Miesha Tate’s introduction to Mixed Martial Arts was a one-night-only tournament in Evansville, Ind., the HOOKnSHOOT – BodogFIGHT 2007 Women’s Grand Prix. Her first opponent was Jan Finney, a rugged competitor desperate to snap a three-fight losing streak. For Tate this was the payoff for competing among boys on her high school wrestling team, and in 2005 winning the women’s Washington state championship and nationals at the World Team Trials at 158 pounds. Two years after joining an MMA club at Central Washington University run by her future trainer and boyfriend, WEC featherweight Bryan Caraway, her total athletic skills and mental capacity were about to be put through a gauntlet.
Little did Tate realize her body would be mistreated and emotions played like a yo-yo. It was bad enough she cut too much weight. Finney pushed her for three full, hard rounds, but Tate figured she had done enough to advance. Instead, the judges, working a show not sanctioned by an athletic commission, were more indecisive than a hung jury. The fighters were forced to compete in a fourth round. The three at ringside, still undecided, named Tate the winner, and Tate retreated to the locker room to cool down and ice a leg smarting from Finney’s kicks.
About 25 minutes later, she was told it was time for a next fight. This wasn’t scripted. It was an organization working on the fly without a GPS.
“It was a real sour experience,” Tate told Heavy.com, three nights before she’ll have to participate in another tournament at Strikeforce Challengers 10.
That next fight didn’t turn out so well either. Kaitlin Young, fresh from a 22-second dismantling of neophyte Suzy Smith, knocked Tate out with a head kick in 30 seconds. Even after a stunning defeat, Tate took something away from perhaps the most disorganized, confusing and incompetent experience of her athletic career. Yeah, she lost, but she left believing tournaments aren’t necessarily a true testament of who is better
“It’s about matchups and who gets lucky or dependant on their strengths versus their opponents’ strengths or weaknesses, so it’s kind of hard to gauge,” Tate said. “It’s not necessarily true. Katlin’s fight was only 22 seconds long because she got a girl who never fought before and mine was four, grueling rounds against a very tough opponent.”
Besides wiser and better, Tate a rising sensation with the taste of a title shot teasing the tip of her tongue. “Takedown” (9-2) will fight Maiju Kujala in the opening round of Strikeforce’s 135-pound women’s tournament Friday in Phoenix with the winner assured a shot at the welterweight champion. Her opponent wasn’t decided until Thursday’s weight-in via a random draw, which leaves her plugging in one of three separate game plans formulated over the past month. Strikeforce also added a change to the tournament. The first fight will be two, three-minute rounds. Even if the rounds are split, a winner will still be named based on overall aggression, yet another unique experience in a competitive life spent thinking beyond the box.
“I had three people to try to memorize a goal and make it instinctual on how I want to go beating them,” Tate said. “That helps me achieve a goal. When you’re in a tournament you have to train to be the best you can be.”
If Tate wins twice Friday night, she’s assured a shot at the winner of the fight between champion Sarah Kaufman and No. 1 contender Marloes Coenen later this year. Potentially two fights from being a world champion, Tate is aware of the destination, an advantage not too many can enjoy. The unknown is exactly how – or if – she gets there.
“You have to go into it with an extremely strong mindset,” Tate said. “Most of the time, win or lose you’re done and you get to come down off of that high right afterward. In a tournament, if you win you have to keep your mental state level. That’s hard to do because naturally your body is like an adrenaline dump, you feel like you should be coming down but you can’t let yourself do that. You have to keep the engine running and ready to go again.”
Tate, 23, last competed in March when she submitted Zoila Frausto with an armbar 4:09 into the second round, and carries a three-fight win streak and 8-1 record in her last night bouts. Her last loss came, ironically, against Kaufman last May, but it was the first time anyone had taken the undefeated future champion to a decision. Kaufman will be in Phoenix Friday night to watch her potential future opponent. Both Carina Damm and Maiju Kujala will make their Strikeforce debut. Hitomi Akano competed for Strikeforce in April 2009 on the undercard of Frank Shamrock vs. Nick Diaz, where she was a TKO victim of Cris Cyborg.
“She’s definitely known as a wrestler,” Kaufman said of Tate. “I think all the girls will use their wrestling but I think Miesha especially will use the entire cage and angle for the takedown, and try to get a finish and control from the ground.”
What happens next is beyond Tate’s control. Even if she wins, another TBD will add stress to her training and hype machine amid projections of Tate becoming the nominal “Face of women’s MMA.” Tate is aware of the expectations, but is prepared to accept them, and that’s a long way from a painful night in Evansville.
“I’m not to be the next anybody,” she said with confidence. “I’m out to be the first Miesha Tate.”
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