The first time Tatiana Suarez considered competing in combat sports was back in 1994, when she was watching a wrestling tournament out in California’s Inland Empire. She was there to support her 10-year-old brother, Chris Lopez, a wrestler since the earliest days, and turned to her mom with an innocent enough declaration. “I want to wrestle, too” she said. Her mother, who’d grown up with siblings that wrestled — all of them boys — presented her with some bad news.
“Girls don’t wrestle,” her mom said.
At that very moment, Suarez pointed to where a 12-year-old Marcie Van Dusen was competing on the mats. “She’s wrestling,” Suarez said. And sure enough, there was Van Dusen — who a decade later went on to compete in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing — dictating the space in front of them. Her mom, having been checked by a determined little girl, threw up her hands.
“She looked at me as was like, well, next week, I guess you can try it out,” Suarez remembers. “So the next week I was at practice, and I did really well. Not long after I won my first tournament, I pinned everybody, and my mom was like, wow…she’s good, so I guess we’ll let her do it?”
Suarez was 3 1/2 years old at the time. How does she remember the events that shaped her life for the next 24 years in such vivid detail, of something that happened so long ago? Well, she doesn’t.
“No, no, I don’t remember any of it,” she says. “That’s just what my mom told me.”
All Suarez knows is that wrestling has always been part of her life. She was hooked from as far back as her memory stretches. While some kids would lie in bed dreaming their children dreams, by age five Suarez was dreaming of planting shoulder blades into the mats and winning Olympic gold.
Cut forward to 2018, and Suarez is a contender in the UFC’s strawweight division, getting set for the biggest public fight of her life. She will face former champion Carla Esparza at UFC 228 in Dallas, carrying a perfect 6-0 record. It has been a relatively quiet ascent for her in the ever-bustling UFC. Suarez came up on The Ultimate Fighter 23, winning the tournament with a first-round submission of Amanda Cooper via D’Arce choke. She ceded a good deal of momentum after suffering an injury, but returned 16 months later to take a decision over Viviane Pereira.
In her last bout she was booked to face one of the buzz names in the industry, young Alexa Grasso, the Mexican-born fighter who’d been earmarked for big success since coming over from Invicta FC. The fight took place in Santiago, Chile, and carried “glimpse of the future” vibe. It didn’t last all that long. Suarez, the wrestler, showed her doggedness as a grappler in tapping out Grasso in the opening round. If the focus had been on Grasso going in, Suarez siphoned her mojo and smuggled it back to Rancho Cucamonga.
“I think the [UFC] thought we were both up-and-comers, and a lot of people thought I’d win that fight,” she says. “I think people were wondering why they would put two up-and-comers against each other, especially with Alexa being more of a stand-up fighter and myself being more of a wrestler.”
Suarez said she knew all along what the outcome would be, because Grasso tends to fight with a semi-wild flare — a small detail that she saw as a loose thread on a sweater that could tear it all apart. Suarez is all about the details, just as she’s all about the inevitable breakdown of the best-laid plans. If her ability to improvise through chaos was still a secret heading into Santiago, it wasn’t anymore by the midway point of the first round.
“I love scrambles,” she says. “I can do it all day long, I can do it for hours and hours and hours. I wrestle high school kids and they’re like, do you ever stop? I’m like, nope. I can feel people breaking before they even notice they’re breaking. I knew it was a matter of time before I would submit Alexa because she does scramble a lot, and I’m good at that.”
Esparza is also a wrestler, first and foremost. A couple of years older than Suarez, she made a name for herself on the mats in Redondo Beach, some 60 miles from where Suarez grew up Southern California. After a distinguished high school career, she went on to become an All-American at Menlo College in the Silicon Valley. In the Octagon, she likes to dictate a pace. Same as Suarez.
All of this is music to Suarez’s ears; it’s the exact kind of party she loves to attend. A literal dictation of wills — a clash of bullies in tight confines.
“It’s a great matchup, and I think it’s the fight everyone wanted to see,” she says. “I mean, even my boyfriend wanted to see it. He said, ‘Oh my god, I’ve been wanting you to fight her for so long!’ She’s a wrestler, I’m a wrestler, and I think a lot of times when two people are good at those two things it makes for an exciting fight.”
Esparza took her wrestling to the highest level of the sport by winning the inaugural UFC women’s strawweight title. Similar to Suarez, she navigated an exhibition field to get there, hers being the TUF 20 season. Logically speaking, beating a former champion might be the next step in securing a title shot. But ordinary logic doesn’t apply to Suarez, who has a profound distaste for taking anything for granted.
