It's 2012. Miesha Tate sits silently in the Nationwide Arena locker room as the muted cheers of the crowd chant "Rousey" above her. She has just lost her Strikeforce belt to a woman whose shadow would haunt her career for the next half a decade.
On the other side of the equator in Brazil, a 24-year-old Amanda "The Lioness" Nunez watches as her fellow Brazilians — Aldo, Dos Santos, Silva, Barao — dominate the UFC title scene. She vows to one day be among them.
It's now 2016 and we are fast approaching the biggest card in UFC history. Both Tate and Nunes have battled their way through the most competitive division in women's MMA to secure a spot on the main card. If that's not pressure enough, they are fighting for the honor of being called the bantamweight champion of the world.
Tate's road in the UFC has been anything but easy. She lost both of her first two fights in the promotion: finished in the third round of her debut by Cat Zingano, before losing a hugely hyped rematch to her archrival, Ronda Rousey.
Doubters began to surround her, wondering if her dominant run in Strikeforce would translate at all in the UFC. Was she too hyped? Could she ever compete with the division's best? Could she even aspire to challenge the greatness of Ronda Rousey again?
Nunes' path was no less difficult. She entered the UFC in 2013. After successfully defeating two opponents, she too fell to Zingano early on in her career. Such a loss can be devastating for a young fighter. Questions of if she was ready to compete among the best 135-pound fighters arose. Could she contend for the belt? Will there ever be a female Brazilian champion?
Brazil is responsible for much of modern MMA. The Gracie family helped to create the very first UFC event, in large part to showcase the prowess of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. In the ensuing decades, Brazil established a dynasty of champions.
Anderson Silva still holds the record for the most consecutive title defenses in the UFC. Jose Aldo was at one point the first and only featherweight champion in UFC history, and went five years undefeated. For Nunes, adding her name to this list of legends would be an incredible honor. A loss to Zingano was not in her plans to achieve UFC glory.
But redemption is always preceded by defeat.
Tate began her comeback with a victory over Liz Carmouche. She kept that momentum going to win three more over the course of 15 months. She trained hard, fought harder, and showed that she was willing to go to war for 15 long, grueling minutes to take a victory home with her.
Nunes has also been impressive since her sole defeat in the UFC. She bounced back to secure three straight wins — a TKO, a submission and a decision — inside the Octagon, and earned a Performance of the Night award after choking out Sara McMann. Both of these women were becoming undeniable forces in the division and it was only a matter of time before one of them was given a shot — or in Tate’s case, another shot — at the belt.
Tate was the first to get a chance at the title. Her longtime rival Ronda Rousey had finally lost the belt, and was not ready to return and fight again. Tate quickly seized the opportunity and accepted a match-up with Holly Holm.
However, the doubts that surrounded her early UFC career still loomed heavy. Many MMA fans and analysts wrote her off. Tate was seen as an easy fight for Holm to take in her first title defense, a layover until Rousey recovered. And for a moment, it seemed like her critics were right.
Then it happened. A culmination of everything Miesha Tate had worked for, everything she has stood for in her MMA career. She persevered. She never gave up. And in the fifth and final round, she took Holly Holm's back and choked her opponent unconscious. Four years after her humbling defeat in Strikeforce, Miesha Tate was a champion again.
There are those who continue to say that Tate should not be the champion to begin with. That Holm was winning before she fell victim to a rear-naked choke. They say that Tate got lucky, that Holm got sloppy. If they fought again, Holly would walk right through her. Or if Ronda ever returned to the UFC, she would beat her again like she has twice before.
Miesha Tate is finally the champion. Despite that, and perhaps fittingly for a career defined by overcoming the skeptics, it is not yet enough.
To cement her legacy, Tate must defend her title. She must deny all possibility of being remembered as a fluke, as an accidental champion. It is only by conquering this hurdle will she ever get a final shot at Ronda Rousey, and perhaps, a place in history as one of the greatest of all time.
If Tate has a legacy weighing on her shoulders though, Nunes is carrying the burden of an entire nation.
Brazil has seemingly lost its step in recent years. Anderson Silva's legendary run was ended by an American. Renan Barao's nine-year undefeated streak was cut short by an American. Fabricio Werdum lost the heavyweight title to an American, in front of a shocked Brazilian crowd no less. Jose Aldo went down a different path, and had his title taken from him by an Irishman.
The women's bantamweight title has never even been held by a Brazilian. The belt has solely been in American hands since the weight class was established in the UFC.
For Amanda Nunes, the goal is clear: bring the title home. Back to where it all began. To help reclaim her country's birthright as a nation of champions.
Destiny. Legacy. When it comes down to it, this is a battle of honor. Nunes is fighting for the glory of her country. Tate is fighting for the right to be remembered. On July 9, we will see which one of them wants it more.
(Images via MMAWeekly.com)