MMA star Carmouche excels in the ring, battles homophobia out of it
The words, spoken in such a casual manner, sent chills down Liz Carmouche's spine.
As the daughter of an Air Force pilot and a rising star in mixed martial arts, the 28-year-old San Diego resident exudes toughness inside and out. But the statement made by her best friend in the Marine Corps, in a quiet moment during the Iraq War, still cut like a dagger.
"She said that if she ever met anybody that was homosexual, she'd put those f------ on the front line so they could be killed first, because they deserved to die," Carmouche recalled. "We were roommates from our first MOS [Military Occupational Specialty] school until I got out of the military. I was her go-to person."
Carmouche was already in deep denial of her lesbian identity while serving her country during the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" era. But if her closest friend (whom she only identifies as Kim), someone she trusted with her life, was saying such things, then she couldn't ever drop the facade while still enlisted.
"In one of my chains of command it was common terms to use the phrase 'You're acting like a f-----,' or 'f--- that f-----,'" said Carmouche. "That was just normal terminology. There was nothing positive in terms of anything homosexual. Anyone they suspected of being gay, they automatically treated as a scapegoat."
Carmouche rose to the rank of sergeant through three Iraq tours before leaving active duty at the end of 2009. But her military experience led to the decision she wasn't going to stay silent in future endeavors. Carmouche has stayed true to her vow as she has risen through the ranks of MMA's testosterone-fueled world, where she's making her name as a potential champion and the highest-profile openly gay fighter in a rough-and-tumble business.
Like many a Marine before her, Carmouche, who was raised off-base on the Japanese island of Okinawa, fell in love with San Diego while stationed at nearby Camp Pendleton. She became especially enthralled with San Diego's gay epicenter, Hillcrest. The neighborhood to the northwest of Balboa Park serves as the city's answer to San Francisco's Castro or Manhattan's Greenwich Village.
It was there that Carmouche, after a lifetime spent pretending she was someone she really wasn't, began to finally feel comfortable with who she was. Hillcrest started out as as her free-time escape and ended up her new home as she transitioned away from the Armed Forces.
"After I got to Camp Pendleton, I went to Hillcrest every chance I got," she said. "It was so completely different than anything I had ever experienced. After growing up in a military family and going to an Evangelical Christian school, to look around and see lesbians and gay men of all ages and colors living their lives openly, it was awesome."
At the same time she took her first tentative steps in the gay community, Carmouche was still trying to fill the void left by the end of her military service and a way to expend her restless energy.
"I always needed a physical outlet, this is always who I've been," Carmouche said. "Growing up I was always stronger than all the other kids. I wasn't allowed to play with the other girls because they were too weak. And I had to be careful with boys because I'd always be hitting them and I'd get into trouble for hurting them."
Southern California is a mixed martial arts hotbed, cutting a swath across the region from Los Angeles' South Bay area, where Gracie family jiu-jitsu is deeply ingrained in the culture; to Orange County, home to Ultimate Fighting Championship stars like Michael Bisping, Fabricio Werdum and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson; to the Inland Empire, where Dan Henderson's Team Quest reigns supreme.
San Diego holds its own, with the likes of UFC bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz and women's star Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos.
Into that mix, the two-year-old San Diego Combat Academy has made its name. Crammed into a former auto transmission shop just off the intersection of Interstates 8 and 805, it is a no-frills facility. In its brief existence, the Combat Academy has morphed into the little gym that could. Led by the team's spiritual guru, the grizzled-but-affable Manolo "Hurricane" Hernandez, SDCA has already placed two competitors, Alex Soto and Walel Watson, in the industry-leading UFC.
Carmouche stepped into this no-nonsense, working-class environment and found what she was looking for. Sitting inside the gym's caged fighting surface on a scorching afternoon this summer, she recalled her introduction to a new world.
"I was like, 'I can't afford these MMA gyms, they're so expensive, there's no way I can do that,'" she said. "I walked in and I was like, 'I'd like to compete. I don't know if this is something I can do, but I'd like to check off that box, just to say I tried it. If it goes nowhere, at least I tried it."
A famous Mike Tyson quotation declares that everyone has a plan until someone punches them in the face. Carmouche passed her "Tyson test" with flying colors in her first real sparring session just a month after she started training.
"I got nailed solid in the nose, and there was this gushing blood, it was covering my whole shirt," she said. "I was like, 'No, no, I'm fine! I'm fine!' [Hernandez] was like, 'No, you're bleeding all over everyone else.' Come out [of the cage].' And I came out with just blood everywhere and I was smiling, like 'This is great, I'm hooked!'"
With Carmouche's bloody initiation out of the way, two overlapping trends began to emerge: One, she had quite a bit of raw potential as a fighter. Two, her days in the closet were rapidly coming to an end.
While Carmouche learned the ins and out of the fight game, Hernandez tried to get a read on his newest recruit. Hernandez said he had an inkling Carmouche was gay from the get-go and didn't care either way.
