It was a classic Miesha Tate fight, in many ways. Down on the scorecards, with time running out in the fifth and final round at UFC 196, Tate had to find some way to pull a rabbit out of her hat.
If she didn’t, Holly Holm would just keep picking her apart at range until the last horn blew and another shot at the UFC women’s bantamweight title slipped away. For all she knew, it might be the last chance she’d ever get.
You know what happened next. Tate did what she has done at many points in her career, but especially over the course of her current five-fight winning streak in the UFC. She may have started slow and stumbled along the way, but in the end she found a way to get it done, hauling Holm to the mat in the final minutes of the final round and snatching the rear-naked choke that would put the champion to sleep.
After the win, an ebullient Tate showed up to the post-fight press conference and gave a lot of the credit for her come-from-behind win to her coaches, who she said laid out the reality of the situation in the corner before the start of the fifth round.
“My cornermen are always honest with me, and I appreciate that,” Tate said. “They never lie to me. They went in there and said, ‘Looks like she’s won three of the four rounds.’ … I looked to my cornermen a lot for guidance there, because I don’t know for sure, but I felt like, yeah, she was getting the better of me a little bit on the feet.”
The dynamic in Tate’s corner could be described as a collaboration in progress. Though it works well now, it didn’t necessarily get off to the greatest start, according to all parties involved.
For starters, there’s Tate’s longtime boyfriend, Bryan Caraway, who Tate hailed as “the reason I won this fight” after her victory over Holm. Caraway began coaching Tate when she was just 19 and they were both members of a university MMA club. A decade later, their partnership continues, though it’s had to evolve again and again.
One problem was finding a gym to call home. For a while, Tate and Caraway bounced between coaches and training camps, with Caraway remaining protective of Tate and the duo never fully blending into any one fight team. Then, shortly before Tate’s second fight with Ronda Rousey, who was then the UFC women’s bantamweight champ, they came to the revamped Xtreme Couture gym in Las Vegas, where head coach Robert Follis was in the early stages of a revival.
Though Tate, Caraway, and Follis would eventually find their stride together, relocating to Xtreme Couture just before the Rousey fight was a bad move, in Caraway’s view.
“It was just too much stimulation, and basically, nothing we trained the entire camp (she did), except for her armbar escapes,” Caraway said. “That was the only thing she retained, because we had been working on that since the first loss to (Rousey). She wasn’t supposed to wrestle at all; she was supposed to take, maybe, one shot at the end of the round. She (later) told me, ‘You were telling me this, coach Follis was telling me this, and coach Ricky Lundell was telling me this, and all these things, and I just got so confused.’
“You can’t go, when you have a world title on the line, to a whole new place where you have new coaches, new people, and there is no settling,” Caraway added. “We jumped right into camp with these new people, and we spent the whole camp figuring each other out. They’re all phenomenal coaches, it was just the wrong time.”
One of the things that the new team hadn’t yet figured out was how best to communicate with one another. That took time to learn, and the added complexity of the romantic relationship between Tate and Caraway had a way of making things even tougher.
In past training camps, as Tate told MMAjunkie in 2014, “I felt like I would lose my partner, my boyfriend, and I felt like I just had another coach. That was hard. We just had to really communicate and figure out why that was.”
Going into the fight with Holm, the picture had become clearer, according to head coach Follis.
“It’s really about who can say what best when it comes to Miesha, and that’s an art that’s really developed,” Follis said. “Early on it was important for Bryan to really understand how what he does affects things at home and in the gym, and how we can best work all those together. Some things, it’s better for me to say them. Others, it’s better if it comes from Bryan. This camp, I really wanted him to be the main voice, because Miesha responds best to him and he’s really learned how to communicate in a way that keeps things going effectively.”
This would become especially important heading into that crucial final round. Before the fight, Caraway admitted, his nerves were getting to him. He worried about saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. He worried that he might inadvertently put a counterproductive message in Tate’s mind.
About 10 minutes before Tate walked out into the arena, Caraway had come to the conclusion that maybe it would be best if he didn’t say anything to her at all.
“I (told Follis), ‘I’m so nervous, I’m just going to let you take over,’” Caraway said.
Follis, however, wasn’t having it. He implored Caraway not to let that fear get the better of him, and to continue being the emotional rock that Tate had counted on throughout her training camp.
“He made a lot of sense,” Caraway said. “That fifth round, I knew I needed to be there.”
One thing both men knew about Tate was that she sometimes seems to be at her best when she’s on the verge of losing.
“To Miesha, it doesn’t matter if there’s 90 seconds left and she’s behind,” Follis said. “She’s got that mentality of, ‘Hey, I’m going to go get it done.’ And she’s had a lot of fights where she’s had to do that. She is great at overcoming adversity, and sometimes I think she needs to be a little bit behind to push, for whatever reason. And when she’s in that position, she does that extremely well.”
What her corner needed to communicate just then was just how close she was to losing her second bid for a UFC title. She’d likely been outpointed on the feet in rounds 1, 3, and 4, as her coaches saw it. She’d dominated the second round, but probably still needed to finish the fight in the fifth.
“Going into the last round, I really felt like our back was against the wall,” Follis said. “Bryan and I very quickly chatted about it and Bryan did a phenomenal job of communicating that sense of urgency going into the fifth. So not only did we get it, Miesha got it. We knew, going into that fifth round, if we don’t finish her we’ve got to plan on going home without that belt.”
As Caraway put it, “When I got in there, I knew I had to tell her, I don’t care if you die trying, or if you get knocked out, we’re going to go out on our shield trying to win this world title. We’re not going to sit back and hope for a decision. We’re down probably on the cards, and you need to go out there and finish her. If you go out there give 110 percent and you lose, that’s fine. You need to go out there and push the pace and do whatever you need to do to get this fight to the ground. I don’t care if she hits you five times or 15 times as long as you take her down. She went out there and she listened.”
The way Tate remembered it after the fight, she wasn’t sure whether the situation was really so dire until her coaches gave her their assessment.
“Bryan came in there and basically told me you’ve got to go guns blazing,” Tate said. “He said risk it to get the biscuit, essentially. So I knew that if I had to risk getting knocked out at that point, that’s what was going to happen.”
But of course, Tate didn’t get knocked out. Instead she took Holm down, jumped on her back, and sunk a rear-naked choke that she didn’t release until Holm was unconscious on the mat, destined to wake up as the former UFC women’s bantamweight champ.
For Tate, the moment was almost surreal. With the belt draped over her shoulder backstage, she admitted it hadn’t sunk in yet. But by the time she made it to the post-fight press conference, she’d found at least a little perspective on the moment. She’s not the fighter who blows opponents away in the opening seconds. That might be Rousey’s calling card, but it’s never been Tate’s.
“The thing about me is, my mentality is that it does not matter how down I get at any point in the fight,” Tate said. “I’ve been literally knocked down and almost out of it and I get back up and I win fights. It doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down. It’s how many times you get up.”
And this time, when Tate got up, she did it as the new UFC champion.
For complete coverage of UFC 196, check out the UFC Events section of the site.