It was time to let it go, Miesha Tate thought, as she and her boyfriend, Bryan Caraway, made one of the their regular drives from Yakima to Tri-Cities, Wash., this time last year.
Just days earlier, Tate (13-4) had scored a come-from-behind, third-round submission win over Julie Kedzie in Strikeforce. The UFC was still three months away from signing Ronda Rousey (7-0) and promoting women's fights, but all signs pointed in that direction. It was a given that Tate, Rousey's arch rival, would be a part of this historic shift -- it was one of the biggest female fights the UFC could make. Tate's future was looking especially bright. So, why was she so unhappy?
For the last year, Tate had been harboring anger and jealousy toward Rousey, whose meteoric rise in MMA had surpassed even that of Gina Carano. Rousey, a 2008 Olympic judo bronze medalist, had submitted Tate with a first-round armbar to win Strikeforce's women's bantamweight title less than six months earlier. Now, this talented, brash beauty was the sport's "It girl," celebrated on too many magazine covers and in too many television appearances to keep count. However, the spotlight only seemed big enough for Rousey, who'd had a much shorter tenure in the sport than most of her peers. Tate was the runner-up, but there was no room for her on the podium.
"I felt emotionally and mentally that the passion I'd had for the sport wasn't there anymore," said the 27-year-old Tate. "I felt very empty." She was even contemplating taking a break from MMA altogether to regroup, and try to rebuld the fire.
There was another option, but it would require Tate to face one of the tougher challenges of the human condition. Tate would have to stop feeling like a victim and start acting like the hero she knew she could be. She would have to accept that life is sometimes unfair, even in the fight game.
"I felt like after Ronda won, that the UFC decided to get behind her and promote the heck out of her," said Tate. "But the two of us together set the tone and changed [UFC President] Dana White's opinion on women's MMA. It takes two to tango, and even though I was on the losing end, I felt I'd put my heart out there and had done everything I could. It stings a little bit more when you are the loser and see the winner take off and flourish, basically off your defeat. I watched her get all the glory when I thought it was equal parts that went into it, maybe even me more so, because I'd put more time into the sport."
Tate also felt that a good portion of Rousey's fanfare had come at her and Caraway's expense. In the months surrounding their March title bout, the fighting couple, with limited provocation, had become the targets of the outspoken Rousey's vitriol. Rousey mocked their relationship, often calling Caraway "Mr. Tate" when his girlfriend stuck up for him. Rousey openly speculated about the couple's sex life. She suggested that Caraway, who also served as Tate's longtime coach, had an unhealthy control over his girlfriend.
Before Rousey, things had been different for Tate and Caraway. Their relationship had been different. They'd met six years before and followed their shared dream to become professional fighters, supporting one another and sacrificing together every step of the way. Now Rousey seemed to permeate every aspect of their lives.
Tate couldn't even log onto the Internet without fans flooding her through social media with Rousey's latest comments about her and Caraway. At home, Tate and Caraway's conversation would inevitably turn to Rousey's latest escapade, like ringing the NASDAQ opening bell and flying around in private jets to late-night talk show appearances or celebrity parties. Just as frustrated as his girlfriend, Caraway would ask why Tate hadn't gotten this treatment when she'd been the champion? The couple had even taken to calling Rousey's fans "Rondabots" to create some levity, but the negativity was taking its toll on the both of them, especially on Tate. Caraway said the bubbly, charming and fun-loving girl he'd first met, the one who'd loved MMA more than life itself, was fading away.
"I saw a big change [in Meisha] and it wasn't just about Ronda," said Caraway. "She'd lost her world title. She was a completely different person after the fight. She was depressed, in denial, angry. Ronda was so brash and unsportsmanlike and she was being rewarded for it. I think it made Miesha feel a little disgusted with MMA and that the sport had turned its back on her for a little while."
So, on that car ride to Tri-Cities, Tate turned to the man who was her boyfriend, coach and confidante and asked him a pivotal question that had been stirring around in her head for months. Should she use all of this fury toward Rousey to fuel her road back to a rematch or should she let it all go? Together, they chose the latter.
"I wanted him to support my decision, but I also wanted him to do the same, so we no longer dwelled on it as a couple," said Tate.
In that moment, Caraway and Tate made up a little mantra that they would share just between the two of them. They would strive to be better, not bitter.
"It was pretty much like an instantaneous change," said Tate. "I felt like we literally had this moment. And it's crazy, because you don't realize how much those kind of things will weigh on you when you're faced with it every single day."
