You know what is actually tricky as all hell? Trying to direct a serious, substantive criticism at a person who everybody knows you already have beef with. It just doesn’t really work. You can be saying totally legit things that are worth listening to and considering, and the response from a lot of people is bound to be: Dog you just hate them.
Such is the situation that Miesha Tate now finds herself in. She’s had some stuff to say recently about the dynamic between Aspen Ladd and her coach/boyfriend Jim West, after the latter got all up in the former’s face to let her know she was blowing it in her fight with Norma Dumont last month. But see, this all comes after Tate getting into it with Ladd and West (especially West) via the ol’ Twitter recently. So even when she makes solid points, to some people it’s bound to look like kicking your foes when they’re down.
But for real, though? When Tate talks about the trouble with female fighters dating their coaches, she does actually know what the fuck she’s talking about. And it is, sport-wide, an incredibly common relationship dynamic. It’s also a goddamn minefield, even if we rarely talk about it beyond Jon Anik casually mentioning it on the broadcast when some female fighter’s cornerman also happens to be her life partner.
Initially, Tate was talking about West’s approach with Ladd between rounds in that one fight. But on a recent appearance on The MMA Fortnight, she got more big picture once she was asked whether, having been through that dynamic with ex-partner and fellow fighter Bryan Caraway, she now thinks it’s a bad idea for fighters to be coached by their romantic partners.
“Absolutely, especially your lead coach,” Tate said. “I would absolutely say you don’t want that. And that’s where Johnny and I differ very much from what I was used to. … We don’t have someone who’s in charge of the other one. We are just there to support each other, because it’s difficult when someone always gets to be the boss of you. And that translates over into the personal life, too, where you just start to feel like you lose yourself. Because where do you draw the line? Where’s the difference? If somebody always gets to be the boss of you, and it’s 24-7, pretty soon you’re swallowed up in that. Especially if you’re not with the right person to give you that guidance. It’s a very tricky thing to do. I don’t think very many people are able to make a head coach relationship [work]. And it’s always women. It’s always women that end up dating their head coach.”
That last part rings especially true. At least anecdotally, it feels like we only ever hear of two relationship options for female fighters: date your coach, or date a fellow fighter (who often ends up in some type of assistant coaching capacity in your corner on fight night anyway). This holds pretty true even across lines of sexual orientation. Male fighters date whomever. Sometimes they’re in the MMA world in some capacity, often they are not. But female fighters? They almost exclusively seem to date within this sport. And for heterosexual female fighters, that very frequently translates to some manner of coach-fighter dynamic.
I did a story on this a few years ago, and when I asked female fighters why they thought it happened this way so often, the answer was basically twofold: 1) There are way more men in MMA gyms than there are women, so it’s partly a numbers game, but also 2) female fighters have a tougher time dating outside the sport.
That second point is really about lifestyle and flexibility within relationships. As one female fighter told me, you need to have a partner who understands why you can’t meet them for happy hour, or take the weekend to go to their cousin’s wedding, or even allow a pint of ice cream to sit in the freezer where it might call out in the middle of the night and ruin a weight cut diet. Not everyone is going to get that, or want to work around it in a long-term relationship. This lifestyle can be all-consuming. Plus, if you’re spending all your time in the gym or else at home recovering from the gym, it becomes your whole social life. Where else are you going to meet people?
Also, as more than one person pointed out, women who don’t fight or train might think it’s cool or at least inoffensive if their boyfriend does. Men who don’t fight or train, on the other hand, are considerably more likely to have their egos threatened by it in one way or another. So in other words, the argument goes, female fighters have fewer options.
But there also seems like there has to be some other part to it. Especially when you think about how often we see female fighters who first meet their eventual partners in a fighter-coach situation, and then later begin a romantic relationship with them. How can it not have an effect on how your relationship develops if your first interactions with one another take place within this hierarchical power dynamic? In fight sports, your coach might be responsible for telling you everything from how to train to how to eat. The gym culture fosters this “yes, sensei!” mindset which feels pretty incompatible with a romantic partnership between two equals.
Of course, when you ask they’ll usually tell you they can turn it on and off. Coach at the gym, boyfriend at home. But that’s harder than it sounds. Tate, whose first experiences in MMA were with Caraway as her coach, knows all about that. I remember talking to both of them for a story about their decision to have the late Robert Follis take over as head coach when they both relocated to the Xtreme Couture gym. The analogy Follis gave them was, imagine standing there and holding a glass of water. Easy enough. But then imagine holding it all day, never putting it down, carrying it to work and then back home again. Soon it feels unbearably heavy.
Kind of weird, then, that this is the dominant dynamic in women’s MMA. It seems damn difficult for both parties, but especially for the fighter. And for the most part, it seems like no one in this sport wants to talk about it too much, or delve into why it’s so common, or think too hard about the power dynamics at work. No one except for people like Tate, who have done a little living and learning in that regard. But it’s hard not to wonder if the people she’s talking to on this stuff are even able to hear her at the moment.
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