I was in my car, driving on some errand on a weekday lunchtime in late May when my phone rang. It was UFC president Dana White. I pulled over and picked up my phone.
He asked where I was, and I told him I was a few miles from home in Washington, and he said, "I need you on a plane to Las Vegas at 2:45 p.m., can you make it?" That barely gave me enough time to go home, grab a change of clothes and a toothbrush, but I said I was pretty sure I could make the flight.
Obviously, I tried to ask Dana what was up but he insisted he had to tell me face to face. I couldn’t read anything from his tone of voice. Was it good news? Bad news? He just said, "I will see you in Vegas." For the entire flight to Vegas, and all the journey to Dana’s office at Zuffa’s building, I kept going over and over what Dana could want to talk to me about that was so urgent I had to get on a plane on less than two hours’ notice.
When I got there, Dana sat me down, and said: "So, this is so serious I needed to look you in the eye…"
At that point my heart sank. He had this real serious look on his face, like he was angry, my mind raced to try to think what on Earth I could have done to get myself into trouble but then Dana added, "I’m just messing with ya. It is good news for you. How you could like to coach TUF against Ronda?"
The first thing I said was, "Does it come with the title shot against her?" and Dana laughed and said it did. "I’m in!" I said and then Dana explained that Cat Zingano had blown her knee and was out for a long time.
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On the plane ride over, I’d hoped that somehow I was going to be asked to coach TUF but I didn’t see how that could be possible.
Dana also said I had to literally tell no one because we wanted the surprise to be captured for the show. He then took me to dinner with some of his friends, the next day I flew home, packed my bags, and flew back to Vegas hours later. I didn’t have a coaching team, a plan, nothing. It was a complete whirlwind couple of days and the only person I had told I was going to be in Las Vegas for the next two months was my boyfriend, Bryan Caraway, because he would be with me as one of my coaches.
On the Tuesday we started filming, at first, I was there alone because Bryan was busy helping put together a coaching staff in time for our first practice session in two days’ time.
But, before that, I had to come face-to-face with Ronda Rousey. Every MMA fan knows the history there. Dana had told me that she didn’t know Cat was out or that I was in, and that they wouldn’t be taking down Cat’s posters and images from the TUF gym in order to maintain the illusion that Ronda would be coaching against Cat.
I arrived at the TUF gym and was kept in my team’s locker room. Bryan and my team wouldn’t arrive in Vegas until the next morning, so I sat there alone.
After about 20 minutes, I was told to wait behind the doors to the actual gym and, at least this is how I remember it, I was supposed to walk in when the fighters were already in the room. I imagined Dana would be explaining to the fighters and Ronda that Cat was out hurt and then reveal me as the new coach.
A producer gave me a countdown to walk through the doors in 5…4…3…2…1… but when I walked through the doors, the only other person in the entire room was Ronda. It was just her and me.
I thought, "Uh oh. This is going to get real, real fast," but actually, Ronda was cool at first. She walked towards me smiling and shook my hand. That was literally the first time she and I have ever shook hands. Then she immediately wanted to know why I was there. In the episode, they cut a little bit of our conversation out. At first she thought there were going to be three teams and then she mistakenly thought that I was replacing her, not Cat. Then like you saw she stormed off to find Dana.
That is how my involvement with this season of The Ultimate Fighter began. When Ronda stormed off, I remember looking around that gym, where fighters like Forrest Griffin got their start in the UFC and legends like Chuck Liddell and Georges St-Pierre have coached, thinking what a huge opportunity this was. I also remember thinking that I was ready to do this, ready to beat Ronda as a coach and then in the Octagon on December 28.
Nine months before, it would have been a different story. There’s no way I would have been ready to coach TUF against Ronda and be around her, day-in, day-out, for almost two months.
After my fight with Julie Kedzie last August, I announced I was taking some time off from my career. What I didn’t say at the time is that I wanted some time outside of MMA, out of fighting and doing media interviews, because I wasn’t enjoying MMA anymore. I’m OK with explaining what was going on now but, at the time, I was in a pretty bad place psychologically and didn’t feel like I could move forward in my career like I was.
