In just a few days, Liz Carmouche will become the first openly gay fighter to participate in a UFC fight. The bout marks a series of firsts, as it will also be the first female Ultimate Fighting Championship title fight, with Carmouche and opponent Ronda Rousey being the first female headliners in UFC history.
A former marine, Carmouche is no stranger to intense physical and mental toughness. She is an Iraqi War veteran, who attributes her will and drive mainly to her mom’s “can- attitude.” She says she used it as inspiration and to drive success during her time in the military. “Even if you feel like you’ve reached a point and you can’t exceed it, you have to push yourself because your life and the lives of others depend on it,” Carmouche says.
Having completed her service in 2009, three years before Obama’s appeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” Carmouche describes her experience as a gay servicewoman as “very difficult.” “I constantly had to look over my shoulder, always wondering if somebody was going to try and out me,” she says. While the fighter wasn’t able to personally experience being out in the military, she says she’s pleased to see pictures and videos of out marines coming home from service and being free to embrace their partners in public. “It’s a huge change,” she says. “It’s amazing.”
Still, Carmouche remains grateful for her personal experience, despite feeling “uncomfortable being in open relationships” during her time in the military. “I feel like those were hurdles in my life that I experienced that made me stronger, and it made it [possible] for me to come out the way I have today,” she says that if she hadn’t had those struggles she wouldn’t, “be such a loud voice like I am now.”
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The UFC is the largest mixed martial arts competition in the world, where fighters enter the cage and engage in various styles of hand-to-hand combat. A paramount example of human physical competition, MMA isn’t for the faint of heart, and Carmouche draws similarities between fighting and her career in the military. “There is a mental toughness that you have to have in both that coincides very strongly between the two,” she says.
Having experienced homophobia during her time in the marines, Carmouche says she did have some concerns about being out as an MMA fighter. “I was afraid that I would receive a lot of backlash and that I wasn’t going to be accepted by teammates, and that I was going to get denied sponsorship because of my sexual preference.” That’s all understandable, considering the UFC hasn't always been seen as very gay friendly. The sport received some backlash in 2009, when UFC president Dana White used a gay slur on his personal blog. Still, Carmouche hasn’t seen any inkling of homophobia during her time as an MMA fighter. “Quite the opposite,” she insists. “UFC knew how open I was going into it,” she explains. “And they’ve done everything in their power to help give me opportunities because of my background.” As far as her experience with White, Carmouche says fondly, “He’s been nothing but accepting and really helpful.”
“The Girl-Rilla,” as Carmouche is known, says that in the weeks leading up to the big day, she’ll really be “focusing on the fight,” and that she’s excited that the UFC is pushing forward towards equality. “We’ve finally gotten to a point where we can accept that women are strong athletes and strong in general,” she says. Her physical strength in the cage is something that can be attributed to her intense will, and she encourages young men and women to pursue their own dreams, especially in the face of adversity. “You’re the only person that can hold you back in life. You’re the only person who can tell you ‘no’ and that you can’t do something.” Watch Liz Carmouche and Ronda Rousey make history, Saturday February 23 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, and the fight will be available for viewing on pay-per-view.