Bantamweight Liz Carmouche isn’t just the only out mixed martial arts fighter in the sport. She’s a former Marine Corps sergeant with an impressive professional record of seven wins and two losses — and a title fight against formidable UFC champion Ronda Rousey coming up on Saturday, February 23. Carmouche was kind enough to take a break from training to chat with us.
AfterEllen.com: So, you have not just a fight, but a championship fight coming up. That has to be amazing.
Liz Carmouche: It’s exactly that. It’s amazing. The closer I get, I feel more and more amped about it.
AE: Your nickname is “The Girl-Rilla.” That’s pretty bad-ass. How did you get it?
LC: I got it from my coach, Manny Hernandez. It came from feats of strength that seemed impossible for my size, as well as crazy ground and pound and climbing up the cage, flipping off the cage…
AE: You served for as a Marine for five years and did three tours of duty in Iraq. How did you adjust to life back in the States when you finished?
LC: It was difficult when I got out of the military. You can kind of compartmentalize the Middle East and then your life when you’re in the military in the States. But it was a whole different world being in the military and being a civilian. Just from drills and lifestyle… Being able to actually spend more time at home. Going to school… The idea of even going back to school just blew my mind – I wasn’t looking forward to it. And then to actually live it… It was difficult, but it was nice to be free and to have that life and know that I did my time and I served my country. And now I was being able to live life as a result of it,
AE: You served under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. What was that like for you?
LC: It was really difficult. I didn’t really come out to myself until I was 22 and in the military. And at the same time I came out to my family, but under that policy, I wasn’t able to come out to my friends and my coworkers. I couldn’t be loud and proud. I was constantly looking over my shoulder, wondering if someone was going to find out and out me.
AE: And your best friend in the Marines was homophobic, is that correct?
LC: When I got out of the military is when I actually told her. She was moving back home, and I wanted to be as open as I could – through the guidance of my girlfriend – and see if it was a real friendship. Because I knew she’d been such a homophobe, I wasn’t able to do that until I was out of the military.
AE: And how did she react?
LC: Way better than I expected. Her response was pretty amazing. She went from being a homophobe who wanted to have everybody who was, as she put it, a “faggot,” to serve on the front lines so they’d get killed first to saying that she was mistaken. And she said she would never want that for me. And that she realized through talking to me and getting to know me, and me constantly trying to tell her not to judge people and to get to know people and see the person for who they were, that she was wrong. And she said it kind of changed her perspective on everybody.
AE: That’s impressive for both of you that she was able to make such a turn.
LC: Yeah, it was. It blew my mind. I’d never realized that I had had such an impact on her life.
AE: What got you interested in MMA?
LC: When I was in the military, there was some martial arts combative training that’s similar to MMA. And I really enjoyed it when I had an opportunity to train in it. So I was looking for something that was similar to that. I wanted to get back into a disciplined sport, and I wanted to train my body and find something that could challenge me mentally and physically. And friends suggested that MMA would be a perfect fit for me. And I did it and I fell in love with it right away.
AE: I’ve heard MMA described as “human chess.”
LC: That’s exactly how I would describe it. It’s mixed martial arts, so you have to know so many different things. You have to know jiu-jitsu, you have to know muay Thai. You have to know so many different kinds of martial arts, and if you don’t, you can fail. Your success relies on knowing every aspect of the game. And it’s the same thing in chess. You have to know what other chess pieces are capable of doing, otherwise you can out yourself in a position to lose the whole board. And MMA is the exact same thing.
AE: You are the first openly gay athlete in MMA. Has the community has been fairly open to you?
LC: They’ve been super open. The MMA community and the UFC.
AE: That’s great. And your fans call themselves –
LC: They call themselves the Lizbos.
AE: Do you think there are other fighters who are waiting to see how being out works out for you before they come out?
LC: I hope so. I hope that my success is going to help guide them.
AE: From looking at your numbers, it looks like (Olympic Judo medalist) Ronda Rousey is more of a grappler, while you have some incredible striking stats. How do you think your different styles will play out?
LC: We actually have a very similar ground game styles. But stand-up wise… If you look at videos and fight records, I do seem to have a more extensive stand-up background.
AE: Ronda Rousey has some serious judo skills and has had a first-round submission victory in every fight so far. What’s your plan for dealing with her?
LC: Sticking with my game plan. Making sure everything I want to do happens and stick to that.
AE: You mentioned Brazilian jiu-jitsu and muay Thai. Is there anything else you’re adding to your training regimen?
LC: Absolutely. I do a lot of strength training and conditioning, so weight training and endurance training, and I also do boxing and wrestling.
AE: That’s a long day.
LC: It’s a very long day. [laughs]
AE: I saw an interview in which you mentioned that you were training for your Rousey fight by finding her sparring opponents and not just sparring with them but talking to them about their fights with her. That’s ingenious. Any other training secrets?
