UFC

Carmouche: Marine, fighter, role model

Liz Carmouche will face Ronda Rousey in the first-ever women's UFC bout.
Liz Carmouche will face Ronda Rousey in the first-ever women's UFC bout.
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A.J. Perez

A.J. Perez previously worked at USA Today, AOL and CBSSports.com, covering beats ranging from performance-enhancing drugs to the NHL. He has also been a finalist for an Associated Press Sports Editors award for investigative reporting. Follow him on Twitter.

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As Liz Carmouche exited the closet, she kept one seemingly more trivial part of her life hidden from family.

Carmouche had just finished her five-year commitment with the Marines — which included three tours in Iraq — in 2010 when she walked into the San Diego Combat Academy. A conversation with her mother followed.

“‘Mom, I’m training in this thing called MMA,’” Carmouche told her mother. “She said, ‘OK. That’s cool.’ I told her I was doing it to get in shape. She didn’t know what MMA was until she talked to one of her friends on the phone a few days later. She looked it up on the Internet and wasn’t too happy.”

In three short years, Carmouche has been able to alter her mother’s feelings about the sport and become a trailblazer in the process. She’s the first openly gay UFC fighter and co-headlines Saturday’s UFC 157 card at Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. with Ronda Rousey — the sanctioning body’s initial entry into female MMA.

Carmouche said her mother was similarly hesitant about her entering the military. Her father — who she said was not in the picture beyond her early formative years — was a military lifer, although that wasn’t much of a factor.

“I was looking to get some focus on my life,” said Carmouche, who turned 29 on Tuesday. “I was going to college full time and working. None of that mattered to me. It didn’t have any meaning. I wanted to do something physically challenging. I wanted some direction.”

The Marines appealed to her and after basic training she began her military career as a technician servicing aviation electronics in helicopters. She told FOXSports.com that a job on the frontlines — which had been off limits for women until Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban last month — would have appealed to her.

Carmouche also served in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era, a since-rescinded policy that forced homosexuals in the military to remain closeted.

“I was always looking over my shoulder wondering if someone was trying to out me and if I would lose my rank, get kicked out of the military and be dishonorably discharged,” Carmouche told OutSports.com.

That didn’t happen, but she has more than just embraced her sexuality since she was discharged. Her newfound stature in the MMA community has made her a role model in the gay community.

“I do feel like I have gotten a lot of attention for it,” Carmouche said. “It’s not what I expected, but I’m grateful to be able to be a spokesperson, to be a role model. I didn’t think it would go this far.”

Carmouche’s coach, Manolo Hernandez, even began a fan club: the Lizbos. Before UFC 157 was announced, the “Lizbos” mounted a Twitter campaign and lobbed numerous messages at UFC president Dana White informing him that they wanted Carmouche to get this historic title shot.

“I thought it was funny,” Hernandez told FOXSports.com. “We just combined 'Liz' and 'lesbos.' We wanted to get some attention. Our Twitter followers went from only about 1,000 to about 15,000 now.”

Twitter fame, however, doesn't mean famous. Around Hillcrest — one of San Diego’s hipper neighborhoods and home to several gay bars — Carmouche said she usually goes unnoticed.

“Around Hillcrest, nobody treats me any differently,” Carmouche said. “It doesn’t seem like there are a lot of MMA fans there. Nobody knows me. It’s one of the safest places for me to go.”

Carmouche is easily the lesser exposed of the two fighters atop Saturday’s card. Rousey — an Olympic bronze medalist in judo and the final Strikeforce bantamweight champ before the UFC absorbed the promotion — is the overwhelming favorite and, literally, the more exposed of the two; Rousey appeared nearly naked in ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue.

Carmouche said she understands her underdog status. (She’s lacks Rousey’s judo pedigree and is 8-2 as a professional.) She added she doesn’t resent Rousey in the least and the dialogue between the two camps has been cordial in recent weeks. Beyond winning, Carmouche hopes that her performance instills a positive image for women in MMA — one that might not make the mother of the next up-and-coming female fighter cringe.

“This is going to open the door,” Carmouche said of the 135-pound bantamweight division. “I think we are going to see more women.”

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