It was three long years that Tatiana Suarez sat on the sidelines watching the strawweight world go by, and it wasn’t always easy.
“Carla Esparza became world champion while I was gone, and everybody made sure to be like, ‘Hey, you beat her and she’s a world champion now!’” Suarez laughs at the memory. “I’m like ‘Yeah, I didn’t know that guys.’”
To be clear, Suarez had only love for her former opponent.
“People were like, ‘How do you feel about that?’ She put in the work and I’m happy for her. Same thing with Alexa Grasso. She became world champion at a different weight class, which is awesome, as well.”
What wasn’t awesome was nursing an injury that kept one of the sport’s most promising contenders from taking her own shot at UFC glory. But that chapter finally closed last February when Suarez returned to the Octagon and submitted Montana De La Rosa with a Performance of the Night-worthy guillotine. It didn’t look like she had been gone three weeks, let alone three years.
Fast forward to this week in Nashville, and the California native finds herself right back where she started: in the middle of the elite strawweight mix gunning for current champion Zhang Weili. Saturday, she’ll put her undefeated record on the line versus her third championship-caliber opponent, Jessica Andrade, in the co-main of UFC Fight Night: Sandhagen vs Font. UFC.com sat down with her to talk about that fight, her recovery, and where she sees herself in the new strawweight landscape.
UFC: Take us back to the night of the win in February. What was the emotion not only in getting the win, but confirming you could still handle business the way you always have?
TS: I was really excited to get the win just because I was excited to compete again after so long. It's really hard when you know you love something a lot and you can't do that thing that you love to do. I can train and stuff, but I wasn't able to compete. And I think the most exciting part about the sport is competing, the fans, the feeling, it's amazing. So, I was able to get that in February. And finally, when people were like “When are you fighting?” I’m like “I’m fighting this day.” It was nice answering people’s questions without saying, “Oh, I just don’t know.” It was an amazing feeling and I'm excited to get back in there this weekend and do it all over again.
UFC: When you were recovering from your injury, you know intellectually that you’ll eventually get better and recover. But emotionally, how did you get through that time period?
TS: I think just remaining positive throughout that time and focusing on the goal. And small goals within that time, too: hitting mitts more, grappling more; small goals that were set during that time to get me to the end goal, which is fighting in the cage.
UFC: Other than waiting to come back, what was the hardest part of the recovery period?
TS: I tried to come back a little bit sooner than I should have, and it wasn't working out. So, I was like, “I don't think I should be pushing it because I didn't want something to happen or not feel great in the cage or confident in the cage, because I think that's what makes me so dangerous, is that I am very confident when I go out there. And it's because of my work ethic, how I train, my mentality when I train. I always look to win every single round. And if someone's giving me problems in the room, I like to go with them as much as possible so that I can solve that problem. Things like that. Making myself uncomfortable. I love to do that…learning a little bit more about myself every single day.
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UFC: What is the key to going full tilt in the Octagon and not worrying about further injury?
TS: I think it’s just being patient and making sure that my body felt okay. I was dealing with back problems during the (previous) camp. So that was in the back of my mind. When the time came and I was out there, I didn't even think about the fact that I had hurt my back during the camp and that I was unable to train hard for several weeks because of it. I just really thought that I was ready because I felt ready and I felt super excited to go out there and do what I love to do. I felt the most free I've ever felt in the cage, actually. I didn't feel anxiety. I didn't feel like I had to get a takedown. I literally just let my instincts take over and I just did it.
UFC: Obviously, your original opponent this Saturday was supposed to be Virna Jandiroba. How did you react when Jessica Andrade stepped up to take the fight?
TS: I was actually excited because of the name. She's a former world champion. I've already fought a former world champion in Carla Esparza and a current champion in Alexa Grasso. I was able to get the victory in both; actually two finishes. So I'm looking to finish my third world champion here. I'm excited that I had that change because now it gives me this big opportunity. I think it’s going to catapult me into a title contender here. I know that Yan (Xiaonan) is there, too. But Yan also lost to Carla, and we saw how that matchup went for me. If Yan and I have to fight for that, that's cool, too. I don't mind doing that, either. But yeah, I think this will help me get there. The end goal is to become a world champion. And I believe I'm the best in the world.
UFC: She’s a very dangerous fighter, but also can put herself in vulnerable positions. What do you imagine it looks like when the two of you are in there?
TS: I'm excited because that's exactly what's going to happen. We're going to clash. And when we clash, I think that I can basically employ my own gameplan. And I think where I'm really good, she's not that good. Obviously, she's dangerous when she comes in with her looping punches and stuff. But I'm going to stick one right down the middle. I think that she can run into my shots as well. I’m 5’5”, she’s 5’1”. So she’s going to have to come to me. And when she comes to me, I can employ my gameplan.
UFC: The last fight was at flyweight. Did you enjoy it enough to ever entertain doing both divisions?
TS: I actually did want to go again at flyweight just because at the time the everybody was kind of matched up and I just wanted to get out there and fight again. And it was really nice not to have to cut any weight. I literally cut like five pounds. It took me 30 minutes and I did basically nothing. I just sat in a sauna suit and kind of moved around and they just came off like crazy. It was the weirdest thing. I've never had a cut like that. But yeah, I wanted to do that, but they told me I had to kind of stay at one weight class just because I think they don't want me taking out contenders at the 125 and 115-pound divisions. But I think I could do both. I think that I match up well with all the fighters in both weight classes. Man, I even match up well with some of the 135 pounders. I'll be really small there, but that's fine (laughs).
UFC: Do you have an urge to make up for lost time now that you’re back?
TS: I want to fight again after this next fight. I'm going to pray that nothing big happens to me, like we saw with Conor McGregor, he breaks his leg in there…I’m like, “Man, I just don't want anything like that to happen to me.” Knock on wood. Where’s the wood? Just making sure that I'm healthy when I come out of there. That's the most important thing. I can fight hopefully again before the end of the year. I'm not saying I have to, but that would be nice because it would be another payday. It's nice to get paid, especially because I was off for so long. I was struggling there for a little bit, no income for three years. And that was tough. So I'm trying to make up for that so that I can go ahead, buy a nice house, make my mom proud, all them good things. Adulting (laughs).