LC: Absolutely. But they’re just that: secrets.
AE: Do you have any superstitions before a fight?
LC: No, not really. I did kind of have a few little superstitions, but I realized that’s exactly what they were. Having studied psychology in school, I knew about superstitions and not to fall into them. As an athlete, it’s really difficult not to. It’s so easy to believe that you have a lucky bra that you have to wear in every fight. So I did have that, but I told myself that it was ridiculous and that I needed let it go.
I know other people that do it. I know some of the guys have their lucky cups that they wear and refuse to wash them.
LC: Or there are plenty of people who have lucky socks that they never wash that they wear every single time, and I’m like, “Oh, that’s so disgusting.”
AE: You’ve said that you like coming into fights as the underdog. Why is that?
LC: In part it’s because for every single fight except one, I did come in as the underdog. So nobody expects anything, so I blow everybody’s mind when I come out with a win. Or I’ve had it happen where I’m dominating a fight and nobody expected it, so it works that much more in my favor. And I can sneak in under the radar. It’s something that no one expects.
AE: You have a longtime girlfriend, is that right?
LC: That’s correct.
AE: What is it like for her to watch you fight? Does she like it, or is it difficult to watch you in a situation where you could get hurt?
LC: It is mixed. If you really care about your partner, you don’t want to see her get hurt, so she does have that conflict. But she’s the most supportive person that I have in my life. She’s at every single fight with exception one. And usually she’s braiding my hair, she’s helping me hydrate, she’s helping me relax and calm down. She’s amazing. I honestly don’t know if I’d have had the success that I have if it wasn’t for her.
AE: Weight cutting [suddenly dropping a lot of weight to make your weight class] for fights seems horrible. How do you deal with that?
LC: I don’t do it, that’s how I deal with it. I know that there are plenty of people who do 20 pounds or 25 pounds, but that’s just not me. I maintain being active and training year-round, and I don’t really take any breaks except for a maybe day or two off here and there. And I eat healthy. I’ll maybe have a cheat day and that’s about it. So I make sure my weight isn’t fluctuating all crazy, so I don’t usually have to cut any weight before a fight.
AE: What would your opening move be if you were in a street fight?
LC: Run away. [Laughs] It would depend on what’s near me. I suppose if I had a bottle, it would be to bash it over the head. Or Superman off something… Throw dirt in their face… It kind of depends on what I have available.
AE: Always strategizing.
LC: Yeah. If I have a friend there, I throw my friend in the way. That would be my first move. [Laughs]
AE: You’re kind of a pioneer in MMA. Do you see yourself as a role model?
LC: Yes and no. When I’m sitting at home and have a chance to really think about things, it’s amazing to me that I have an opportunity to do that. And when people ask, or kids tell me that I am, then I’m aware of it. But it’s hard for me to think that I’m that person. I always thought it would be somebody else. But I embrace it, and it’s amazing and I’m really fortunate that I can be that for other people.
AE: It seems like you’ve had an exciting but very dangerous life. Do you worry about girls who might follow you in that path?
LC: No, not at all. I think that people are capable of anything, especially in their youth. So if it’s something that they want to do… Now, MMA can be a goal for anybody; when I was a child, it wasn’t. So if MMA is something that they want to get involved in as a child, they have so many more options and opportunities than I had growing up that now is a great time to do it. I teach kids MMA, so I see them all the time, and it’s amazing. Like in the military, there are so many more possibilities now, and so many changes have been made that I think even that can be a real strength if it’s something you want to do.
AE: Speaking of that, how do you feel about the decision to allow women in combat roles – or really to acknowledge that women have already been in combat roles?
LC: You’re absolutely correct: Women were already in combat roles. It’s just that certain jobs weren’t available. Specifically, some of jobs that I wanted to do when I was in the military. So I think it’s great for them, and I’m glad that women are finally being given the opportunity, and I think they’re going to step up and show everyone that they made the right decision. They’re just going to blow everybody’s minds with their abilities and their drive.
AE: You mentioned you’ve been teaching MMA to kids. What do you see in a kid that lets you know he or she will be a good fighter?
LC: I think at that age, I don’t have expectations for them to compete, because that’s how I was at that age. One minute I was telling my mom I wanted to be a musician and play lead guitar, and then the next day I was telling my mom I just wanted to ride motorcycles or be a professional soccer player. So… I expect that to come out of the kids. If they want to train, sometimes that shifts a bit, and if you stick with it, I’ll be supportive. I don’t ever push the kids to compete. I’ll let them know that if they do, I’ll be there for every single competition supporting them on the sidelines. But if that’s not something they want to do, then that’s okay too, and I’m just happy with them being there.
AE: Thanks for talking to us. Good luck with the fight!
LC: Thank you very much.
Follow Liz Carmouche on Twitter @iamgirlrilla.