"C'mon man, I knew she was lesbian," he said. "She just wasn't saying it at the time. We got all walks of life here. We've got guys who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, we've got computer nerds with college degrees, we've got white, black, yellow and brown. I don't care if you're gay or if you're straight. If you're part of my team, you're part of the family."
"Manny was fishing for it," Carmouche said. "He was like, 'Hey, what do you think of that chick?' I was like, 'Ummm.' He'd always make comments like that, trying to get me to say something. But at the time, I was on what's called terminal leave from the Marine Corps. At any moment I knew they could call me back in for any reason. So I just didn't say anything."
When Carmouche was free and clear from her Marines obligations, she finally let the cat out of the bag.
Although Carmouche had no formal jiu-jitsu background, she won her first professional bout in May 2010 at a local casino with an armbar. Four weeks later, in a Tijuana auditorium, she pummeled her foe with such vigor, the ringside doctor waived off the fight. Before the year was out, she was in the big leagues of women's MMA, Strikeforce, where she knocked out Jan Finney, a veteran of 17 fights.
"The Girl-Rilla" was born.
"To me, fighting in Strikeforce was a dream, like saying 'I want to be an astronaut and go to the moon,' Carmouche said. "You don't think that it's actually is going to happen, you just wish it. I honestly thought at best I'd have one fight, an exhibition fight, just to do it. Little did I know, five months later, I'd have my first official fight. Then two months after that I'd be in Strikeforce. Never thought it would happen."
Carmouche was at a belated Valentine's Day feast when her big career break came.
"I went all out," Carmouche said. "I made steak, mashed potatoes, garlic bread, desert, everything. My cell phone rings and it's Manny. He says 'What are you eating, are you eating good? 'Cause they want you to fight for the title in 10 days.' At first I thought it was a joke, but when I realized he was serious, well, I kind of lied about what I was eating, and wolfed down my dinner, then I went straight into training camp mode."
Carmouche was asked to step in on short notice for injured challenger Miesha Tate and meet Strikeforce's then-bantamweight champion, Marloes Coenen, in Columbus. Coenen, a Netherlands native and jiu-jitsu brown belt, had fought the world over during a career that dated to 2000.
"At first I thought there's no way anything good is going to come out of this," Carmouche said. "But it was also like, Hey, I'll run with this, try it, and see where I'm at."
The upstart nearly pulled off the upset on March 5, 2011. Carmouche battered Coenen for much of the first three rounds during a scheduled five-round fight. In the fourth, Coenen capitalized on a brief lapse, caught Coenen in a triangle choke, and pulled out the victory.
In the locker room afterwards, though, Carmouche and Hernandez were far from a picture of defeat.
"To go out there and dominate her for four rounds, it was like, 'Wow, maybe I actually am a good fighter,'" said Carmouche. "Maybe I deserve to be here. I was bummed out that I lost, but I couldn't get too upset with myself. Sometimes I'll be dragging my head after a win because I was dissatisfied with my performance, but after this fight we were like yeah, woohoo."
Tone it down, the potential sponsor told Carmouche. It's cool that you're gay, but you don't need to be so over the top about it. It wasn't the first or last time Carmouche has heard such words.
Fighters can significantly augment their income through sponsorships. At the top of the sport's food chain, Silva appears in Burger King commercials, Georges St-Pierre has vouched for Gatorade, and Jon Jones is endorsed by Nike.
For rank-and-file competitors, sponsors are usually companies within the MMA market that hawk everything from equipment to clothing. The money made from renting ad space on fight shorts or wearing a sponsor's T-shirt after the bout in front of the TV cameras can have a significant impact on fighter's bottom line.
While Carmouche isn't the only openly gay fighter, she's by far the most high-profile. But she isn't about to sacrifice her principles at this stage of the game -- not when she's just become comfortable with her true identity after a lifetime spent hiding it.
"If I still don't have sponsors, if it's because of me being honest with myself, and that's why I lost a sponsorship, then that's fine," she said. "I'll not make $100, $1,000, $10,000 or more because I was true to myself through all this, rather than lying and being something they want me to be. That's fine.
"I've absolutely gotten to the point in my life where I've been through so much and had to be closeted, there's no amount of money that's going to make me go back in the closet. If they say, 'OK, you gotta tone it down and then we'll pay you,' then you have the wrong person."
Sponsorship has been the one area of the business in which Carmouche has most directly felt the sting of homophobia. But if anyone on MMA's promotional end has issues with her sexuality, it's news to her.
UFC president Dana White caused controversy in 2009 when he used a homosexual slur in the middle of a profane rant while shooting a personal video blog. White apologized for the incident, and since then UFC parent corporation Zuffa has reached out to the LGBT community, including making a sizable donation to the building of a new gay and lesbian center in the company's hometown of Las Vegas.
