Tatiana Suarez Will Never Submit

Before the cancer diagnosis she was a virtual lock for an Olympic bid on the mat. Seven years later, she's a survivor and the talk of MMA. How far can she go? Just ask the people she's faced in the cage.
photo of Scott HarrisScott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterJune 7, 2019

Maybe the quarantine carried a silver lining. Solitude, after all, forces you to listen to yourself. When the solitude is medically prescribed, you can’t run from it—quite literally.

Most people never experience this firsthand. Tatiana Suarez did. Doctors employed radioactive iodine to treat her cancer, and that in turn required isolation. So she retreated to her bedroom, covered all four walls in plastic sheeting and proceeded to contemplate the loss of her lifelong dream. She was 21 years old at the time.

“I couldn’t be around people at all,” she recalls. “I had to stay there for like a week. Imagine going through a treatment for cancer and you can’t be around people to comfort you. To me, that sucked.”

Different cancer treatments cause different side effects in different people. Individual responses to the treatments are equally variable. To get through, some patients rely on familiar resources to help them define the terms of the battle. Sometimes it’s best to find comfort in what you know during difficult moments.

Suarez had been wrestling since before she could remember. So she took on the situation the best way she knew how.

“I started chugging water to get the [iodine] out of my pores. Get it out of my body!” she remembers. “After I drank all that water, I weighed myself and I weighed a lot. So I was like, ‘This is the heaviest I’ve ever been. I have to go for a run!’ I couldn’t run, so I started working out in my room.”

Alone in the quarantine room, she did wrestling drills, pushups, situps, burpees, jumping jacks. Then, having sweated sufficiently, she sat and gave her situation some thought. A lot of thought.

Before the cancer diagnosis hit, she was a virtual lock to make Team USA’s wrestling squad for the London Summer Games. That dream was gone. But there, in that room, she set a new goal: She would win a UFC title.

Seven years later, Suarez has nearly accomplished what she set out to do. Her supreme wrestling skills have blossomed into a formidable all-around game. In the cage she has yet to meet an equal, even at the UFC level, as the trail of mangled opponents in her wake illustrates. She’s on the short list for best wrestler in the UFC, male or female. She also has a blend of intangibles that could help vault her beyond the level of a garden-variety UFC champion who toils in relative anonymity despite having prodigious talents. Suarez has the potential to be more like the mercurial Ronda Rousey—the first and only fighter to truly be the face of women’s MMA.

“I saw [Suarez] in training and someone told me who she was,” says Betiss Mansouri, Suarez’s coach and manager. “She was doing jiu-jitsu and I went and watched her roll. I saw the talent right away. I saw the potential. I’ve been coaching people since the early 1990s. I saw an elite wrestler and an elite athlete. I knew she’d become a star like Ronda.”

Suarez admires Rousey—both for her famous armbar and the way she plowed her way to a UFC title and worldwide fame.

“I think she was great,” Suarez says of Rousey.

On Saturday, Suarez will try to improve her undefeated record against Nina Ansaroff at UFC 238. It airs before a national audience on ESPN. The winner is widely expected to get a shot at champ Jessica Andrade. So for the past several months Suarez has been hard at work, preparing for the challenge at Millennia MMA in Rancho Cucamonga, California.

Morning moves toward afternoon at a gym in California’s Inland Empire, about an hour from Los Angeles. Training ends and fighters, including a sweat-drenched Suarez, file off the mat. Mansouri appears, takes a seat on the mat and thumbs through his phone.

“You have male groupies,” Mansouri says to Suarez. “They’re hitting me up about you through Facebook.”

Suarez makes an ambiguous noise, a blend of chuckle and scoff and sigh. “Male groupies,” she says, taking a slug of water. “Why are they messaging you?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “They’re asking me for an introduction. I don’t even know who these guys are.”

Fame draws in attention—sometimes befuddling, unwanted—from across the internet. Especially for a woman in a sport like MMA. Suarez doesn’t pay the digital cesspool much mind; she tries to keep it at arm's length, to the extent she's capable of doing so.

DALLAS, TX - SEPTEMBER 08:  Tatiana Suarez celebrates after defeating Carla Esparza during the UFC 228 event at American Airlines Center on September 8, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Suarez is not oblivious to her situation but readily acknowledges how her singular focus on training has created something of a sheltering hand from the probing of the outside world. Paying so much attention to the particulars of one’s craft can insulate one from the pulls of fame; but doing so can also have an odd, paradoxical effect: Someone who is readymade for stardom may not fully appreciate what that entails.

