UFC 196 on March 5 in Las Vegas featured a rarity, a non-title headliner billed over a championship fight. Featherweight titleholder Conor McGregor and late replacement Nate Diaz put on an unruly main event that was magnetic enough to breeze past a million pay-per-view buys.
The attention they garnered benefitted the co-main event between women’s bantamweight champion Holly Holm and Miesha Tate. Their mutual admiration did not make for the hot ticket the Ultimate Fighting Championship typically peddles. Yet in a fight where there were actual title stakes, Tate’s dramatic come-from-behind rear-naked choke submission was a turning point for women’s MMA in the UFC. The division had not seen the coronation of a true pioneer before. Holm and Ronda Rousey were ready-made undefeated champions, Tate their gritty foil. Her win served as a reminder that championships take on greater meaning when fans witness years of investment pay off like they did for Tate.
Tate entered the sport 10 years ago, long before MMA seemed like a viable option for women. Her first appearance on a main card for a major promotion came at a Strikeforce Challengers event in May 2009. It was a different time. California would only sanction women’s fights for three three-minute rounds. Strikeforce committed to Tate’s star potential, leading up to a come-from-behind submission win over then-titleholder Marloes Coenen in the championship rounds of their 2011 showdown. Sound familiar? Despite losing the Strikeforce belt to Rousey, Tate’s popularity continued to pick up steam through a “Fight of the Night” defeat to Cat Zingano in her April 2013 UFC debut.
From there, Tate’s career arc took a critical swerve. A Zingano knee injury put her on the shelf and delayed her planned bout with Rousey for the UFC women’s bantamweight crown. Tate filled the void and coached opposite Rousey on Season 18 of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Regardless of the TV time benefits, the fact remained that Tate was on the rebound from a TKO loss. She had no momentum, especially in the eyes of the UFC audience, which may not have seen her ascent in Strikeforce. Tate submitted to another Rousey armbar at UFC 168 in December 2013. She had begun her UFC career 0-2 and had already lost twice to the reigning champion. Many wondered if Tate would ever get another crack at UFC gold.
It’s easy to see why Tate fought Holm like it was her final hope. It could have been. The UFC had treated her like an afterthought during a four-fight winning streak that eventually allowed her to build a case for another shot at the championship. Her UFC on Fox 16 encounter with Jessica Eye was billed as a title eliminator. After she beat Eye, Tate claimed the UFC rescinded the opportunity without ever contacting her directly. She considered it “offensive” to be counted out, in response to UFC President Dana White’s comments that a third loss to Rousey would be a “career killer.” Her career in limbo, Tate publically contemplated retirement. White during a segment on Submission Radio seemed to encourage her to pursue the idea.
Those who dismissed Tate because of her 0-2 mark against Rousey ignored the fact that she helped the UFC further “Rondamania” by meeting her at a year-end show and preventing an entire season of “The Ultimate Fighter” from unraveling. The UFC dangling hard-to-come-by title fights and the associated paydays in front of hungry fighters all but guarantees that they take the opportunities however and whenever they can get them. It’s a lose-lose situation oftentimes. Turn down the short-notice offer and never receive the call again, or accept the fight under less-than-ideal circumstances. Tate being passed over after beating Eye almost seemed like a punishment for her decision to bite the carrot while still nursing the wounds of defeat. Then Holm upset Rousey, and everything changed.
Tate’s perseverance should be celebrated. That she was ready to seize the moment was no accident. Her years of hard work and dedication paid off. Winning when it counts remains one of the most lauded feats in sports. Rather than sing Tate’s praises, however, White focused little on the new champion in the aftermath of UFC 196. Instead, he lamented Holm’s management and put forth his belief that booking her opposite Tate instead of waiting for the nebulous Rousey cost “The Preacher’s Daughter” untold riches. Never mind the fact that Holm asked for the fight, and the UFC signed off on it.
White is known for being non-committal about future fights at post-fight press conferences. However, at UFC 196, he was readily pumping up Rousey’s return. He looked ahead to Rousey rather than reflect on the blockbuster event Tate had helped to bolster.
Tate’s entry into MMA preceded Rousey and Holm by four years. Each woman has contributed a positive legacy to the sport. Tate is a homegrown veteran who hung around the top long enough to turn the corner and earn a well-deserved championship. The fact that Rousey, Holm and Tate have passed around the title and the power it commands layers the intrigue rather than placing the weight of the division on Rousey’s shoulders alone. They have positioned women’s MMA for a sustained mainstream push by the UFC.
Tate is a trailblazer for female fighters. That the roughly 3-to-1 underdog emerged victorious against Holm does much for her stature moving forward. She should be treated like a cornerstone athlete instead of a transitional champion in the supporting cast of the Rousey Opera. Cheers to celebrating championship achievement. It’s better than drowning in sorrows over grand designs that were laid to waste.
Danny Acosta is a SiriusXM Rush (Channel 93) host and contributor. His writing has been featured on Sherdog.com for nearly a decade. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @acostaislegend.