Cancer derailed her Olympic dream, now Tatiana Suarez eyes UFC gold

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports

Tatiana Suarez was 12 years old when she decided what she wanted to do with her life. If the truth will be told, she knew even years earlier. She was not quite 4 and was at a brother’s wrestling tournament when she told her mom she wanted to wrestle.

By 12, Suarez dreamed of winning an Olympic gold medal.

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And by 2011, her dream was coming into focus. She talked her mother into allowing her to wrestle, and then kept beating up whoever lined across from her — boy or girl — until it was obvious that she was different than the rest of the kids.

A neck injury derailed those dreams, but were it not for that neck injury, her story would have played out vastly differently.

No less an authority than UFC president Dana White calls Suarez “the whole package.”

“She doesn’t look like a good prospect, she looks like a future champion, if you ask me,” White said. “I’m very high on her. She’s so solid, so tough. Her fighting style is just nasty. She’s a handful for anybody.”

These days, White doesn’t get as effusive about fighters with just four UFC bouts as he once did. After more than two decades as a promoter, White has learned fighters need to prove themselves over time, when they’re facing elite competition every time out.

But he literally gushes when he speaks about her prospects. She’s 7-0 as a pro, won Season 23 of “The Ultimate Fighter” and has largely gone unchallenged. If she defeats Nina Ansaroff on Saturday in the main bout of the preliminary card of UFC 238 at the United Center in Chicago, she’ll likely be at the front of the line for a strawweight title shot.

DALLAS, TX - SEPTEMBER 08: Tatiana Suarez celebrates after her TKO victory over Carla Esparza in their women's strawweight fight during the UFC 228 event at American Airlines Center on September 8, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
DALLAS, TX - SEPTEMBER 08: Tatiana Suarez celebrates after her TKO victory over Carla Esparza in their women's strawweight fight during the UFC 228 event at American Airlines Center on September 8, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Had she not injured her neck, and had her coach not bugged her to get it looked at by a doctor, her life would not be the same.

When she had her neck examined, doctors discovered she had thyroid cancer.

“Because of the neck injury, I was able to find out I had cancer, so it’s really something I was fortunate to go through,” Suarez told Yahoo Sports’ Alan Springer. “The neck injury led to me getting diagnosed with cancer at an earlier stage than it could have been. I’m really fortunate and really thankful that my coach told me to go get an MRI on my neck because if I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t have known.”

The treatments essentially ended her Olympic dream, but she handled it differently than most.

She didn’t say much, even to her family, about how she felt about the cancer treatments, because she didn’t want to alarm them. But she couldn’t help herself complaining about not being able to wrestle.

It was almost too much for her to have to deal with, and she let everyone know it.

“It was really weird because I couldn’t wrestle any more and wrestling had been my escape for so long,” said Suarez, who was 20 when she discovered the cancer. “So my mindset when I was going through the cancer was a really strange mindset because I had wrestled for so long, I was really sad about not being able to wrestle more than I was about the cancer.

“I kind of retreated a little bit and I dealt with the cancer alone, because I didn’t want to worry my family too much. It’s something I dealt with on my own. I remember thinking I had to have a positive mindset and I had to attack this thing like I attacked everything else in my life, full head-on and with a positive mindset.”

She took 18 months to fight the cancer, part of it in sort of a solitary confinement. She was given radioactive iodine treatments and couldn’t be around people during the time she was given them.

But when she recovered, she was cleared to do what she wanted, but she didn’t go back to wrestling. It was that old neck injury that sidelined her. But she never lost the urge to compete.

Finding MMA was her outlet. And now, just five years from the time she took her first amateur MMA bout, she’s on the verge of stardom. While it can be intimidating, nothing daunts her because of what she’s been through.

So while the match with Ansaroff is significant, she vows she won’t be overcome by the moment.

She has her eyes on the biggest feats. She wants to win a belt in more than one division, and calls becoming a UFC champion her biggest goal. There is, though, no pressure, at least not that she’ll admit to feeling.

“I feel like I’ve been in the biggest fight of my life, and that was for my life,” she said. “ … What can they do to me that hasn’t been done before?”

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