“Everyone says I’m awkward, and I am,” she says. “Because I was stuck in a wrestling room four hours a day … I didn’t really have any hobbies. I didn’t have friends because I was too busy training or going to tournaments.”

Still, her personality finds ways to show itself, especially around those she is close to. Stone-faced and a little shy at first, she’s not the life of the party until everyone is comfortable—but then it doesn’t take long for her, in her distinctive rasp, to begin laughing and swapping stories with those around her.

“She has this super warm and funny side, and the other side is her competitive nature,” Mansouri says. “When that really comes out, that’s when she’ll get a lot of attention. She has a lot of different traits.”

Suarez is hard on herself in training as she is on people she trains with—including her boyfriend, Christopher Sykes, who’s also a fighter at Millennia MMA. The couple was banned from training together in practice for a time.

“We’re both very competitive,” he says with a sheepish grin. “For a long time we weren’t allowed to drill or spar. We get mad at each other. It’s not cute.”

It’s this kind of passion that Suarez brings to the cage every time. Her competitive fire was lit long ago—before she spent all that time alone in quarantine, before she became a force inside the cage. It began before she ever learned her ABCs.

Suarez started wrestling when she was three thanks to her family. Her mother, Lisa, had family who were smitten with the sport. Her father had helped introduce wrestling to Tatiana’s brothers, and they in turn inspired a young Tatiana to try her hand. “When I was really young, I remember I’d always wrestle against the boys, and I’d always win,” she says. “I remember how competitive I was and how much I wanted to win. I would practice really hard. Even at a young age, it was that important to me to win.”

Her father left the family when she was seven. Linda raised Tatiana and her brothers from that point forward. In high school, Tatiana began to rack up the accolades. She earned a bronze medal for freestyle wrestling at 55 kilograms in the 2008 and 2010 World Wrestling Championships.

“In school I was just mollywhopping these girls,” she says. “They had no chance, you know? I didn’t even get scored on at all. So it was not competitive at that level. So I knew once I got world-class training and stuff like that and wrestled every day and practiced every day, I’d eventually become an Olympic champion.”

Her trajectory changed in early 2011. After returning from a tournament in France, soreness flared up in Suarez’s neck and shoulders. When she got it checked out, the doctor said her neck issue wasn’t overly worrisome. But there were nodules on her thyroid. Doctors wanted to run additional tests. The test results came back positive for thyroid cancer; Suarez had a malignancy in a number of lymph nodes as well. The cancer had spread to her lungs. Suarez would need surgery to remove the thyroid. She wouldn’t be able to compete in the Games.

“I thought I was definitely going to the Olympics to represent our country,” she says. “I was only getting better at that time. I was hitting a peak; it was perfect timing for the Olympics. I was right there and now I couldn’t do it.”

Misha Japaridze/Associated Press

When Suarez was given a clean bill of health, there was still the small matter of the rest of her life. She had to take one pill daily to compensate for her missing thyroid. Other than that, she had no lingering effects from being ill. Her Olympic dreams had been all-consuming. What came next? Her time alone in the quarantine had helped plant the seed, and now some friends would help it grow. Suarez soon tried her hand at Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the gold standard in submission grappling and a key ingredient in any MMA fighter’s game. She was hooked; it was as if she had opened up a gateway to something new. When she combined wrestling with jiu-jitsu, Suarez was literally mixing martial arts. Striking-based disciplines like kickboxing and muay thai were not far behind.

“The thing that’s so crazy about MMA is every part of it has its challenges and puzzles and everything,” she says. “At the end of the day, you have to put it all together. I always say it’s the hardest sport out there. How could you not get addicted to it?”

She made her amateur debut in 2014, but Suarez’s big break came when she earned an invitation to try out for the 23rd season of The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC’s reality competition, which was set to air in 2016. She was picked first overall among the pool of male and female competitors. Winning a TUF season typically provides a doorway into the UFC; Michael Bisping, TJ Dillashaw, Rashad Evans, Forrest Griffin and a raft of others have all launched their careers thanks in part to the “six-figure contract” awarded to the winner. Suarez submitted all three opponents she faced and won the season.

The performance was a powerful introduction to Suarez—and the unique gifts that make her so difficult to deal with in the cage. She is a smart and powerful fighter who, once she gets you down, knows how to keep you there. According to UFC statistics, she has converted 18 of 22 takedown attempts for an accuracy rating of 82 percent. That number isn’t too eye-popping on first glance, until you realize that she doesn’t need as many takedown attempts as others might. Suarez usually controls the action from the top, making it difficult for her opponents to challenge her. Her stand-up may be a work in progress (though perhaps better than critics give her credit for), but her submission game is plenty polished.

