Miesha Tate was down on the scorecards with little more than two minutes remaining in the fifth and final round of her championship fight with Holly Holm at UFC 196.
The perennial runner-up, who served as Ronda Rousey’s rival when the former Olympian kicked in the door of the MMA world and ushered women into the Octagon, seemed destined to again come up short, as Holm sticking to her stick-and-move approach, playing keep-away with her body, knowing Tate needed a miracle in order to alter the ending that was being written.
“Let’s not get it twisted,” began Eric Nicksick, the current head coach at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas, who was the second-in-command behind the late Robert Follis when Tate faced off with Holm on March 5, 2016. “She needed a Hail Mary, she needed a finish, and I think that’s a testament to her self-belief because if there is still time on the clock, she knows that she has the opportunity to find a way to win.”
With two minutes remaining, Tate timed a level change and got in on Holm’s waist, dragging her to the canvas, working to keep her grounded as the seconds ticked away. Holm tried to extricate herself from the entanglement, but Tate stayed with her, climbing onto her back and fishing her right forearm under the champion’s chin as she rose to her feet.
Holm tried to dump Tate off over the top, but the challenger remained stuck to her like super-glue, the choke sinking deeper and her squeeze tightening as Holm reflexively punched the air as she slipped into unconsciousness.
Comeback complete; Miesha Tate was the UFC women’s bantamweight champion.
Nine months later, she stood in the center of the Octagon inside Madison Square Garden, having just suffered a second straight defeat, and announced her retirement.
“Fear is a great motivator, and I think every fighter experiences fear on some level, but when you have deep-seeded insecurities, that’s something a little more poisonous to your dreams and goals,” Tate stated, retracing the path that led to her abrupt departure from the sport just a few days prior to making her return against Marion Reneau this weekend in Las Vegas. “I realized that as confident as I thought that I was and was maybe perceived as being, I really did have some really big insecurities in that I didn’t know what to do if I wasn’t a fighter and who else I was; it was completely how I identified myself.
“There came a point that I felt very stuck — that this was all I knew, that this was all I could do, all I could be, and I couldn’t see any further than that.
“When I reached a breaking point in my personal life, and being in a dark place, dealing with some moments of depression, I realized I had to jump into the deep end and see if I could swim, which led to the retirement,” continued the former champion, who has spoken candidly about the her nine-year relationship with fellow fighter Bryan Caraway that became increasingly abusive and toxic over time. “It was a very scary moment because I didn’t know what else there was, but I had to figure it out.”
After ending things with Caraway and pulling the plug on her fighting career, Tate worked as an analyst for the UFC and started a relationship with fellow fighter Johnny Nunez. She gave birth to their first child in June 2018, and five months later, she accepted a role as Vice President of ONE Championship, a mixed martial arts promotion based in Singapore, relocating to the Southeast Asian city-state.
“I think she needed to clear the slate,” said Nicksick, who was sad to see his friends move halfway around the world, but knew it was exactly what Tate needed at the time. “Just get the **** out of here, and be away from the bull****.”
Retirements in mixed martial arts (and combat sports in general) don’t always take, but Tate’s seemed permanent. There were no whispers of a potential return as continued working for ONE Championship, building a life with Nunez and their daughter, living abroad.
She still trained, but not with the same ferocity and intensity as she did during her fight career, and dropped in to Xtreme Couture whenever she returned Stateside and made her way to Las Vegas.
But when the pandemic hit last year and everything shut down, Tate, who was toward the end of her second pregnancy, started getting the itch to return.
“There couldn’t have been more that had changed,” she told OSDB Sports recently with a laugh, reflecting on the myriad positive shifts that have occurred in her life since she last stepped into the Octagon. “I had walked away from the sport, I had met the man of my dreams, I started a family, had two children.
“When the pandemic hit and the sport was completely taken away from me — there were no live events, I couldn’t grapple, I couldn’t train, I couldn’t even watch live sporting events — it made me realize how much I loved and actually missed it.
“I don’t think I was aware of that when it was there within reach,” she added. “When it was out of reach, it became, ‘I really miss this.’”
“She Trojan horse’d this whole thing on me,” spat Nicksick, faking annoyance and frustration, chasing his words with a laugh as he recalled how Tate worked around to informing him of her decision to return to the Octagon.
She and Nunez had moved back to Las Vegas, now the parents of two youngsters, and her appearances in the gym became increasingly frequent, the intensity ratcheting up to a level that caught the affable head coach by surprise. A few weeks later, Tate asked Nicksick to come into the office and she filled him in on her itch to return, knowing he would be direct and honest with her if he didn’t think it was a good idea.
Nicksick was on board and once Tate was certain she could physically handle a return to preparing for a fight, she dove headfirst into an extended training camp.
“She looks like she’s having fun,” Nicksick said of his charge, whom he’ll lead into battle this weekend at the UFC APEX. “This is not a job to her anymore — she wants to be there, she wants to be in the gym.
