Liz Carmouche never expected to climb the ranks so quickly.

Less than a year into her pro career, she found herself challenging Marloes Coenen for the Strikeforce women’s 135-pound title.

“That’s everybody’s dream when you’re thinking about being a professional in this sport, is to achieve the top level,” Carmouche said on the Sherdog Radio Network’s “Beatdown” show. “But there was no way -- I thought maybe five years if I’m lucky, maybe six, maybe more than that. Not in a year’s time did I ever think that I would be facing the champion for a possible world title.”

Carmouche might have been on her way to winning that title, too. Her strength and grappling ability gave Coenen fits. Heading into the championship rounds of their March bout, Carmouche was up 29-28 on all three judges’ scorecards but then succumbed to a triangle choke 1:29 into fourth.

“I felt confident,” Carmouche said of her initial reaction to the choke being applied. “I felt like I had her leg locked and I was going to work my way back into mount. Then of course I realized, ‘Oh wait, never mind. This is in pretty deep. Let me step around.’ I actually stepped into the choke. At first I was beating myself up like, ‘Oh, I can’t believe I made that mistake.’ But really, when it came down to it, the fact that I stood my ground and really dominated the fight against a champion of her stature for that long was just, I was just grateful to have the opportunity, just glad that it happened.”

Carmouche had actually taken the fight as a late replacement for Miesha Tate. If fighting for a Strikeforce title on short notice in only her sixth pro fight wasn’t enough, Carmouche was also trying to study for finals. The kinesiology major credits her girlfriend for helping her balance school with her MMA career.

“She’s essential to everything,” Carmouche said. “She keeps me grounded and she’s that constant motivation where if I doubt myself about school, about training or anything, she’s constantly there just encouraging me, pushing me. … Without her, I wouldn’t be the fighter that I am today.”

A former U.S. Marine, Carmouche is one of the few openly gay fighters.

“Being in the military, I was forced to hold back and I was forced to not really find that part of myself,” she said. “My team and my coaches have been accepting and encouraging, and they joke around about it. At no point have I ever fight like it’s something I’ve had to hide. I don’t want to be the type of fighter who is hiding parts of myself. … I want to be open and honest with everybody so they know who I am and at no point is that going to throw anybody off or disgust them or just anything. I don’t want any negative repercussions for who I am. I want to be open and honest from the get-go so that I can be the best fighter and person I can.”

Her next test comes July 22 against Sarah Kaufman at Strikeforce Challengers 17. Kaufman, 13-1, held the 135-pound title until she also lost to Coenen. Despite that defeat, Carmouche believes Kaufman’s style will make her an even tougher opponent than the current champion.

Marloes Coenen kind of takes her time with everything,” Carmouche explained. “She thinks it out. She picks apart your game. Sarah Kaufman just pushes the tempo. She likes to set her pace and just push forward the entire time, ground-and-pound. I think it’s kind of similar to my style. It’s going to be nice because I like being pushed. I like being challenged and making myself work rather than kind of having to wait the person out. I’m going to enjoy this a lot more.”

Listen to the full interview (beginning at 43:33).

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