Despite early retirement, Miesha Tate was one of the most important female fighters ever

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A mere eight months ago, Miesha Tate had the defining moment of her career.

The Tacoma, Wash., native was long one of mixed martial arts’ most popular stars, in large part because of her toughness and resilience.

She may not have had her rivals’ standout technical skills, like Ronda Rousey’s judo and Holly Holm’s boxing, but her heart in the heat of battle just might be unmatched among fighters of either gender.

And nowhere was this on brighter display than at UFC 196 in Las Vegas on March 5. Trailing on the scorecards against then-women’s bantamweight champion Holm and needing a finish in the fifth round, Tate somehow willed a win, as she scored a submission in the closing moments and earned her spot as champion.

Few could have imagined, in her most glorious moment, that the 30-year-old Tate would be retired before the year was out.

But that’s exactly what happened on Saturday night. After losing a one-sided decision to Raquel Pennington at UFC 205, Tate stunned the MMA world by announcing her retirement from the sport in the Octagon at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

“I am announcing my retirement, you guys,” Tate said during a post-fight interview with color commentator Joe Rogan. “I love you all so much. I have been doing this for more than a decade. It is the right time. It is because of the result. I have a lot more to give and I couldn’t get it out of myself.”

While Ronda Rousey gets justly deserved credit for her work in building the women’s side of the sport of MMA, she may have never gotten the chance without having Tate around.

Miesha Tate will forever be remembered in MMA for her rivalry with Ronda Rousey. (Getty Images)
Miesha Tate will forever be remembered in MMA for her rivalry with Ronda Rousey. (Getty Images)

Interest in women’s MMA dropped precipitously in 2009 after the sport’s first star, Gina Carano, left for Hollywood. Strikeforce, the only major promotion holding women’s fights at the time, soldiered on, but barely pushed their remaining female fighters.

When Sarah Kaufman won the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight title — the lineal forerunner of the UFC belt now held by Amanda Nunes — in 2010, her title defenses were relegated to the B-level “Strikeforce Challengers” series held in small venues instead of at major events.

But Tate’s star power was undeniable, and her charisma forced the women’s bantamweight division onto the big stage, as she won the Strikeforce bantamweight title from Marloes Coenen in 2011, then further elevated the division with her rivalry with the upstart Rousey, to whom she lost the belt in March 2012.

This led to one of the most fateful nights in the sports history — an August 2012 Strikeforce card in San Diego. With UFC president Dana White in attendance, Tate rallied to defeat veteran Julie Kedzie in one of the year’s best fights before Rousey defended her title against Kaufman.

As the best of the women’s bantamweight division transferred over to the UFC, Tate appeared to be destined to forever be seen as Rousey’s bridesmaid. A season spent as coaches on “The Ultimate Fighter” — where Tate coached Pennington, the woman who ultimately defeated Tate in her final bout — highlighted their barely contained contempt for one another and led to a wild rematch at UFC 168, won by Rousey in the third round.

But Tate was always at her best when she was counted out. Four straight victories following the second loss to Rousey, including victories over former title challengers Liz Carmouche and Sara McMann, brought her back to the brink of a title shot, on which she ultimately cashed in and defeated Holm.

Then, just like that, it was gone. Tate took her title into the historic UFC 200 card on July 9 in Las Vegas, and found herself on the wrong end of a one-sided submission loss to Nunes. This was followed by a listless performance against a fast-improving Pennington, who used a crisp jab and solid clinch work to wear Tate down.

Earlier in the week, Tate was holding out hope that she’d get to have one more fight with Rousey before she retires. Instead, she dropped her bombshell announcement on the crowd.

“I didn’t see the Miesha Tate thing coming, but you know, it makes sense,” White said at the UFC 205 post-fight news conference in New York. “Miesha’s been so tough and durable, and not a tough, durable woman, but a tough, durable athlete. She’s been in this for so long, and I could just tell when I talked to her tonight.”

Pennington proved, just like Nunes before her, that the next generation of women’s bantamweight fighters is coming on fast. While she’s long been known for overcoming the odds, Tate, whose pro career started in 2007, is smart enough to know when to stop swimming upstream. Fighters who get by mainly on heart are well-admired, but the downside can be ugly. Better to quit while you’re ahead, with your legacy as one of the sport’s pioneers well secured.

“It’s not my time right now, I’ve been doing this for over a decade,” Tate said. “Thank you so much for being here, I love this sport forever but it’s not my time anymore.”

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