Tatiana Suarez knows she has already defeated her toughest opponent: she beat thyroid cancer in 2012.
The victory was costly—she was forced to have her thyroid removed. Yet she beats on, continuing her fighting career and eagerly awaiting every chance to prove her worth in the Octagon.
Suarez fights Nina Ansaroff this Saturday at UFC 238 on the preliminary card, which is a chance for the undefeated 28-year-old (7–0) to further solidify herself as the top contender for Jessica Andrade’s Strawweight title.
“Numbers don’t mean anything to me,” said Suarez. “I believed I was No. 1 when I was No. 30. I’m just excited to fight.”
A middle child, in between two brothers and a younger sister, Suarez cannot remember a time when she wasn’t fighting. She had to fight to persuade her mother into letting her wrestle, which was, at first, accepted with significantly less enthusiasm than when her brothers made the same request.
“My mother was really reluctant about it,” said Suarez. “She ended up letting me, and I went on to win my first tournament. I was really good, and I don’t think my mother expected that, but then she got really into it and said, ‘My daughter can do what all these other boys can do.’”
Convincing her mother was a suitable first test—and the challenges have been steady ever since.
Suarez discovered her passion for wrestling early. The mat represented her canvas, and her art was crafted in the preparation and ensuing execution. Wrestling, like mixed martial arts, is a craft intrinsically embedded with dedication and devotion. Suarez relished competing against herself, setting outrageous goals, only to exceed them. She set her own speed, then hit a high acceleration to reach her maximum potential.
Plus, the chance to defeat the opposite gender was certainly a highlight.
“I knew there were a lot of people who didn’t want me there and thought I didn’t belong,” said Suarez. “A lot of dads would come up to me and said, ‘You should really be playing tennis!’ I’d say, ‘I just beat your son, maybe he should go play tennis.’”
By 2011, Suarez was the No. 1 wrestler in her weight class. Her destination was undoubtedly clear, the 2012 Summer Olympics, and the goal would be to bring home gold from London.
Yet those dreams were dashed after a neck injury. Doctors found a cancerous growth on her thyroid, causing all her plans–as well as the years of work, dreams, and desires–to go up in smoke.
“People don’t realize the impact it had on me,” said Suarez. “I don’t have my thyroid any longer. My metabolism is in the form of a pill, so if thyroid levels aren’t right, I have low energy and gain weight. But I’ve done my best to turn the experience into an advantage.”
Following her recovery from cancer, Suarez embraced a different goal and path than originally planned. She started MMA training in 2013, then accepted her first amateur fight in February 2014. By that July, she attained professional status, winning her first three fights along the way. She was then part of the 23rd season of The Ultimate Fighter in 2016. Suarez was victorious on the finale, and has yet to taste anything but victory in the UFC.
Throughout that stretch, the most important lesson she has learned, especially in the physical, cutthroat world of fighting, is to "thine own self be true."
“I need to be organic,” said Suarez. “I can never be something that I’m not. A lot of times, people are looking for attention, or in order to achieve fame, they might go into a character that isn’t too close to themselves. I’ve been able to win fights and also stay also true to myself. I am who I am, and I want to stay humble.”
Suarez has found her home in mixed martial arts, unleashing a blend of wrestling and jiu-jitsu that has yet to be solved. She will, once again, show off her ground-and-pound capability this Saturday night in Chicago. She spoke with SI ahead of her fight as a spokesperson for Bodyarmor.
“I’m going to put on a dominating performance,” promised Suarez. “However it goes, I’ll be ready. I have treated my opponent with respect, I have stayed disciplined. I’ve prepared extremely hard for this fight.”
Suarez is traveling a clear path, which she believes will lead to a fight for the UFC Strawweight title, and she does not plan for any road blocks to get in the way this Saturday.
“I’ll get the job done,” said Suarez. “I feel great and I’m ready to show everyone what I can do. I want to be dominate and put on a great performance. I don’t know how I’m going to do it yet, but I know I’m going to get my hand raised.”
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.