In the months that followed, the ill feelings gave way to a constructive energy that they poured into their crafts. They found gratefulness for what they'd already both achieved in their careers. And though they didn't like the way Rousey had treated them or the way she carried herself, out of Tate and Caraway's animosity grew a certain admiration for and celebration of Rousey's achievements.
"She brought women's MMA to the forefront and although I know she didn't do it for me, I benefited from it," said Tate. "Without her, I realized I wouldn't be as far in my career, because that fight wouldn't have happened, and who knows if Dana White would have ever noticed women's MMA?"
With a new outlook, it didn't take long for opportunities to come Tate's way. She lost a contender's bout to Cat Zingano in April and with it the opportunity to face Rousey in a rematch in December. But this time she took the loss in stride. She'd done her best against the tough-as-nails Zingano and had never felt better about herself in the cage. And within the month, Tate was in White's office, hashing out a deal to replace Zingano, now in need of knee surgery, as the coach opposite Rousey on The Ultimate Fighter 18.
"I felt like it was a good karma that came around. I felt like God tested me with that loss, to see if I'd get angry again and lose focus," Tate said. "It really felt like it was meant to be. I felt it was my destiny to coach opposite Ronda."
Tate's destiny plays out Wednesday on Fox Sports 1, when Tate and Rousey become the first-ever female coaches to steer co-ed teams and, hopefully, infuse some new energy the long running, but exhausted reality series. FS1 producers, who got an early Christmas gift with the UFC's astounding live-event ratings (1.7 million viewers) on its launch night, are banking on the Rousey-Tate rivalry to attract a healthy audience. Viewers will feel plenty of tension between the two women, but it might not manifest itself in the same way that it has in the past. In short, Rousey's tricks might not work on Tate this time around.
"It was frustrating for her because she wasn't used to not being able to get a reaction out of me the way she had," said Tate. "In [the build-up] to our last fight, I'd felt out of my element. I was emotional and angry, and she knew all the things to do to make me feel that way. That was my fault. I allowed her to do that, but I didn't make that mistake again."
Tate said Rousey's attempts at intimidation fell on (mostly) deaf ears, with friendly smiles, and the occasional air kiss blown her way. And just like that, Tate felt she'd taken one of Rousey's most effective weapons away from her.
"I think that really boils down to some kind of insecurity on her part. Everybody sees Ronda Rousey as the big bada-- UFC champion chick. Don't get me wrong: she's awesome, but she's not Superwoman," said Tate. "She showed her true colors, and people are going to see that. She's a very emotionally charged person, and with her and me around each other all day, she wasn't able to conceal it that long. You could tell she was bursting at the seams. She was very angry all of the time. "
Rousey's worried anticipation of the show's Wednesday debut only seems to support Tate's perception of what happened during the six-week shoot in Las Vegas.
"She was difficult to work with, not just with myself, but with the people trying to make the show possible," said Tate. "She's not nice in a lot of ways. There's no way around that. They'd literally have to cut all of her interactions with me and cut her out of the show to portray her any differently. I think she knows that and is embarrassed by it now."
Tate admits she wasn't a total angel on set herself at times. Even the newly-enlightened Tate had her moments with Rousey, especially when the UFC champion tried to entice Tate's assistant coach, Caraway, into some confrontations. But, overall, said Tate, she tried to stay true to the woman she'd lost a year ago and had now found again.
"I don't like being unhappy. I don't like being upset everyday. I don't like being bitter and jealous -- those are emotions that I wouldn't typically describe myself as [having]," said Tate. "It was really nice to feel like I'd finally gotten back to being Miesha, not the Miesha that allowed Ronda to manipulate her. I was just so happy after being so angry for so long."
While Rousey has been in Bulgaria this week, shooting a sizable role in Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables 3, Tate has taken the brunt of TUF's publicity obligations for a change. She's been cheery and charming, yet doesn't sugarcoat her polite disdain for Rousey.
"I'd rather get along with my opponents, but I really don't like the way she comes off to me. She makes it impossible for me to like her," said Tate. "[But] if she wasn't a part of my life, I don't know where I'd be today. I wouldn't have gotten to do The Ultimate Fighter. I might not be in the UFC. There are a lot of things that I have to appreciate with her in my life. Personally, she's difficult to deal with, but I do have an appreciation for our rivalry."
This evolving rivalry will fuel the Rousey-Tate rematch at UFC 168 on Dec. 28 in Las Vegas, where at least one of the two fighters will enter the Octagon in a different frame of mind.
"The more things that Ronda does means the more things that I can do," said Tate. "If she's filming The Expendables, why can't I go do a film? She's opening doors and I feel like I'm right on her heels. Hopefully, I pray to God -- and I'm going to train my a-- off -- that I win. Then, those opportunities will open up to me, too."