It’s only a few quiet seconds located about halfway through the UFC’s new Thrill and Agony clip on YouTube, a two minute blast of highs, lows, sound, and fury from UFC 205 in Madison Square Garden last weekend. But, given the person involved, it’s as dramatic and definitive as any shattered tibia or teeth-loosening KO.
“I don’t want to fight anymore,” Miesha Tate tells her romantic and training partner Bryan Caraway in the Octagon, moments before Bruce Buffer announced the official decision—a unanimous one for her opponent, Raquel Pennington—and moments before she would go on announce her retirement from MMA. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Heart is so hard to define in sports—especially combat ones. It can’t be measured as easily as strikes. It’s not even as obvious as something like ring control. MMA’s scripted cousin, pro wrestling, has abused the abstract concept to such an extent that legendary announcer Jim Ross often made it sound like some sort of mystical element that could only be channeled at the most dramatic moment of a fight, or perhaps shifting into another gear. But it’s both more ethereal and more powerful than that: a key component of a fighter’s psyche that is almost as impossible to manufacture as it is to define. Something that can rarely win a fight completely on its own, but can surely sink even the most dedicated of athletes when it’s gone.
And although the concept of heart might be hard to pinpoint in MMA, there are few who can argue that former UFC and Strikeforce Women’s Bantamweight Champion Miesha Tate didn’t have it. Heart, in fact, may have been one of her strongest qualities as a fighter both in and out of the cage over the course of her decade-long career. You need to skill to succeed in the cage—and Tate has never been short on that, either—but it takes heart to establish yourself as a female fighter at a time when women’s divisions and opportunities were in even shorter supply in North America. You need heart to see through the political and business machinations that Tate faced when Ronda Rousey was still on top and continue to fight for her own place in the UFC. It took impressive grappling skills to sink that rear-naked choke on Holly Holm to claim the Bantamweight belt at 3:30 in the 5th round, but it took heart to weather Holm’s storm up until that point.
In hindsight, though, it’s clear that, even as that defining quality was pushing her to one of the biggest achievements—and helping her to regain another shot at that title—her heart was also staring to falter. Her discussion of retirement after finding out that Holm had been awarded the next shot at Rousey last year might have looked like frustration, or maybe even petulance, at the time, but it’s not clear that the concern ran deeper than that.
Comments that she made on Rousey’s future at a media luncheon in early November also seem quite prescient now. “The only thing I can say is that I question how much she really wants to be doing this. And I can say that if you don’t really want to do it, then it’s going to affect your ability to train and push that extra bit in training and in practice,” Tate said. “If you don’t really want to do it, if you don’t really want to be there—and I’m not seeing she does or doesn’t, so I can’t say that—but I can say that if you’re heart’s not really into it, it’s kind of a dangerous sport to play in that sense.”
It was a topic that was clearly on her mind in the days leading up to her bout against Pennington. Even her word choices about really wanting to do it are similar to those she later said to Caraway last Saturday night. But her ability to recognize that in the moment, in front of that history-making crowd in New York City, is a testament to another one of Tate’s defining qualities: her brain.
You could argue that Tate’s sense for the sport has never been sharper than it was in those final moments of her professional career as she assessed herself and her place in the sport. She knows that MMA without heart is dangerous. She knew that a Miesha Tate without heart no longer was. And she made the right call for herself as both a human being and as a fighter.
Some fans—including Raquel Pennington—have suggested that going out on a loss isn’t the best way to retire. But she retired on one of the biggest nights in UFC history, not just on her own terms (as Randy Couture recently described the departure) but in full cognizance of herself and what made her work as a fighter. It might not be the kind of end that fuels Oscar-baiting biopics, but it’s one that will have a lasting legacy in the fight world. And it’s a step that took a lot of heart.
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