Tatiana Suarez Win!Friday, July 8, 2016 Article By Brian Martin, LA Daily News
By Brian Martin, LA Daily News
LAS VEGAS — For being the No. 1 pick on Season 23 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Tatiana Suarez somehow managed to fly under the radar.
Outside of the Octagon, that is.
In the cage, in typical Suarez fashion, she let her actions do the talking.
The former wrestling prodigy was as dominant as expected, advancing into Friday night’s Ultimate Fighter Finale strawweight final with a first-round submission of Kate Jackson that aired Wednesday night on Fox Sports 1.
For a relative novice to MMA — Suarez was 2-0 as an amateur before going 3-0 as a pro — it was a priceless six weeks for the one-time world-class wrestler.
“Every time I felt like I got better and better and more relaxed and more comfortable in the Octagon, which is great,” Suarez said. “I got the opportunity to ease myself into the UFC, but also get recognition and some cage time and experience. It’s been amazing.”
Even more impressive was Suarez’s determination throughout the series.
The Northview High graduate and Fontana resident, who trains at Millennia MMA in Rancho Cucamonga, kept her head down and worked, seeming to elude the all-hours camera crew on the UFC reality show.
One poignant one-on-one moment, however, was a close-up of Suarez declaring championships and belts weren’t as meaningful as the journey and who you become during the journey.
“I believe sometimes we get lost, day in and day out, because we train so hard and all we do is train,” Suarez said Tuesday from Las Vegas. “Sometimes you’ve gotta look back and step back for a second, just look at what you’re doing and embrace the fact you’re living your dream. Not everybody gets to do that. Not everybody gets to enjoy their job.”
The Bellflower native’s journey began with a dream when she was 3, embracing wrestling from her older brother, Chris Lopez, and becoming a grappling sensation.
She starred on the Northview boys’ wrestling team, winning a league title and advancing to the CIF Southern Section and Masters meets.
Known as Tatiana Padilla, she became the best 55 kg female wrestler in the United States. She won bronze medals at the world championships in 2008 and 2010.
A ticket to the 2012 London Olympics was all but punched, a lifelong goal so close to being realized.
And it was all derailed in early 2011 by a neck injury.
“For me, it was a blessing in disguise,” said Suarez, who was dealing with pain and shooting sensations down her arm.
An MRI and CAT scan not only revealed a bothersome disc in her neck, but a cancerous growth on her thyroid.
Radiation therapy ensued, along with the removal of Suarez’s thyroid and several lymph nodes around her neck.
Worse than all that, in Suarez’s eyes, was losing her dream.
“It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever faced in my entire life. Being so close to the Olympics was hard for me, it was very heartbreaking,” she said. “You know, now looking back, I realize God was giving me a bigger dream. He was taking one thing away from me but giving me something even greater.”
Her mother said it was difficult to see her daughter’s dreams dashed, but she knew she’d bounce back.
“To me, my daughter having cancer was more devastating than her losing her dream,” said Linda Padilla, “because you can always have another dream, but you can’t have another life if you lose it.”
As her mother raised her, Suarez strived to find positives. She was thankful the cancer was discovered before it spread to her lungs. She found joy that her friend Kelsey Campbell wrestled at 55 kg in the Olympics. And after years of training and traveling to tournaments, Suarez was grateful for the time she finally got to spend with her family.
“For me, I believe I gained so much from the experience,” she said. “Looking back, it’s only made me a stronger person, so I’m very grateful for the struggle.”
As she rid herself of the cancer and rehabbed her neck, Suarez yearned for competition. She found it at Millennia MMA in the form of jiu-jitsu.
Thus, a new dream was born.
“She has a spirit and determination that is beyond what many of us can conceive. I just think she was born that way,” Padilla said of her daughter, whom she said grew so upset at not being able to move as an infant that she walked when she was 8 months old.
“She was born with some innate ability to be competitive and competing at such a young age that she doesn’t remember not being competitive.”
Suarez eventually found her niche, still on a mat but now in a cage. Her wrestling background complemented her new jiu-jitsu skills.
A future star was born. As Suarez trained with her “Ultimate Fighter” teammates, who in comparison had an abundance of experience, she had found her place.
In her way is Cooper (1-1), who had 11 amateur fights and was regarded by many as the best striker on the show. Suarez won’t offer a prediction for her fight against Cooper, who advanced to the final with a first-round rear-naked choke of Lachanna Green, but she has her opinions.
“I think she’s a skilled fighter, but I believe I put in more work than she has and I’ve taken my training seriously longer than she has and I’ve mentally prepared harder than she has,” Suarez said. “I’m super confident in myself and my abilities and my training and my coaches. And I’m super confident in my heart and my will to win.”
Through it all, she hasn’t lost sight of the journey.
Another day. Another dream.
“For me, it’s a second opportunity. I’m very blessed,” she said. “My family has been so supportive and my coaches, my friends. I’m just grateful for another dream and I’m grateful I get to live it.
“Who knows? You never know. I might one day be in the Olympics. You never know.”
The Ultimate Fighter Finale
7 p.m. Friday
MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas
TV: Fox Sports 1
Main card (7 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
Women’s strawweight champion Joanna Jederzejczyk (11-0) vs. No. 1 Claudia Gadelha (13-1)
“TUF 23” light heavyweight final: Andrew Sanchez vs. Khalil Rountree
“TUF 23” women’s strawweight final: Tatiana Suarez vs. Amanda Bobby Cooper
Ross Pearson (21-10, 1 NC) vs. Will Brooks (17-1), lightweights
Doo Ho Choi (13-1) vs. Thiago Tavares (24-6-1), featherweights
Joaquim Silva (8-0) vs. Andrew Holbrook (11-0), lightweights
Prelims (5 p.m., FS1)
Gray Maynard (12-6-1, 1 NC) vs. Fernando Bruno (16-3), featherweights
No. 6 John Moraga (16-4) vs. Matheus Nicolau (11-2-1), flyweights
Cory Hendricks (3-0) vs. Josh Stansbury (7-2), light heavyweights
Cezar Ferreira (10-5) vs. Anthony Smith (25-11), middleweights
Early prelims (4 p.m., UFC Fight Pass)
Jake Matthews (11-1) vs. Kevin Lee (12-2), lightweights
Li Jingliang (10-4) vs. Anton Zafir (7-2), welterweights
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