“The environment at Xtreme Couture is very contagious — you have Brandon Moreno, you have Aljamain Sterling, you have Francis Ngannou; all these guys doing great work and it resonates. She was the one giving off those vibes and that energy in 2015, 2016, and everyone was feeding off her, and it’s rubbing off on her. You can just see it in her face when she comes into the room — she just really enjoys being there and learning and training.”
For the 34-year-old Tate, who carries an 18-7 record into the clash with Reneau, which serves as the co-main event of Saturday’s 11-fight slate, returning to the cage and fighting again isn’t about getting back to the heights she’s previously reached — it’s about surpassing them, but with a twist.
“There hasn’t been once this camp where I’ve said I want to get back to where I was because I don’t — I want to get better than I was,” said the fired-up returning fighter, who has taken to describing herself and this adventure as “Tate 2.0.”
“I don’t want to go back to where I was — I don’t want to get back to that shape, I don’t want to get back to that fighter because I believe wholeheartedly that I can be better. The past is an experience, I learned from it, and now I’m going to do better because I am better than that.
“I am a woman on a mission; I’m not going to lie,” said Tate when asked about how she will define success this time around. “I’m not getting back into this for any reason other than to be the best, however, I don’t feel the pressure that that is all that I have and all that I’m worth and all that matters because that’s not true.
“There is so much more in life and to life that if I put my best foot forward and give 100 percent and I’ve invested in myself, bust my butt, and I eat perfectly and train hard and do all the right things and I get caught, then so be it — I’m still going to go home and kiss my beautiful children and thank God for my amazing family and the life that I have because all I can do is be the best version of myself.”
And after walking away unsure of how to identify herself as anything other than through her fighting career, she’s returning as Miesha Tate, a woman who contains multitudes and is many things, including a fighter.
Four years, eight months, and six days — that’s how long it will have been since Tate last fought when she crosses the threshold and steps into the Octagon to face Reneau on Saturday night.
Despite her extended absence, she’s returning to a division that still looks rather familiar to the one she left behind following her loss on New York City.
“Amanda is still the champion,” Tate said, referring to Amanda Nunes, who defeated her for the bantamweight title in the main event of UFC 200 and has continued to rule the division ever since. “I lost to her and she’s stayed the champion, so not a lot has changed.”
In addition to “The Lioness” continuing to sit atop the division, there are several other familiar names still stationed inside the Top 15, including Holm (No. 2) and Sara McMann (No. 8), both of whom Tate has previously defeated, and her close friend, Julianna Pena (No. 6), who is set to face Nunes for the bantamweight title next month at UFC 265 in Houston.
“Time away is not such a bad thing,” laughed Tate, who is clearly in a much better place as she readies to return than she was when she walked away towards the end of 2016. “I feel like there is new blood in the division and I consider myself part of that new blood because I’ve been gone for enough time now that things have changed, the sport has evolved, but so have I.”
Her head coach agrees.
“I think this is a great litmus test for her,” said Nicksick, who has helped guide Ngannou to the top of the heavyweight division and stands at the vanguard of a surge of new names in the coaching ranks carving out a lane for themselves, alongside Tyson Chartier of the New England Cartel and Fortis MMA’s Sayif Saud. “I think this is really good matchmaking at that perfect test for her to really know where she’s at.
“You start looking at the Top 15, she belongs with the top seven or eight names,” he added. “You go out and get an impressive win over Marion Reneau and you start looking up that ladder at maybe an (Irene) Aldana or a Yana (Kunitskaya); maybe try to get a win there and that could catapult her right back into that title conversation.
“She’s locked in for this and she’s dead-serious about making a run at this.”
A few days out, Tate is completely at ease; eager to feel the canvas under her feet again and show that she is an instant threat in the 135-pound weight class, but comfortable with however this fight, and ultimately her comeback, plays out, knowing she’s in a much better place now and ready to put her best foot forward on Saturday night.
“I literally feel no pressure, but I feel like I absolutely can be and will be the best,” Tate said, her tone remaining measured, her voice steady. She’s not trying to convince herself or me; she’s just stating the facts as she sees them. “I believe already that I am championship material and I want to show that.
“I have big aspirations and big goals and big dreams, but life is crazy, nothing is guaranteed and I can live with that. I can live with putting my best foot forward and failing. What I’m not okay with is not putting the best version of myself out there, and that’s why I retired is because I knew I wasn’t and I was failing.
“That’s a bigger failure to me than a loss is when you do put your best foot forward and it doesn’t work out.”
More than five years after orchestrating an improbable comeback to claim the bantamweight title at UFC 196, Tate is set to conduct another comeback this weekend, one that seemed equally unlikely when she retired nine months after registering the biggest win of her career, but that makes all the sense in the world now.
“I’m rejuvenated and my mind is so much more powerful and connected to my body in a way that I never understood before and that makes all the difference,” she said in closing. “I’m so much more sound in every way — physically sound, mentally sound, emotionally sound — and when all those things are in harmony, I think we’re going to see the best version of myself.”