Only a handful of minutes since her dream had suddenly been snatched from her grasp, Liz Carmouche stood at the dais in the bowels of the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., an ear-to-ear grin creasing her face.
Less than 15 minutes earlier, Carmouche had seemingly been seconds from submitting Ronda Rousey in the main event of UFC 157, a victory that would have made Carmouche perhaps the UFC's most unlikely champion ever.
An enduring image from that show is one of Carmouche on Rousey's back, tugging on a neck crank, the slightest hint of a smile at the corners of her mouth.
Rousey managed to escape and forced Carmouche to submit to her patented arm bar, setting off a wild celebration inside the Honda Center.
The bout had been the first women's fight in UFC history and had attracted an inordinate amount of attention from mainstream media that normally don't cover mixed martial arts. Most of it centered around Rousey and her amazing ability to snap forearms, as if at will.
Carmouche, though, wasn't along for the ride. She shared her story as the first openly gay fighter in the UFC, dealing with an extraordinarily personal issue with class, style and grace.
And while the nearly nonstop media attention and her own gutsy performance vaulted Rousey into the highest strata of stardom in the sport, Carmouche didn't come out of it too badly, either.
She's still smiling, too, even as she prepares for her return July 27 at Key Arena when she faces Jessica Andrade at UFC on Fox 8 in Seattle.
Life is good for Carmouche these days. She made a financial windfall from the Rousey fight, the women's game has continued to grow, and she's got a house filled with furniture, thanks to the attention on her fight.
"It's been beyond incredible," Carmouche said of her experience following the loss to Rousey.
An executive for Ashley Furniture saw her appearance on UFC Primetime in which Carmouche spoke of not being able to afford a kitchen table.
The company reached out to Carmouche and offered her three pieces of furniture from its catalogue, no questions asked. Carmouche was a bit wary, at first.
It's not every day a total stranger calls and offers one something for free, no strings attached.
"I wondered a little bit what the take was," Carmouche said. "I figured they'd want me to do a commercial and all these things to help them. And I was shocked to learn that they honestly wanted nothing in return. I was blown away. They weren't looking for any recognition of any kind. They just wanted to do a kindness for someone.
"They have nothing to gain by this, and I think that shows the kind of company they are. They just wanted to give back."
Carmouche has given back by continuing to be an ambassador for the sport, representing herself, women fighters and MMA fighters in general with dignity.
She's such a genuine person and connects with people so easily that when Primetime showed a scene of her working the desk at the San Diego Combat Academy, it prompted a slew of calls.
A typical exchange went something like this:
Carmouche: Hello, San Diego Combat Academy. How can I help you?
Caller: Is Liz there?
Carmouche: Yes, speaking. This is Liz.
Caller: Liz Carmouche?
Carmouche: Yes. Do you want to buy a membership?
Caller: No, I live in New Jersey. I just couldn't believe it would actually be you who answered the phone. I wanted to say hello.
She's become something of a celebrity since fighting Rousey and finds that everyday tasks have become a little more daunting.
A trip to the grocery store to pick up a couple of missing items for the night's dinner becomes a two-hour trip of shopping, posing for photos, signing autographs and answering questions.
Her girlfriend, Elisa Lopez, has taken to doing most of the shopping because it gets to be a big deal when Carmouche goes.
But the affable fighter couldn't be happier. She realizes that she has truly made a difference in the last year and has played a major role in elevating not only women's MMA, but MMA in general.
"It's been incredible to talk to people and hear how I was able to impact their lives," she said. "Seeing their faces and hearing them tell how excited they have been to join a gym and achieve their goals has been nothing but rewarding for me.
"I'm really this introverted person, and to finally get to see the kind of impact I've been able to have in people's lives has been humbling."
She was supposed to fight Miesha Tate next, but when Cat Zingano was injured and couldn't compete opposite Rousey on "The Ultimate Fighter," Tate got that gig and Carmouche wound up against Andrade, a UFC newcomer.
The change in opponents hasn't changed Carmouche's attitude, though. She hasn't had many sleepless nights, dreaming of what could have been – "I slept through explosives going off in Iraq [during her time in the Marines], so I could pretty much sleep through anything," she says, chuckling – but she is aware she made a few mistakes that cost her a win over Rousey.
She's pushed herself with the same drive she had when she was preparing for Rousey, realizing that she still has a long way to go.
"At the end of the day, my goal is to be the champion," Carmouche said. "And to be the champion, I have to get better. There are times I think of that fight with Ronda and I say, 'I know I could have done this and this and this and this,' and that motivates me in the gym every day."
It's in her nature to smile, to be warm and open. Carmouche is saving the truly big smiles, though, for that special day when she finally has the title belt wrapped around her waist.
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