The world title loss to Ronda, and actually the whole build-up and reaction to that fight, was really eating at me.
Every interview I did, even when I was fighting a tough veteran like Julie, was about Ronda and all the things that had been said between us. I felt like I wasn’t in a sport as much as some big drama. I understood that’s what the media and the fans wanted to hear about, but I didn’t know how to answer these questions without coming across like I was bitter or jealous because – honestly – I was a little bitter and jealous.
I can admit now, but I hated the way I had lost that fight and my title, I hated the way I’d been out there struggling with the other female fighters for years trying to get female MMA on the map and how Ronda had shown up, talked crap, won a title and was now the top star. And, most of all, I hated Ronda Rousey.
There are other fighters – including Ronda, obviously – who seem to draw strength from hating on their rivals and taking trash. They use it to motivate themselves in the gym to train harder and in the Octagon and, hey, that’s great they have a way to fuel themselves. But none of that works for me. I’m not saying that makes me a better sportsman, or that it makes me less competitive, all I am saying is that approach doesn’t work for me.
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In the fight against Ronda, I went in there to beat her up, not win an MMA match. I make mistakes, my head wasn’t where it needed to be, and I got beat. And after the fight, instead of making me want to train even harder, all my hatred of Ronda was doing is making me not want to be around MMA at all.
This feud with Ronda was poisoning my love for the sport of MMA. I had to own up to that fact before I could get back to where I was before this rivalry happened.
Eventually, I was driving somewhere with Bryan and we had a long talk about it. He said he also thought that revenge wasn’t a good motivator for me, that it didn’t suit my mentality and personality or who I am as an athlete.I honestly believe happiness is a choice. And I chose to be happy in my career, and to use positive things like becoming a two-time women’s champion to motivate me rather than hatred of a girl who, like it or not, I was going to be linked with for the rest of my career.
Once I made that choice, I came to realize that Ronda, with her brash personality and the way she represents herself, came along at the right time to make a great rivalry with me. She’s opened a lot of doors that are now open to me, too.
But that’s not to say I like Ronda as a person or that I like the way she goes about certain aspects of the sport. But I respect her, and I was given a reminder of just how ruthlessly competitive she was right away when we were picking teams on TUF.
Contestant Julianna Pena is one of my top sparring partners and a friend. I knew I wanted her on my team because I honestly believed – having been beat on by her in the gym – that she could win this thing. But I also have admired Shayna Baszler for years and knew she would be awesome on my team. I wanted them both on my team but I only had one first pick.
Bryan and I felt that Ronda – being so into psychological warfare – would try to pick Julianna just to mess with me. I honestly wouldn’t have put it past Ronda to pick Julianna and not give her real coaching, just to get my friend beat as a way of getting at me. Ronda is always, always competing and even though our fight at Christmas was still seven months away at that point, I just knew she would pick Julianna just to mess with me and make me worry about how she was doing on Ronda’s team, distracting me from coaching my own team.
So I picked Julianna, and Ronda got Shayna. Then Ronda got to make the first fight and had Julianna fight Shayna.
I remember thinking: "Crap!" I thought Julianna could win to entire thing but knew she would need to bring 100 percent to beat Shayna, who I believed was toughest girl on Ronda’s team. I was also worried that Julianna, as good as she is in the gym and as much potential as I know she has, needed more work before taking on someone as good and as experienced as Shayna.
But this is typical of Ronda to make it personal and use psychological warfare right from the start. After the whirlwind of the last few days, getting the call from Dana, jumping on a plane, sitting down in Dana’s office and coming face-to-face with Ronda at the TUF gym, this was a wake-up call and a reminder that Ronda Rousey is always there to win at all costs and that she always, always makes it personal.
I remember turning to Bryan after the cameras were off and saying, "It’s on!"
If there’s anything you’d like me to cover in next week’s column, hit me up on twitter at @MieshaTate.
The Ultimate Fighter: Team Rousey vs Team Tate continues Wednesday’s 7/10pm on Fox Sports 1.