did not last long.
The craziness began after the first fight of the season. Ronda had the first fight pick, and she selected Shayna Baszler—a longtime veteran whom many considered the odds-on favorite to win the season—to face Julianna Pena from Team Tate. To Rousey, it seemed like a surefire win for her team. When Pena scored the upset and beat Baszler, Miesha celebrated with her squad member. This was the moment when Rousey began to unravel.
"I'm going to make her pay for ever smiling at my girl's pain," Rousey said through tears.
Miesha was confused. Pena was her teammate, and she was celebrating the win. Besides, she'd been friends with Baszler for years, and though it was not shown on camera, Miesha went over to console Baszler after the loss. Rousey's comments made zero sense.
"What? What was she talking about? I gave Shayna a big hug," Miesha says. "But somehow, Ronda twisted me celebrating with Julianna into me mocking Ronda. That is how her mind works, though. She sees things the way she would personally react to them. If you have two parents who were not party animals growing up, they won't think to check if their kids are doing drugs. If you have parents who were wild growing up, they are more likely to assume their kids are doing the same thing. It's the same thing with her. She saw me celebrating with Julianna and thought I was mocking her. Which means that if she were in my shoes, that's how she would act.
"It was not rational. It was crazy," Miesha says. "She is emotionally unstable."
One of the more famous moments of the season occurred during the coaches' challenge. Each season, the opposing coaches are matched in some kind of non-fighting sport. The winning coach gets money for each of their team members. On this season, it was rock climbing. Rousey won the challenge and then turned to Miesha and gave her the middle finger. This seemed a calculated effort on Rousey's part.
But Miesha says it was not an act. Rousey doesn't turn on the attitude for attention like Chael Sonnen, who famously began to channel the spirit of Superstar Billy Graham and, in doing so, rocketed from being unknown to one of the UFC's biggest stars.
"She was incredibly rude even when the cameras weren't on. She would walk up to me out of nowhere and raise both middle fingers in my face," Miesha says. "But I wasn't going to play into it. I just smiled at her."
"She had some pretty nasty and dirty word usage toward Miesha," Bryan says. "But we went in committed to just smiling back at them when they acted the way they did. The UFC did a really good job at marketing her, using the Olympian with blond hair and blue eyes thing. But even when her true colors started coming through, they still tried to cover for her!"
As the season played out on television, fan opinion of Rousey began to change. Once loved, she became something of a villain. Fans began to rally behind Miesha, and her level of fan support will go through the roof when she steps in the Octagon on Saturday at UFC 168 for what is being promoted as the biggest fight in the history of women's mixed martial arts.
"Maybe the fans finally started to understand why I haven't gotten along with her," Miesha says. "How could you? How could I possibly like her? She says horrible things about me and Bryan and my family.
"How could I get along with her? How could I possibly get along with Ronda Rousey?"
And so Miesha will walk to the cage for another battle with Rousey, this time in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. It is the pinnacle of her career thus far and a long way from those early days when she battled for respect on the wrestling team at Franklin Pierce High School. She never imagined she'd be here when she first walked into the MMA club at Central Washington University or even during her bloody first amateur fight against Posener.
Unlike the last time she faced Rousey, however, she is at peace with Ronda's place in the world and with her own seat at the table. She is a martial artist once again, a picture of serenity, which is a far cry from the tense and angry person who fought Rousey in 2012. She is constantly seeking to improve and refuses to allow anger to dictate and dominate her life the way that it did the last time around.
She's better, not bitter.