White recently told a Fuel TV reporter that he considers using the "F-word" his biggest mistake in his 12 years running the company.
"You guys have to understand this, but this is the way I am. I live with no regrets," he said. "The only thing I regret is that video blog when I used the F-word. That's the only thing in 12 years of running the UFC. The way I came off in that thing, people still think I'm some kind of homophobe, and I'm not. That still bothers me."
While the MMA scene is by and large a conservative atmosphere, White's world -- including Strikeforce, which is owned by Zuffa but run as a separate brand -- has an unmistakable libertarian tinge. If you can fight, regardless of your life's circumstances, you'll get an opportunity.
"I honestly don't think he cares, it doesn't matter to him," Carmouche said. "He wants a fighter who goes out and fights and that's the biggest thing for him. I don't think he cares if you're gay, straight, bi, black, white, Asian, doesn't matter to him. He just wants a fighter who isn't afraid to fight and who brings in tickets."
The proof comes in Carmouche's promotional push. Her next Strikeforce bout is her most high-profile event since her title shot against Coenen, as she'll face 2004 Olympic wrestling silver medalist Sara McMann, who is unbeaten in six pro MMA fights.
The match will be featured on Showtime's main broadcast on Nov. 3 in Oklahoma City. The winner is expected to emerge as a leading contender for bantamweight champion and crossover star Ronda Rousey.
"In Strikeforce, any time I've dealt with someone in the office, it's been, 'Hey, whatever makes you happy, if that's who you are, we don't care," Carmouche said. "If the fighter you go up against is a homophobe, that's their problem. I've never, ever gotten the feeling they were holding me back because I'm gay."
As for McMann, the fact she's going to fight a gay opponent is something that barely even registered. "Its just not that big of a deal in women's MMA," said McMann. "Same with my experiences in wrestling. It's not like I'm not going to accept a fight with someone just because she happens to be lesbian. That thought would never even cross my mind."
Still, McMann says a gay male fighter would face a tougher road.
"It's not fair, but that's just how it is," said McMann. "That's just how society is. It's OK for a girl to be gay in MMA but not a guy. The first gay male fighter is going to have to be someone with a little of courage."
Carmouche agrees, saying, "It's a double standard, but it's there. I mean, look, a straight guy might think being lesbian is 'wrong,' but they still think it's kind of cool. But, I mean, what happens if a gay guy walks into a gym somewhere in the Midwest or the South? Even here, in a place as open-minded in California, sometimes you hear 'I'd never grapple with a gay guy, what if it turns him on?'"
Watson, her SDCA teammate, backs her up. "We're out here in California, where people are accepting," said Watson, a former star high school football wide receiver from Escondido. "But you leave here, and I mean, there are times when I'm traveling and, as a black man, I'm shocked that there's still racism in 2012. So, unfortunately, it goes without saying that those type of ignorant attitudes include gay people too. All I know is Liz is my sister, and if someone gives her a problem, they've got a problem with me."
Maybe Carmouche's success in the sport will help change those attitudes. If that seems farfetched, consider that, as Carmouche hears it, things truly have changed in the military since the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." During her time in the Marines, Carmouche couldn't have conceived of the notion of being seen in public with a same-sex partner, but now it's a regular occurrence.
"I've heard of couples being on base," Carmouche said. "More so in the Navy and the Army [than the Marines]. They'll actually go to the grocery store and hold hands. On base that was something you would never do. It wasn't safe to go out with your significant other, much less hold hands with them. I see pictures and news stories of people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and being able to embrace their significant other. It's definitely changed a lot."
While Carmouche is too modest to credit people like herself and her experiences for helping to force the federal government's change in policy on gay and lesbian soldiers, her fellow former military comrades are willing to do it for her.
UFC star Brian Stann, a top middleweight contender, was a Marine Corps captain who was awarded the Silver Star for heroism during a 2005 firefight in Kabilah, Iraq. As an officer responsible for enlisted folks' well-being, Stann was sensitive to the challenges servicewomen like Carmouche faced.
"It had to be doubly tough for her," Stann said. "The first thing is, as much as the military strives for equality, it isn't a 50/50 proposition out there. It's not like anywhere near half the Marine Corps is women. And then, add in what she had to go through in her personal life, I can't even imagine that pressure."
"Having gay people in the military isn't something that bothered me, but not everyone was like that. It took the courage of people like Liz, people who showed their love of service to their country despite the presence of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' to help finally force the end of the policy."
If nothing else, Carmouche helped open one person's mind. After leaving the military, she looped back to her military friend Kim and reminded her about her comment back in Iraq.
"I decided to tell her," Carmouche said. "I wanted her to know. I was blunt about it. I said, 'Hey, I'm one of those f-----s you wanted killed,' and she did a total 180. She told me she loved me and would never, ever want to see me get hurt. To this day when she talks, she thanks me for changing her views on gay people and says she can't even imagine she ever used to think like that."