It’s been nearly four years since the last time Tatiana Suarez stepped into the Octagon, so you would imagine she’s tired of talking about her comeback by now.
“It's exhausting, but it's okay,” she laughs. “I get it. Next fight, we won't be talking about the comeback. It'll just be another fight.”
To get to that next fight, she first has to get past this one, the “comeback” against Montana De La Rosa this Saturday in Las Vegas. It’s a big deal in a lot of ways, not just because of where Suarez is today and where she’s going, but where she’s been.
So let’s recap…
A top-level wrestler who saw an Olympic bid get dashed by a bigger fight with thyroid cancer, California’s Suarez found her way to mixed martial arts, where her defeat of cancer kicked off a winning streak that hasn’t stopped. Included along the way was a win on season 23 of The Ultimate Fighter and five UFC victories that put her on the doorstep of a strawweight title shot.
That was 2019, where the story gets paused and brings us to the latest comeback, where Suarez has battled through neck and knee injuries to arrive here, days away from a new start in a new division – flyweight.
“I had lifted a lot during the pandemic, so I think I gained more muscle and I was sitting a lot heavier than I did in the past when I was fighting strawweight,” Suarez said. “Now everybody was like, ‘You're such a big strawweight, blah, blah, blah.’ Well, I wasn't that big. My walking around weight was 130 and that was the heaviest I would get. And then during my camp, I'd get down naturally to maybe 127. So, at that point, it's 11 pounds from strawweight, which isn't that much. So I'm sitting a little bit heavier than I was then. And I wanted to feel my body throughout the camp and make sure that it can get through a camp. I haven't made weight in a long time, so I just didn't know how my body would react to going down to strawweight. I've seen some girls that were walking around heavier than me that make strawweight. But I just want to make sure that my body's fueled and healthy when I go out there right after such a crazy injury.”
First there was the neck injury that she dealt with since her wrestling days but got aggravated in June of 2019, both before and during her win over Nina Nunes. But that wasn’t the crazy one. The crazy injury happened to her knee in July of 2021, forcing her out of a UFC 266 bout against Roxanne Modafferi and putting her career on hold.
Nine months later, Suarez, always trying to push the envelope, got cleared to resume training after surgery but the knee would still get inflamed, with the swelling keeping her from sparring.
“It was more difficult to come back than I thought,” she admits. But eventually, Tatiana Suarez was Tatiana Suarez again, and she was ready to ask for a fight. And she got one with Texas’ De La Rosa that she can’t wait for.
“I feel great,” she said. “I haven't had any problems in my knee the entire camp, so I'm really happy about that. It hasn't given me any trouble.”
Knock wood for the 32-year-old, who has paid more dues than most to make it to the Octagon for a prizefight. There was the cancer, the injuries, and more injuries on top of those, and let’s not forget that since the last time she competed, there was a global pandemic, while made getting any kind of work in a hassle at best and nearly impossible at worst.
“I had to travel a little bit longer because the person that I was seeing for my neck was in Fullerton, which was maybe 30, 40 minutes from my house,” she said. “But what happened was they closed down all the schools out in California, so I had to go an hour-and-a-half in order to do my physical therapy with traffic. Sometimes I would get there, it'd be an hour-and-a-half to get there. Then I'd have two hours of training and stuff and for my neck and obviously straight training. And then I would travel an hour-and-a-half back.”
Suarez says this in a matter-of-fact manner, like, hey, what can you do? There’s no complaining from someone who has every right to complain, and when you factor in the Octagon time missed for a fighter in her prime who may have well been a champion right now, it’s a wonder that she stuck to the plan for this long.
“I think when it all comes down to it, I just believe that this is what I was born to do,” Suarez said. “It sounds crazy, obviously, because we're fighting and stuff, but being an athlete is something that I love to do. And I love training. Me and my boyfriend, after practice, we geek out all the time. We just talk about practice and or MMA, in general. Just the other day, we had a practice, and we were both all excited. We're like, ‘Oh, that was so much fun.’ And then we're like, ‘Yeah, we can't wait for sparring tomorrow.’ It's just something that we both love to do. It's our passion.”
Megan Olivi Catches Up With Tatiana Suarez
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Megan Olivi Catches Up With Tatiana Suarez
It does beg the question, though: if Suarez was an average fighter, would she have worked this hard for years to get back, or would she find another way to make a living?
“I've had a lot of success in the bouts that I've been in, and I know how I am in the room and stuff like that. So I would say it plays a factor. But then again, I don't know because I can't meet mediocre Tatiana and tell you that.”
“But if she has the same heart but just a little less talent, then I'd say she probably still keeps going.”
Yeah, that’s a safe bet, since Suarez has been fighting her whole life in one form or another. And now, as she gears up for her return, she does have her aforementioned boyfriend, Bellator bantamweight Patchy Mix fighting alongside her, a light in a past few years of uncertainty.
“It's actually very important,” she said of having someone with her who knows exactly what the fighting life entails. “We shared that love (of the sport), so that helps. And he's very encouraging. And not only that, but having Pat around has been helpful for me during my camp because he's very vocal when it comes to his fight. And I'm not really so vocal. I internalize a lot of my emotions, but he's more on the vocal side. And that helps me a lot because I feel like sometimes I can talk about it and it's therapy for me.”
That may be the only time the word “therapy” or “rehab” or “comeback” will come out of Tatiana Suarez’ mouth these days. The past is just that, and all that matters is making that walk again on Saturday and getting back to the business of becoming a world champion.
“I think that I could have stopped,” she said. “I could've been like, ‘You know what? It's been two years, I was trying to come back and now my knee is so messed up,’ and then just do my own thing and start my life in a different path. But I believe I'm the best in the world. I feel like I lost the opportunity to be an Olympic wrestler and Olympic champion. And then I found this dream of being a world champion (in MMA), and I feel like if I was just to quit and not try to be the best at this, I'd be selling myself short. Every day I have to look at myself in the mirror. And if I didn't do everything that I could possibly do to at least chase that dream, then I just wouldn't be able to look at myself because that's not who I am.”
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