“I’m not one of those people who’s like, I need [a title shot] now, or at this time,” she says. “I’m enjoying my journey, and all I care about is who is in front of me. I don’t worry about the next person beyond what’s in front of me. I do think about when I beat Carla, I’ll probably be this number. Then I’ll probably fight somebody else, then Rose [Namajunas] or whatever. But I don’t put it in my head that, ‘I need to win this fight because I need to get a title shot.’ I put in my head, ‘I need to win this fight because some one else is trying to beat me.’”
In this case it’s someone. The opponent that shattered her Olympic dreams was a something — a something she believes was put in her path so that she could use her success to influence people in a positive way. It’s why she never looks past the thing directly in front of her.
It’s where she learned to scramble.
Go back to 2011, when Suarez was just 20 years old and on the verge of realizing her dream as an Olympic wrestler. She was ranked No. 3 in the world, and No. 1 in the nation. She was living at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, preparing for what she thought would be the happy culmination to an odyssey that required so much of her determination for so many years.
“In my mind, going into an Olympic year, I was like I’m finally going to do what I said I was going to do — I’m going to be an Olympic champ,” she says. “It was so close, and then it happened.”
“It” being the cancer diagnosis she received, like a meteor crashing down on her from the blue, right as she was on the verge of justifying all the long hours on the mat. Cancer. At 20 years old. And at the worst time possible. She had just won a tournament in France, the World Cup — which pitted teams against teams like in dual meets — while nursing what she thought was a shoulder injury. There was a pain there that would radiate down through her hand, causing her arm to go numb. She complained to her coach at the time that the pain had gotten somewhat unbearable.
So when they got back to Colorado Springs, facing some downtime before the next competition, he had her visit the sports medicine department to have an MRI. That’s just what she did.
“They told me they were going to do an MRI on my neck, saying they think it’s coming from my neck because my nerves were really bad,” she says. “They said my nerves were like a baby’s nerves, they were so fried at the time. So I went there and they found like a node on my thyroid, and they said — by the way — you can’t wrestle anymore, there’s a node on your thyroid you have to get checked out, it might be cancerous. They wanted to make sure nothing was wrong, and I’m like, I’m 20 years old, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me.”
Suarez didn’t have any history of cancer in her family heritage, and was therefore defiant about the possibility. Yet hearing that her wrestling career could be over devastated her even worse than whatever the MRI would show.
“I go there and they told me, it’s definitely cancer and you need to get treated. I was like, what? It went from what I thought was a shoulder injury to a neck injury in which I couldn’t wrestle anymore because it was so bad, and then on top of that they’re telling me I have cancer.”
At that point, vertigo set in. The world went upside-down. Suarez said she didn’t know how to process the news and so she turned inward, a competitor’s mindset already kicking in to not only overcome but to prove people wrong. “It was everything at once,” she says. “It was a very difficult time. I stayed to myself. I didn’t involve my family too much. I kind of did everything on my own.”
The lone exception was that she had her mother go with her to get the surgery on her thyroid.
“That was because what they usually do is they test one side of your thyroid to make sure it’s not cancerous, and if it isn’t they leave the other side of your thyroid in there. But, mine was cancerous and I had a bunch of cancerous cells inside my lymph nodes, so I had to have those removed as well. Then it was going into my lung area, so I had to get radiation and iodine. So it went from something I didn’t think was too serious to being something much more serious.”
It would be a slow recovery. Eighteen months before she was clear, in which Suarez said she had to transform into something she’d never regarded herself as — that is, an ordinary person. Doing ordinary things. Not competing, but just making a place for herself in the world. She turned 21 years old and partying wasn’t a goal. Living was. And finding a new identity, a purpose. The Olympic dream was over, but her want to compete wasn’t. She deepened her faith, and strengthened her resolve.
She had to find a meaning in it.
“In my mind, I honestly thought this is something God had put in my path, and it’s a great story for people to look at,” she says. “I know that a lot of people have had cancer, or know somebody who has, and it has impacted people in many ways. I feel like my story specifically can help other people.”
She laughs, the incredulous laugh of somebody half-marveling at their own ridiculous story. Especially now that the singlet belongs to her past, and her revised life as a mixed martial artist is beginning to truly flourish.
“Sometimes people are like, wow, you went through all this stuff? And I say, yeah, God gives his hardest challenges to people who are strong, and so I always felt it was something that is supposed to be part of my story,” she says. “Now I can impact more people, and resonate with more people. Now people who have gone through something, whether it’s cancer or health issues — or something where they want to change their lives — they can look at my story.”
In the UFC, there are many stories. Not many of them are Suarez’s.
