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Liz Carmouche of the United States, right, fights against Katlyn Chookagian of the United States in their women's bantamweight bout during the UFC 205 event at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 12, 2016 in New York City.
Liz Carmouche of the United States, right, fights against Katlyn Chookagian of the United States in their women's bantamweight bout during the UFC 205 event at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 12, 2016 in New York City. (Michael Reaves, Getty Images/TNS)

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — The surest way to gauge the steeled nerves and toughness of San Diego-based MMA fighter Liz Carmouche is to ask an unnerving and alarming question.

In three tours of Iraq as a Camp Pendleton-trained Marine helicopter electrician, the woman came much too close to improvised explosive devices that detonated.

One time, she said, she miraculously escaped injury despite being fewer than 20 feet from a blast near Al Taqaddum, roughly 45 miles west of Baghdad.

So, how many times has she been near exploding IEDs?

“Let’s see,” said Carmouche, pausing to count. “One, two, three … three, maybe four times.”

Carmouche, a 37-year-old mother who has lived in San Diego since 2005, will fight No. 3 ranked flyweight Kana Watanabe as the co-main event for Bellator MMA 261 on June 25 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.

How does someone steady themselves mentally for a world of flying fists, hyperextended elbows and ribs bruised purple? How do you arm-bar wilting pressure and close-quarters stress?

Start with dodging life-threatening explosives in a sandy, remote outpost half a world away where any step could be your last.

“Absolutely,” said Carmouche, when asked if hairy military experiences aided her career as a fighter. “You learn to do things under stress and do things as fast and efficiently as possible. Things like that prepare you for other real-life scenarios.

“That’s helped me so much, facing those hardships and gaining that perspective and experience, gaining the strength to push through every situation.”

Carmouche’s fighting career began as a juggling act in San Diego, where she attended San Diego City and Mesa colleges, chasing down a degree in kinesiology and an associate degree in psychology. She would attend classes all morning, then train all afternoon.

Along the way, she began piling up firsts along with victories.

Carmouche was the first openly gay fighter in UFC history. She faced off against icon Ronda Rousey in that group’s first women’s bout. She entered the ring for the first MMA matchup in Madison Square Garden history as her face towered above Times Square.

“My mom was born and raised in New York,” Carmouche said. “They had me get in front of politicians and the (state) Senate to help legalize fighting in New York. When they asked if I wanted to be in the first fight, I jumped on it.”

The distinction as a trailblazing gay athlete grew not from trying to leave a lasting imprint on a sport, but a freeing moment after years in the military.

“It wasn’t my intention to be that person,” Carmouche said. “After my time in the Marine Corps with ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ I didn’t want to hide any more. The way I was raised, I didn’t have a role model who was openly out.

“So, it’s an honor to be that person. I’ve heard a lot overwhelmingly positive things about lives I’ve touched.”

Another life-altering decision came when Carmouche and her wife, Braelyn, decided to start a family. They’re raising 5-year-old Brandt, who might be the most confident in Camp Carmouche when a fight approaches.

“The last fight, he said, ‘There’s no point in watching it. Mommy’s going to win. She worked so hard,’ ” she said.

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged on, Carmouche’s family picked up an acre of land near Ramona as another adventure revealed itself.

“We found the cost to clear it so there was less chance of fire would be $2,500,” she said. “So we bought some fainting goats to clean up the property. Thankfully, my wife stays at home. She takes care of the crazy animals and our child (when I’m fighting).”

Carmouche has fought for championship belts four times in her career, including the Rousey fight and the most recent against Valentina Shevchenko for the UFC flyweight title on Aug. 10, 2019, in Uruguay.

Standing 0-for-4 in those fights continues to stoke internal fire for Carmouche, who has won the last four fights sandwiched around the Shevchenko loss.

Winning later this month on Showtime would position Carmouche for a possible title shot against flyweight champ Juliana Velasquez.

“Coming into Bellator, I didn’t want to slide into title contention just because I was in UFC,” she said. “That wasn’t fair to the other women. If I had to fight through all the women, I wanted to do that.”

The hard-charging Marine nicknamed Girl-rilla …

Girl-rilla?

“My nickname was Liz Lemon,” Carmouche explained. “When I would go for a takedown or get in there to ‘ground and pound,’ I would make this disgustingly horrible face like I sucked on a lemon.

“When I got more proficient, I would jump off the cage on the person. They’re said ‘You’re like a gorilla.’ The moment my coach said it, it stuck.”

The MMA career flowered because she was able to survive that IED near miss years earlier.

Carmouche offered a slice of dark humor to ease the serious edge.

“I was trying to rush for work when the IED went off next to me,” she said. “I was more upset about my master sergeant knowing I was late than being blown up.”

In troubling truth: “There’s no reason I shouldn’t have been blown up. Some higher power was looking out for me and saved my (butt).”

©2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Visit sandiegouniontribune.com.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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