In November 2017, she handled Viviane Pereira, winning by unanimous decision. Six months later, Suarez won via submission against well-regarded prospect Alexa Grasso. Her most impressive win to date was in her last contest, a TKO of ex-champion Carla Esparza last September. In the third round, after brushing off a takedown attempt, Suarez slammed Esparza to the mat, achieved the mount position and strafed Esparza’s face with elbow strikes until the referee called for the stoppage.

DALLAS, TX - SEPTEMBER 08:  Tatiana Suarez celebrates after her TKO victory over Carla Esparza in their women's strawweight fight during the UFC 228 event at American Airlines Center on September 8, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Z
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

“I feel like I dominated her and she’s a former champ,” Suarez said after the fight, per Yahoo Sports. “I think she’s my toughest opponent yet. Everyone said, ‘Carla is going to give her a run for her money,’ and I just saw those messages and said, ‘Yeah, OK, sure,’ because I knew I was just going to dominate her.”

UFC President Dana White recently said the reason Suarez has so few fights speaks to a reluctance among opponents to sign on the dotted line. “Nobody wants to fight Tatiana,” White told MMA Junkie. “Not one person in the Top 15 wants to fight this girl.”

When she’s not training, Suarez is a homebody. She and Sykes share a small rancher with five dogs, six snakes, three geckos and two monitors. This is where they return after the gym and train protection dogs. Sykes is playing with one of the dogs now while Suarez attempts to make a pizza crust from minced cauliflower. It’s not going well.

“This isn’t working,” she says. “I got the cheese cloth. I was supposed to get all the water out [of the cauliflower]. But the cauliflower, these little pieces of cauliflower, keep coming out instead.”

Eventually, grudgingly, she puts it to the side. Might as well go out for food. Suarez jumps in her weather-beaten car and heads for the local cafe.

“I have one sock that’s white, and the other one’s kind of peach,” she murmurs as she climbs in. “It’s bothering me.”

At the cafe, Suarez gets situated at a table outside and picks at a poached egg. She talks about the UFC—she watches regularly—and the fighters who have caught her eye. She’s a big fan of Max Holloway—“if you don’t like him, we can’t be friends”—and Robert Whittaker. She then circles back to Rousey.

Suarez respects what Rousey accomplished as a fighter and what she did for women in MMA. “I think she came around at a good time for the sport,” she says of Rousey. “And I think she did a great job. She won her fights. She is probably the most well-known fighter out there, and she’s not even fighting anymore.”

Suarez remembers how, in 2015, Holly Holm knocked Rousey out with a vicious kick to the head—a blow that sent the ex-champ into self-imposed exile. A year later, Rousey returned, only to be pulverized by Amanda Nunes, the future two-division champion. Rousey ended her fight career after that.

“The only thing that made me sad was how she left the sport,” Suarez says of Rousey. “She might not think she owes anybody anything, but I think for young women coming up into this sport and looking up to somebody, they should see that person show that losses aren’t going to break them in a way where they just disappear. … What if a little girl lost a match one day and Ronda Rousey had done this great interview about her loss and how she’s gonna be back or not let this loss define her? And maybe this young lady could have drawn some inspiration from it.”

Suarez seeks to inspire young women with her story. Maybe it could also inspire a few who have had cancer or another disease, or who have felt isolated, or lost a dream, or had to reinvent themselves without knowing quite where to start. Suarez’s story has the potential to reach so many people because it’s not just about one thing. Suarez’s experiences speak to the nonlinear nature of life and success. Her life has presented complex problems, but for Suarez, the solution is simple: Nothing can’t be solved by more gym time, another session, more sparring.

But the lesson isn’t that gym time or pushups are the best or only ways to face cancer or any other brand of adversity. Understanding oneself is the best base for any fight, no matter the enemy. Suarez knows her formula. The work fuels the talent, which fuels the confidence, which fuels everything else. The work is the panacea; it cures everything. That philosophy has yet to be proved wrong for her.

“I just think I’m the best in the world. That’s how I feel,” she says. “I knew that this was my second chance to be great, and yeah, I might not have gotten that gold medal, but I was gonna get a belt. And I’ve just been thinking about that ever since. This is the end game for me.”

Scott Harris covers MMA and other topics for Bleacher Report and CNN.