Flash ahead to 2013, at age 23, and that’s around the time Suarez began showing up at her gym in Rancho Cucamonga, Millennia MMA. She had emerged on the other side of cancer, but was still coming to grips with the idea that her wrestling career came to such an abrupt and cruel end.
“I was really in a very low place when I found MMA,” she says. “It was really difficult because wrestling was all that I had known up until that point and I couldn’t wrestle anymore.”
She wants to communicate what can’t be communicated, and that’s because it’s hard for people to understand what wrestling meant. What she had to give up. What’s she’s had to import into her new profession.
“Wrestling was very serious to me. It was everything — it wasn’t a hobby,” she says. “I took it very seriously. Even in high school, I didn’t have a social life. I didn’t go to prom — I didn’t even walk at my graduation. I was at Olympic trials. I didn’t care about any of those things. To me, I had a higher goal, and it was all about getting that gold medal. So when it didn’t go my way, it was very difficult for me. It was very hard to find my way back, but I did. Now I’m here, and I’m trying to be the best in the world at this now. I’m very disciplined, same thing, very dedicated, and that’s what’s been on my mind since I started MMA, being the best in the world.”
Suarez doesn’t do anything halfway. She pins her ears back and goes full speed ahead. Everything she does is accelerated. Before she debuted in MMA in 2014 — a Gladiator Challenge bout against Tyra Parker for the flyweight title — her coach at the time, Marcelo Mafra, threw her into a jiu-jitsu tournament. Why? Because in a sink or swim situation, Suarez has always swims beautifully.
“One day early on, [Mafra] told me, you’re going to do the World Championships,” she says. “I was like, what? I don’t even know a single submission yet.” It was a gi tournament, and — just like when she was doing her first wrestling tournament before she was in preschool — she won. And since then she’s been hooked.
She segued into MMA, and it’s been a steady climb. She won a couple more times on the regional scene in California before gaining a spot on TUF. She went through the exhibition fights with relative ease, with the only fighter to go the distance with her being Chel-C Bailey to gain entry into the house. She submitted JJ Aldrich in the quarterfinals, and then Kate Jackson in the semis to set up the fight with Cooper in the Finale.
Nobody has had an answer for her wrestling. Most appear as tackling dummies. Suarez sees shots on people the way the little boy in The Sixth Sense sees dead people. They are everywhere. It’s in her hard wiring to shoot in on her opponent’s legs and take them off their feet. It’s in her instincts to finish that person as quickly as possible once they are on the ground. She wants to show that she has skills on the feet — that she has power in her hands — but the shots are just too tempting. Those shots aren’t impulses; they are Suarez reading aloud from a biography that fate penned for her.
“I think wrestling will always have a special place in my heart because I did it for so long,” she says. “It’s like your baby. But MMA also gives me the same adrenaline rush. I love to compete. And I couldn’t compete in just anything, it has to be against somebody else.
“There’s nothing better than to physically beat somebody else with your own hands. It’s different. It’s a crazy feeling. There’s no words that you can put into it.”
Suarez knows Van Dusen to this day, the prodigy from Lake Arrowhead who proved that girls could wrestle and sent young Tatiana on her life’s journey. Van Dusen realized a goal of competing in the Olympics. Though she didn’t win a medal, she did take home silver in the 2007 Pan American games in Rio de Janeiro.
Suarez’s path was heading for such destinations, but there was a fork in the road. Four chapters have been written about Tatiana Suarez’s life thus far. The Wrestler, The Fight With Cancer, The Rebound, and The UFC Contender. It’s a lot to have gone through for a 27-year old who has grown up to believe in the wider arc of her purpose.
That is, to show people that though not everything is possible, a lot is. It’s all in how you scramble.
“I feel like I’m always learning,” she says. “If I have a mindset like, ‘I’m 27 and wise, and I’ve been through so much stuff,’ I’m never going to grow as a person or as a martial artist. So for me, I’m still young and dumb. I know that I generally make good decisions. I’m not a crazy partier, nothing like that. I definitely think that I’m maturing and I just feel like I have so much more growing to do as a martial artist.”
Heading into her bout with Esparza, she says we’re at the top of the iceberg. That all the things she was held back from doing then, are unfolding in different ways now. That the wrestler and the UFC fighter share a spirit that, as Kipling once wrote, “meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those impostors just the same.”
“I feel like people have seen one percent of what I can do,” she says. “When everything starts coming together, and I think it will within the next couple of years, I 100 percent believe nobody will be able to stop me. My stand-up is constantly developing, and once I start incorporating all of it together, I really don’t believe anybody can stop me.”
No one — and nothing — has so far.