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Miesha Tate defends Aspen Ladd criticism, thinks female fighters dating coaches ‘generally problematic’

When Miesha Tate offered pointed criticism toward Aspen Ladd and her head coach, she wasn’t speaking only from professional experience, but her personal history as a fighter and competitor.

Tate stands by her view that Ladd tried to skirt the rules by manipulating the scale during the official weigh-ins for her UFC Vegas 38 appearance. She also believes Ladd’s troubles, which played out in real time during a listless and controversial performance at UFC Vegas 40, are rooted in an unhealthy dynamic that was brought into the cage by a relationship with her head coach Jim West.

“People think that I’m crazy because they look at it and say, ‘Well the coach needed to be the coach, and he needed to be hard on her, and he needed to tell her the truth,’” Tate said Monday on The MMA Hour. “Yeah, you’re right, but there’s a difference between motivating and there’s a difference between giving her the body language, just the little two-finger shove on her shoulder to kind of get her to focus on him — you don’t understand when you break that down, exactly what that means and what’s going on in their relationship.

“People just see this one little glimpse, and I’m looking at this from someone who’s been on the outside in the big picture, and I think she failed to show up more so probably due to outside factors than what you saw in the fight. It’s hard for people to understand that unless you’ve been there.”

As Tate rose to MMA fame in the late 2000s, so did her relationship with MMA veteran Bryan Caraway, who served as her head coach when she took up the sport in Yakima, Wash., at age 19. Caraway quickly became a polarizing presence in the sport, drawing strong backlash for verbally threatening Tate’s rival Ronda Rousey during their turn on The Ultimate Fighter 18.

Despite mountains of bad press, Caraway was in Tate’s corner for the apex of her UFC career when she upset Holly Holm to win the bantamweight title at UFC 196. But following the loss of the title to Amanda Nunes and a listless decision setback against Raquel Pennington, cameras caught Tate and Caraway arguing over her motivation to fight, with Tate insisting she no longer wanted to compete. Soon after, she stepped away from the sport.

Tate and Caraway quietly ended their relationship, and in 2018, Tate announced she had started a relationship with a teammate, Johnny Nunez. The two started a family, first welcoming a son, and got married as Tate took on an executive role with ONE Championship.

In recent years, Tate has been more outspoken about what happened between her and Caraway. A recent UFC documentary, “Miesha Tate 2.0,” delves into the tense dynamic that preceded their breakup.

Asked on Monday whether she would advise female fighters against forming relationships with their coaches, Tate was unequivocal.

“Absolutely, especially your lead coach,” she said. “I would absolutely say you don’t want that, and that’s where Johnny and I differ very much from what I was used to in that, yes, he’s in my corner, he’s a part of my camps, he does teach me things sometimes, but I see us as equals, and I think he recognizes that, too. Sometimes, I show him things. We don’t have someone who’s in charge of the other one — we are just there to support each other, because it’s difficult when someone always gets to be the boss of you, and that translates over into the personal life, too, where you just start to feel like you lose yourself. Because where do you draw the line? Where’s the difference?

“If somebody always gets to be the boss of you, and it’s 24-7, pretty soon you’re swallowed up in that, especially if you’re not with the right person to give you that guidance. It’s a very tricky thing to do. I don’t think very many people are able to make a head coach relationship [work] — and it’s always women. It’s always women that end up dating their head coach. We haven’t really seen it in reverse, so I’m not sure what that would look like in the reverse, but I can speak from my situation that, for the most part, it was detrimental, and the longer that it went, it was detrimental.”

Tate isn’t ready to say that all relationships between coaches and fighters are bad. Circumstances are different for everyone, she said, and what may have been detrimental to her may not be for other fighters. But she believes there needs to be a frank conversation around the issue, particularly over the power dynamics that develop between fighters and coaches when they are also dating.

“It is, from my experience, generally problematic when a female fighter, especially younger, starts dating a coach,” she said. “The more the age difference, the more they become, sort of, hooks in, claws deep, and they start to feel like they can rule your life. And that can happen even outside of fighting, but when you add that kind of dynamic to it as well, it can just be such an ugly situation. So I think it’s something we should definitely have conversations about, make people a little more aware that it doesn’t have to be that way.

“But a lot of times, I feel like women gravitate toward a male figure that’s in their life consistently and trying to help them. But once it becomes a relationship, things become so entangled and so intertwined, and it’s very difficult not only to separate your personal life from when you go into the gym, but the gym from when you go home. That was my biggest problem was that the coach always came home. I lost the significant other, if you will, and it just became this mental game — it was 24/7.”

Ladd’s coach West later apologized to MMA fans for “harsh” cornering of Ladd and promised he would “continue to be better each time” in their work together.

Tate, who on Saturday faces Ketlen Vieira at UFC Vegas 43, believes Ladd eventually will see what she was trying to say.

“I can relate to the situation that she’s in, and that’s exactly how I feel,” she said. “I think that in a few years, she’ll probably come out and say, ‘Yeah, I was in the thick of it. I wasn’t ready to talk about it then, but here in hindsight, here’s the truth.’”