How Liz Carmouche turned a decade of disappointment into dominance after being summarily fired
History remembers the winners. Liz Carmouche has often been fodder for some of the sport’s greatest winners. Woven through the fabric of women’s MMA, Carmouche has been a constant but often overlooked presence. But in her second defense of the women’s flyweight title at Bellator 294, Carmouche quietly built her resume to be considered one of the finest pioneers.
Ronda Rousey is often credited in the mainstream as the driving force behind women’s MMA, and rightly so, but she didn’t do it alone. Carmouche stood with Rousey in the trenches at the base of the UFC women’s divisions. When UFC President Dana White refuted his inflammatory statement that women would never fight in the UFC, it was Rousey and Carmouche who engaged in the first UFC women’s fight and led UFC 157 with the newly established UFC Women’s Bantamweight Championship .
A dozen years into her pro career and after three failed world title bids, Carmouche finally replaced the weight of failed expectations with a championship belt. Winning the Bellator Women’s Flyweight Championship last April was a “super validation” for Carmouche, which she and many others took as her last stand.
“I had to understand that if I didn’t do what I had to do in my career, I wouldn’t get another shot at the title,” Carmouche told CBS Sports. “I knew I had it in me. I’ve put in more work than anyone I’ve ever seen, anyone I’ve ever known. I’m there seven days a week, 365 days a year. I don’t know if everyone else is. Everyone takes time to party, to drink, to get fat, to take time off, and to vacation. I’ve missed funerals. I missed vacation. I missed weddings because I had a dream and I knew I could make it happen. I just had to keep going.”
Carmouche snatched the title from Juliana Velasquez on Bellator’s last visit to Hawaii, achieving what she had long eluded her and avenging her close friend, former champion Ilima-Lei MacFarlane, when she also ended Velasquez’s unbeaten run. Carmouche’s cathartic coronation was quickly stifled by allegations of an early termination. Another curveball in a career full of disappointing detours.
“That was hard just because I came out excited like I did it. Not only did I win, but it wasn’t by decision. I finished them. I did everything right. I made some mistakes in the fight but I came back and I believed in myself and I pushed. I made it,” Carmouche said. “But the moment I left that cage, everything changed. All the glamor and excitement of that victory was thrown into controversy and questions and doubts, all of which thought it would be recalled would and that I didn’t really win that argument.
“There was a call to arms. I said, ‘I can’t believe what I’ve been working for, all this work, and now there’s a chance I’ll get a call back from Bellator, like, ‘Hey, it got knocked over. Sorry, you’re not really that Champion.” I’m in Hawaii all the time trying to enjoy this time with my family, anticipating and waiting for that bad call.”
Luckily for Carmouche, that call never came. Eight months later, she ended any doubt about their rematch by securing a second-round submission.
Carmouche had plenty of energy to flow into a 5-0 run by Bellator with four stoppages. Carmouche, who is still licking the wounds from her loss to UFC world flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko, was released from UFC in December 2019 despite signing a new contract. As if that wasn’t painful enough, the UFC added salt to the wounds by notifying Carmouche of her release while fighting for the company on a UFC-appointed media tour.
“It felt like a stab in the back,” Carmouche said. “If we go and do media tours for them, we’re doing exactly what I’ve been doing – a week’s worth of media tours – we’re not being compensated financially for that. So I need to take time off from work and catch a last minute flight. While they pay for the flight and hotel, they don’t cover your meal.
“So here I am I just took a week off and I’m out there losing money doing this because I think I’m doing it for career advancement to support this organization just to find out : ‘No, you wasted all the money for nothing.’ Luckily I had a job to return to, but ‘What do I do now? I can’t believe this is happening and that’s how it was done. You asked me to.’”
This hard pill is better washed down with gold, but even then the silver lining cut through the darkness of the unknown.
“What I had to take away from myself in that moment was that there had to have been a reason that happened,” Carmouche said. “If I hadn’t left the UFC, I wouldn’t have been a champion at Bellator. I would say about two years before this fight I cornered my friend Ilima-Lei. I would go and help her with her struggles. I saw Bellator and I thought, ‘The grass definitely seems greener this side of things.’ I asked my manager, “Hey, can we end my contract with the UFC and can I fight for Bellator?” We couldn’t make it work at the time. Then, lo and behold, I got circumcised and actually made it to Bellator.”
A second win over DeAnna Bennett on Friday night will extend Carmouche’s active winning streak to six, tying a personal best she set in her debut year, 2010. That’s at the core of Carmouche’s newfound success. The fight against yourself overcomes every challenger. Any additional motivation Carmouche needs, she draws from her US Armed Forces veterans.
“The evolution of me. That was the biggest thing that’s progressed within Bellator,” said Carmouche. “I’m in the gym all the time, striving to learn new things and to push myself and push the edge of the glass ceiling and break it over and over again. It was never about my opponents. It was never about who holds a belt It’s about seeing me as a belt holder and what does that mean to me?
“By doing this, I want to shed much more light on veterans and be able to help other veterans out there achieve their goals and dreams, raise awareness about suicide, raise awareness about mental health, to not only help veterans to be able to , but other people who are in need. For people to see that and build support systems and use my belt to be able to do that.
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