'The hardest worker in the room': Tatiana Suarez's love of competition fueling her return to UFC

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 08:  Tatiana Suarez battles Nina Ansaroff in their women's strawweight bout during the UFC 238 event at the United Center on June 8, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Because of a variety of injuries, Tatiana Suarez hasn't competed in the UFC since June 8, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois, when she defeated Nina Nunes. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

When Tatiana Suarez enters the Octagon on Feb. 25 at the Apex in Las Vegas to face Montana De La Rosa in a flyweight bout, it will be exactly 1,359 days since her last appearance in the UFC. Suarez defeated Nina Nunes at the United Center in Chicago on June 8, 2019, by unanimous decision in the featured preliminary bout of UFC 238 that night.

She hasn't been back since. A neck injury and a knee injury have kept her out of commission for nearly four years.

That long of an absence would crush the dreams of most competitors in the UFC. The legendary Georges St-Pierre returned after a 1,450-day absence in 2017 to submit Michael Bisping and win the middleweight championship at UFC 217 in New York, but winning at the highest level like that is very much the exception rather than the rule in mixed martial arts. It doesn't hurt that St-Pierre is one of the five or, at worst, 10 best fighters in the sport's history.

MMA is evolving at a breakneck pace, the level of talent coming into the sport is better than ever and being away for 45 months usually means dreams won't be realized.

Suarez, though, doesn't believe that in the least, and nor does Eric Nicksick, the head coach at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas.

Though Suarez is training at Xtreme Couture and at the UFC Performance Institute in preparation for the De La Rosa fight, she is not working directly with Nicksick and he won't be in her corner on fight night.

In watching her practice, though, he's convinced she can fulfill the lofty expectations that surrounded her when she last competed in the sport.

"This is the thing I think a lot of people really don't understand, and I'm not making this up, but ... she is the hardest worker in the room," Nicksick told Yahoo Sports. "So at practice yesterday, it was on the floor, so let me lay out practice for you: It was on the floor, top and bottom, a minute thirty each and you shadow boxed between that. The other group of people were on the wall and you rotate, on the way, off the wall. It ends up being about a seven-minute round total.

"What I make them do after that is we run around the mat as a minute for a cooldown and then we do a 30-second sprint. The reason why I bring that up is because I am looking for people who want to compete and I know they're tired. I know that, but what body language are you putting out? What are you telling your opponent? What are you telling the judges? Well, Tatiana is trying to beat every single person, not only on the sprint but also in the job portion. Like, you don't have to sprint in the jog portion. But she's sprinting and in my head, she's trying to deliver a message: I'm f***ing better than you. I can beat you. ... And she's willing to push through any adversity to try to win."

Tatiana Suarez, top, punches Carla Esparza during their strawweight mixed martial arts bout at UFC 228 on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)
Tatiana Suarez, top, punches Carla Esparza during their strawweight mixed martial arts bout at UFC 228 on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)

In her last three bouts before a neck injury shut her down, Suarez (8-0, 2 KOs) defeated Alexa Grasso by rear-naked choke in the first round; stopped former champion Carla Esparza in the third with punches and elbows and then defeated Nunes. She was clearly on a championship trajectory.

And then, just like that, it was gone. She injured her neck and then, her knee. It was starting to seem like she'd never get back.

Suarez, though, isn't just any other fighter. This is a woman who lost her dream of making the U.S. Olympic women's wrestling team when she got cancer, and she beat that. Instead of saying, "Woe is me," when these issues arise, she views them as a challenge to overcome. At her core, it's about her love of competition. The belt and the money that come along with it are nice, but she's motivated by a love of competition and that's driven her to fight through some dark days.

She's coming back at flyweight, but isn't sure whether she'll compete at flyweight or strawweight long-term. She said she can still make the 115-pound strawweight limit, but will think of that down the road. Now, it's all about putting the work in and sharpening the tools as she prepares to return to competition.

"All the things I've been through have been equally mentally challenging, and have strengthened me in some way, shape or form," Suarez said. "I like to think of the adversity or challenges I've faced as just that: something that's making me stronger. I know when I'm in the cage, I have overcome so much adversity in the past that I can get through whatever is put in front of me.

"I'm just really excited to be able to go out and do what I love again. I love to compete. It's one of my favorite things. And going through a training camp is really fun, because you get to see what you're made of. Each and every day I put myself through the ringer just so I can get my arm raised at the end. I'm excited to go out and display what I can do. I have such great talent. It's difficult that I've been away for so long because I haven't been able to show that. And I don't like to say talent; it's that I love to work hard and I love to compete and I get better because that's what I do every day."