As the blood pooled on the canvas, Miesha Tate, the 135-pound prospect who competes for a Strikeforce title shot tonight on Showtime, had an important decision to make.
Was she just a former high school wrestler? Or was she a fighter?
"I had a realization," Tate told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview, "She grabbed me in a Muay Thai clinch and I had no idea how to defend it. I was still in wrestling mode, trying to shoot it, and she kneed me in the head twice. She broke my nose, and I was kind of like, 'Whoah.'
"I remember I took her down in the double leg still, but I was obviously dazed. She got on my back and was trying to sink the choke in, but I was staying really tight. Then she postured up and she was just punching me in the ears. I remember, that was the thing that hurt the worst.
"I remember sitting there on my elbows, with my hands on my face, curled up in a little ball, and there's blood in front of me. I see it pooling, right in front of my face. And it's from my broken nose. I'm in my own little world, thinking, 'No way. Are you serious? You're really going to let this muay thai girl sit on your back like this. You're a wrestler! What the hell are you doing? Get up and do something.'
"I got pissed. I got really mad. I started bucking like crazy. She fell off into guard and I postured up above her. I was throwing punches furiously, I was so mad. Then the bell rang. My corner told me my nose was smashed. 'We can't tell how bad it is, and we don't want you to go out for the third round.' I was really disappointed, but I knew they were doing it for my safety."
For Tate, everything changed that night. What started as a dare in college when a friend who studied karate invited her to her first MMA class had become a vocation.
Tate knew human beings were broadly separated into two camps: those who stand and fight and those who run.
"They say you have a fight or flight instinct. I definitely have the fight, especially when I get hurt. The more people hurt me, the harder I fight. It's kind of funny. If you see me get tagged in a fight, all of the sudden I'm going crazy, you know I'm probably hurt a little bit," Tate said.
She broke her nose in that first amateur fight, but it's not something that she stresses about. Many girls with Tate's dynamic good lucks spend hours in front of the mirror. Tate may do that too, but she also risks scar tissue and a crooked nose for the love of the game.
"I work so hard, and I'm so passionate, and I train so hard that nobody's going to stop me, nobody's going to hurt me. You have to go into the cage with that mentality. It's very important to have that kind of outlook, because when you're thinking, 'Oh my gosh, what if she punches me in the nose?' you're probably going to get punched in the nose. Because you're thinking about things that aren't important when it comes to fighting and winning fights."
Winning fights is all about wrestling for Tate, a trailblazer who competed against boys in high school wrestling matches. In truth, Tate owes her MMA career to her lousy jumpshot as much as any natural aggression.
"My best friend and I were sitting in English class and we had just finished with cross country. We were always really active. We didn't really think about wrestling at first. She was about 5'2", a tiny, little half-Asian girl—she couldn't play basketball to save her life either. We were like, 'Hmm, we are so bored. What are we going to do? Hey, let's go out for wrestling.'
"I went home, asked Mom what she thought," Tate said. "And she was kind of like, 'Mmm, I guess. If you want to.' So, the next day I was at wrestling practice and so was she. That was it. I was pretty much hooked."
Wrestling with the boys hasn't changed. In the training room, Tate still rolls mostly with men, these days with Urijah Faber and the guys at Team Alpha Male.
"I don't think I could find a better camp with better training partners for me, because they're all around 125, 135, 145 pounds and great athletes. I can't think of a better place for me," Tate said.
Being a woman in MMA isn't easy. Gina Carano and "Cyborg" Santos may have cracked some glass ceilings, but making a living as a professional fighter is a possibility for only a handful of female fighters. And even a recognizable fighter like Tate can't find women to train with that can push her.
"It's hard to find women in your weight class to train with unless you're comfortable with the idea that 'I'm training with her today and fighting her tomorrow.' It's kind of weird, because there are just not enough of us. Normally, if I train with a girl, she's a 125 pounder and I'm a 135 pounder. Or she's a 45 and I'm a 35. Partners in my own weight class are few and far between.
"I have trained with a couple of 35 pounders, like Katrina Allendale. But it's funny. I trained with her once and a week later we almost fought each other. It's really weird, we're getting to know each other and becoming friends, making plans to train together, and then we have a fight offer. It didn't go through but it's kind of weird."
Despite these issues, Tate sees a sport that's growing and close to breaking through into the mainstream consciousness. With the Bellator women's tournament kicking off yesterday and women's presence on most Strikeforce cards, the future looks bright—but things aren't ideal yet. And even though she's one of the lucky ones, Tate knows things are tough for female fighters trying to make their name in the industry.
"It's not easy, and for most of the girls, it's harder than it is for me because I'm signed with Strikeforce and there are only a small group of girls that have that opportunity. But the 125 pounders and the 115 pounders have a really hard time getting fights. Other shows, and even Strikeforce, maybe book one female fight per card. So work is very sporadic, and it's difficult at times to even find a card that will put you on," Tate said.
"And you have to think that there are so few females, that normally, if you have a guy's fight on a local card, you'll be able to find two guys at the same weight and around the same area—within driving distance. With females, a lot of times you have to fly opponents in so that makes it even more difficult. The two girls may say, 'Hell yeah, we'll fight each other.' But the promoter will say, 'Nah, it's too much to bring her in.' It comes down to a money thing.
"But there are so many women coming out of the woodwork every day. More amateurs turning pro. And new women becoming amateurs. It's growing pretty fast and I think that people are becoming more accepting of it. Girls are like, 'Wow, I didn't even know I could do that. I want to do that and I can do it, because she's doing it.' It's important and exciting to see the sport progressing so much."
Miesha Tate looks to earn a shot at Sarah Kaufman's Strikeforce Welterweight Title by competing in the 135-pound Strikeforce tournament tonight on Showtime.
This special feature interview was brought to you by Jonathan Snowden, author of Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting and the soon to be released MMA Encyclopedia. Jonathon is also a features writer over at Bloody Elbow. You can follow him on Twitter at @mmaencyclopedia.