The Best Fights You've Never Seen: Yuka Tsuji vs. Ana Michelle Tavares
Ask a casual fan to name a female mixed martial artist, and you'll likely hear answers of Gina Carano or Cristiane 'Cyborg' Santos. Serious followers of the sport could also likely list off the likes of Megumi Fujii, Sarah Kaufman, Miesha Tate, or Strikeforce 135-pound champion Marloes Coenen. Female mixed martial arts is slowly but steadily gaining attention within the sport, and this week's column will pay tribute to two of the all-time best female fighters in a fight that took place before any of today's stars had even stepped into the cage.
Ana Michelle Tavares was a complete unknown at this point, as this fight was her professional debut. Perhaps the promoters saw something special in her, but it is more likely that this match was made simply as a result of the lack of available talent at the time. Training with Brazil's renowed Nova Uniao camp, her Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu pedigree was solid, but how she would adapt to the pressures of a mixed martial arts bout against the top fighter of the day was anyone's guess.
Yuka Tsuji was the unquestioned best female mixed martial artist at the time. An outstanding freestyle wrestler who took bronze at the 1997 Asian Championships, Tsuji had added a potent submission game and had accumulated a perfect 8-0 record with six submissions, including a shocking armbar win in her debut over Ikuma Hoshino, who was at the time undefeated and considered to be the best in the world. In addition to being the consensus number one, she had recently captured and defended the SmackGirl middleweight championship.
An upset victory like this should have been sufficient to launch Tavares to stardom, but unfortunately, women's MMA was still in its beginning stages and she remained largely unknown. She continued to fight, becoming one of very few fighters to be able to withstand Megumi Fujii's submission attack (albeit in a losing effort), as well as defeating highly regarded fighters Carina Damm and Lisa Ward. She has not fought since 2008, but has voiced interest in attempting to break into the growing scene in the United States.
For her part, Tsuji quickly regained her stride and won her next 14 bouts and captured lightweight championships in the SmackGirl and Valkyrie promotions. In 2007, she rematched Tavares and avenged her only loss to that point with an impressive first round TKO. She was stunned in a 2010 bout against Mei Yamaguchi, as she was choked out and defeated in 76 seconds. She has been sidelined with injury since. Her exact ranking among the divisional elite has been up for debate, as the division's three elite fighters - herself, Megumi Fujii, and Miku Matsumoto - have never fought one another. With Matsumoto's retirement, one can only hope that someone puts together Fujii/Tsuji while both are still active.