Tatiana Suarez is set to take on Nina Ansaroff this weekend at UFC 238. While nothing is official, if the rumblings are true, the bout will produce the next contender for UFC strawweight champion, Jessica Andrade.
Inspired by seeing her older brothers on the mats, Suarez began wrestling at three years old. There was some initial hesitance from her mother, who proclaimed that “girls don’t wrestle,” but Suarez isn’t one to be easily deterred. When the Californian sets her scope on a target, she rarely misses. That ingrained determination led to her medaling twice in the world championships of freestyle wrestling before she was old enough to order a drink.
It was thought that same persistence would likely carry her to the podium at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Unfortunately, a neck injury and subsequent MRI led to her being diagnosed with thyroid cancer and forced her from the sport she had grown up in. Suarez would ultimately beat the diagnosis, but find herself unsure of what to do next. She began training jiu jitsu after an invite from a friend, creating the spark that would ignite a wildfire.
Becoming the ultimate
Suarez was 3-0 as a professional mixed martial artist when she joined the cast of The Ultimate Fighter season 23. She used her dominant grappling to steamroll her roommates and win all three exhibition bouts on the show.
Post TUF, she won another three in a row. Gaining attention, she would meet her toughest test to date in Carla Esparza at UFC 228 last year.
Esparza was the inaugural UFC and Invicta FC strawweight champion. Being a former all-state wrestler, fans wondered if she could handle the takedowns and pressure of Suarez. Rather early into the first round, we learned that she could not.
Suarez shot the double leg takedown 20 seconds in and the sequence ended in her using a body lock to rip the former champion to the mat. Suarez bullied her into the cage and rained down punches and elbows. Esparza was lumped up and bleeding after the initial five minutes. In the second round, it became clear that this would be the story of the fight. Outgunned, Esparza landed 12 strikes to Suarez’s 136. In the third, the referee called the fight.
Having submitted most of her other opponents, the non-stop domination, the chain-wrestling, and the relentless ground and pound that night led to social media buzzing about the “Female Khabib”. And while Suarez is surely looking to build her own legacy, she’s said she doesn’t mind the comparisons to the 27-0 Dagestani destroyer.
This Saturday, Suarez will get her biggest opportunity yet to make sure fans know her name. Her battle against Nina Ansaroff will be the featured prelim on ESPN. Even though Suarez was in the co-main event of a Fight Night card on FOX Sports 1 event in 2018, ESPN is available in many more homes than FS1 is. There’s a good chance the fight could draw close to or over a million viewers.
It’s the wrestling pedigree and her previous achievements in the octagon that have led to oddsmakers branding Suarez a -900 favorite or higher (depending on the site) at the time of writing. As combat sports fans, we all know nothing is assured. Bigger upsets have happened. We remember the Holly Holm head kick and the dethroning of the greatest welterweight of all-time at the fists of a pasta-fueled lightweight. Hell, we’re still less than a week out from Andy Ruiz Jr. flipping the world upside down.
Those of us who have been paying attention also know that Ansaroff has been playing the spoiler lately. A dark horse in the division, Ansaroff is entering the bout on a four-fight win streak. Her most recent showcase saw her take a unanimous decision over former title challenger Claudia Gadelha at UFC 231 in December. According to handicappers, Ansaroff was supposed to lose to her last three opponents. “The Strina” must have missed the memos.
She has the experience advantage and defends 80% of takedowns attempted on her, but she’s never faced someone with the takedowns of a Tatiana Suarez.
She couldn’t have. Nobody else like Suarez exists at 115lbs in the UFC.
Heading into the weekend, it’s Suarez’s potential that has pundits and fans excited. It’s her capacity to overcome and her drive to succeed that has brought her this far. It’s the cutthroat nature of the upper echelon of the strawweight division and the technicians who dwell there that makes this and future matchups so compelling.
It’s many things.
But for a little girl who regularly had to prove that she deserved to be there, it’s her chance to shine.
If the writing on the wall is to be accepted, it’s Tatiana time.
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The Scrap’s Brandon Sibcy has been following MMA since the year that Randleman dumped Fedor on his head and has been writing about it since the last year that Cody Garbrandt was undefeated. Follow Brandon on Twitter (@B_S_Sibcy).