By this point in the hype cycle surrounding Saturday night's UFC 157, chances are you've learned much about headliner Liz Carmouche's status as a female fighter, her quest to become the first woman not to be armbarred by opponent Ronda Rousey, and a ton more about her status as the UFC's first openly-gay fighter.
But Carmouche (8-2-0) also can also check another box on her Equal Employment Opportunity profile: That of U.S. veteran. Carmouche's military service as a Marine makes her part of what Pew Research estimates is just one half of one percent of the U.S. population that has been on active military duty during the past decade. The Marine who completed her military service in 2009 and served three tours in Iraq tells SI.com how her time in camouflage helped prepare her for life as a professional fighter, and, conversely, how MMA eased her transition back into civilian life. She tells us what it means to do real grunt work, what the ban on women in combat meant for her military career and why she initially found her current profession "barbaric." Some of the content has been edited for clarity.
SI: Your father was in the Air Force and you grew up around military bases most of your life. What made you want to enlist in the Marines?
Carmouche: I kinda had an idea that I wanted to do it at a really young age. But I started working at a really young age -- like 12 or 13 -- and a lot of the work I did was on the base. I got to interact with all kinds of military personnel and each branch of the military and see what they're really like. I'd see their obstacle courses and they would do their physical fitness tests. I got to see all of it and listen to their stories. That's really how I started getting interested.
And then I thought that I could play soccer in the Air Force and get paid to do it. That was like, whoa, you can't beat that. I can play soccer and be in the military. That didn't work out. You had to be an officer to do what I was interested in doing. I couldn't focus on school long enough to stick it out.
SI: What were some of your jobs like in the military, especially those that have helped strengthen you in your MMA career?
LC: When I went to Iraq, I was the lowest person on the totem pole. If everyone else was inside and was relaxing, I was the one working for eight hours straight. [As an aircraft technician, I'd] have to clean out the aircraft. There's a lot of mud and, for lack of a better work, people shouldn't piss in the aircraft... You get stuck having to clean that up. And you're spraying down the aircraft with water but it all collects in one little compartment. So I always had to go and clean out everything that would collect in there. It was just one of the jobs I had to do on a regular basis... I was just getting the butt end of the deal of everything. [But] I didn't want to give in to anyone and let them defeat me so it pushed me and made me stronger... Those situations helped me grow as a person and helped me grow in my fighting career.
SI: The Pentagon last month lifted the official ban on women in combat. How did that restriction affect your military career?
LC: When I joined the Marine Corps, you have to do a vocational test to get in, and I took the test, they were like, 'You did great. You can do anything you want to do.'
I said, 'OK, I want to do this.'
'Except for that because you're a woman.'
'Uh, OK, well, OK, how about this?"
'Not that either.'
'OK, so what can I do?'
A lot of the jobs I wanted to do that were restricted when I joined I would be able to do now. I wanted to be a grunt. I wanted to do counterintelligence. I also wanted to do reconnaissance and do Special Forces.
SI: What would you say to people who believe women aren't physically capable of meeting the requirements of combat?
LC: I made sure that I worked out with [male counterparts] to do the same things they could to get in. At any point, if [the female combat ban was lifted], that I could do that. There are certainly women out there who push themselves physically to train and are capable of doing it. But I think some of the women who are out there doing it could maybe get by, just do the bare minimum and get by, and they won't succeed.
SI: Many service members, even The Shooter who killed Osama Bin Laden, discuss the difficulties in transitioning to civilian life. How did you manage?
LC: It was a little bit difficult because I really loved being a Marine. It was difficult stepping away from that because I like the structure that it provided. There's a certain safety net that you find in the military that, as dangerous as it is, you know they're going to provide you a meal and a home no matter what happens. And not knowing if I'll get another paycheck or if I'll find another job or if I'll still have a home to live in was kinda scary. And then not being able to relate to people because they weren't in the military and I didn't have any kind of social [life] whatsoever outside of the military. The transition into the gym is what made my life so much easier and connecting with those people made it easier than it would have been. If it wouldn't have been for that, I probably would have struggled and wouldn't be where I am today.
SI: What was your first exposure to MMA?
LC: When my contract with the military was done, then I started following MMA. And then two months after that I started going to school [for an associate's degree in kinesiology] and doing MMA. I do remember [watching my] first fight but I don't remember who it was. I just remember seeing lots of blood and being completely disgusted by it. At first I wouldn't even watch it. I refused. I thought everybody was barbaric for participating and watching it. I thought it was ridiculous people found entertainment in watching these people be in pain.
It wasn't until I started doing some of the workouts on my own and then watching later fights where I realized these were athletes with huge skill and great hearts participating in it rather than just street brawling.
SI: What was your first day of MMA training like?
LC: First, I went to the gym and said, 'Hey, I'm just interested in competing. I don't really have a background and I don't know anything but I'm just trying to get in shape.' I just wanted to say that I tried it, to have a check in the box. One thing off the bucket list to say I'd done it. If it works out great, if not it's OK. I'm just here just to see where it heads me in life.
The first day I went in to train... all these guys, they beat the crap out of me, busted my noise, my hair got pulled out. My clothing was ripped. I was tired and beaten. But I was smiling, loving every moment of it.
[After that] I took every single class they had the option, even if it was six hours straight. I kept doing that every single day and I've done it ever since.
SI: What did you learn in the Marines that's helped you in the cage?
LC: The mental and physical struggles that occurred in the military that I overcame. I think those helped me significantly. In comparison, going to Iraq or going to boot camp... having an experience that has made me stronger and that nothing can break me. That's what they do in boot camp. They spend three months trying to break your will and then rebuild you. I knew that if they couldn't break me, then no else could do it either.
SI: How has your life changed since the announcement of your fight with Rousey?
LC: The other day I was just teaching my class [at the gym where Carmouche both trains and teaches] and I was just hanging out by the door to the gym and two men came up to me, 'You're fighting on the 23rd.' I was like, 'Uh, yeah." And they're like 'I just want to say, good luck. You're going to do great. I just see it in your eyes.' And they just shook my hand. That's such a huge change. People come up out of nowhere and give me a hug and say congratulations and good luck.
SI: What does the first female fight in UFC history mean for women's sports in general?
LC: There are certainly moments when I sit back and look at the bigger picture and look at everything and realize this is a big deal. And the success of this fight -- I know no matter how it goes, it's going to be successful. I think a lot of people have doubts and they feel like we shouldn't be headlining but I feel like Ronda and I have done an excellent job of building hype for this fight to get people involved in our story... That's going to help propel women's sports and women's MMA into the future and help set it up for better things.
DOYLE: Liz Carmouche excels in the ring, battles homophobia out of it