With the growth of martial arts in western society to the proliferation of underground media, women have risen within the sport of MMA, allowing the public—not just the promoters—to value and appreciate them as equals.
On December 30, 2016, Ronda Rousey will finally walk back into the octagon with the hopes of reclaiming the UFC Women’s bantamweight title from current champion Amanda Nunes.
Her last visit, over a year before, resulted in one of UFC’s biggest upsets, a series of strikes and a high left kick by former boxing champ Holly Holm that sent Rousey to the ground. An undefeated champion in both Strikeforce and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) promotions, Rousey had won all twelve of her previous fights, eleven in the first round, nine by armbar submission, eight in less than a minute.
Holm had been an 8-to-1 underdog.
This loss reverberated throughout the fighting world. Calling to mind other great upsets— Mike Tyson’s surprising fall to Buster Douglas or Cassius Clay’s stopping of Sunny Liston—many people wondered if Rousey would recover.
Her reign had led to multi-million dollar sponsorships and film deals that helped legitimize a sport that was once perceived as a voyeuristic spectacle. Last July entertainment industry powerhouse WME-IMG purchased the UFC organization for over $4 billion, taking out massive loans to finance the purchase.
Many regulators questioned the wisdom of this, speculating if the prospective cash flow had been inflated. But it is not only the financial world that will be watching Ronda’s return.
Cultural commenters have lavished praise on Ronda as a feminist icon.
She had dominated a seemingly male-dominated field, using her platform for women’s issues, including body image and domestic abuse. If Ronda loses again, will this female feel-good story end?
The short answer is no.
Women are a growing part of the UFC and WME-IMG’s $4 billion bet. The UFC just announced the creation of a third women’s division (145-pound featherweight) with a title fight between Holly Holm and Germaine de Randamie on February 11, 2017. Women fighters will headline three out of the next four events (four out of five if this featherweight match becomes the main event of UFC 208.) Women are featured in the Bellator fighting promotion and a separate female-only league, Invicta FC.
So how did females become so crucial to MMA?
The larger answer lies in part to the premise of the sport. Back to UFC 1, the purpose of mixed-style fighting competitions was to test which technique was best and pit fighters of different sizes and different cultures against one another to determine superiority in a caged octagon. It is true that these early shows consisted entirely of men and that the UFC did not include women until Rousey fought Liz Carmouche in 2013. However, women have a deeper history in martial arts, arising in a sport that thrives on diversity.
Until the 1960s, boxing and wrestling were the traditional combat sport of the West. Counter-culture brought a new interest in Eastern ideologies, including Zen spirituality, yoga, and martial arts. While Karate, Taekwondo, and Tai Chi had previously been introduced by returning war veterans, local recreation centers saw benefits to teaching skills with little overhead.
Bruce Lee would soon expose the world to Kung Fu, propelling martial arts into the 1980s, where it boomed along with the national fitness craze. As aging baby boomers looked to tone up, men often stayed in the weight room, while women wanted to move. Jane Fonda, credited with bringing the word “aerobics” into our national lexicon, selling over 17 million copies of her famous videos.
Many females looking for a caloric burn turned to martial arts studios, where classes promised to boost metabolisms and instill self-defense techniques. In the late 1980s and 1990s, interest in kickboxing, where the legs are equally lethal as the arms, soared. By 2011, New York City-based research firm Simmons Market Research estimated that 18.1 million Americans had participated in some form of martial art. Women comprised almost half (48%) that market.
Mixed Martial Arts as a competitive sport debuted in the United States in the early 1990s. UFC 1 took place on November 12, 1993, in Denver, Colorado and was structured as a male-only eight-man tournament with no weight classes, no rounds, no time-outs, and no judges.
The first fight, between four-hundred pound Sumo wrestler Teila Tuli and a two-hundred pound Savante boxer named Gerard Gordeau, ended in just twenty-six seconds when Gordeau landed a roundhouse kick to his opponent’s face, causing Tuli to lose three teeth. Gordeau would ultimately lose in the finals by rear-naked choke to Royce Gracie, the son of Carlos Gracie, a fighter credited with cultivating Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil, a style heavy on holds and locks.With such oddly matched fighters, UFC 1 was seen as more spectacle, less sport.
There is an important moment in sports broadcasting that shouldn’t be overlooked— one of the three color commentators was a woman.
Kathy Long, a five-time kickboxing champion, sat ringside along with Bill Wallace, a champion in both karate and kickboxing, and NFL football Hall-of-Famer Jim Brown, a celebrity apparently brought on board to attract viewers. Brown demonstrated little to no knowledge of combat or martial sports with his vague, almost ‘deer-in-headlights’ observations;
“I don’t know what kind of technique was used there, but there was a lot of kicking and punching.”
While Wallace’s amateur broadcasting skills surface (he announced the event as the “Ultimate Fighting Challenge” and pronounced Gordeau’s name different each time), his fighting analysis is mostly on-point. While less keyed-up than her frenzied colleagues, the quieter Long disperses astute observations, focusing the dialogue on the fighters’ skills.
At one point, Wallace wonders how Long would fare in this tournament, especially considering the altitude of Denver. She quickly redirects him to the more important factor;
“I’m very used to being in good condition, so that doesn’t matter to me,” she continued, “But, on the other hand, it would matter who I was fighting first.”
Female play-by-play broadcasters remain a rarity in professional sports, the announcer’s box a de facto “boy’s club.”
Considering the raw masculinity of UFC 1, it’s surprising that Long was included. Perhaps the promoters, Art Davie and Bob Meyrowitz, who previously worked in advertising and music, were simply unaware of this gender disparity in sports broadcasting? Or perhaps it was something more. Was the inclusion of Long an acknowledgment to the respect women were garnering in the field of martial arts?
Women would not stay on the sidelines for long.
By the late 1990s – early 2000s, the pioneer women of today’s MMA— Rousey, Gina Carano, Cris “Cyborg” Justino, and Meisha Tate—began to establish themselves in competitive circles, often training with men. Finding traditional sports lacking, martial arts provided both a community and a challenge.
Would they would be treated the same as the other men, and, if they were, could they handle it?
Perhaps more importantly, would the public tolerate it?
Both Gina Carano and Cris “Cyborg” Justino broke through the ranks by becoming notable Muay Thai fighters, a striking art of “eight limbs” including legs, knees, and elbows.
Texan Carano initially peaked in basketball until finding Muay Thai, where she garnered a record of 12-1-1. Similarly, Cyborg, a national team handball player from Brazil, thrived in the competitive atmosphere of fighting, preferring to train around men. Both Carano and Cyborg eventually moved over to MMA.
In 2006, Carano fought against Leiticia Pestova in World Extreme Fighting, the first-ever female MMA bout sanctioned in Nevada. Cyborg made her debut two years later against Shayna Baszler in EliteXC. Both women continued to win, each remaining undefeated before finally meeting in August 2009 for the Strikeforce Middle Weight Championship, broadcast live on Showtime.
Not only did this signal the first time that women headlined a major fighting card, Strikeforce created the 145-feather weight division belt for the winner. Cyborg won by TKO at 4:59 in the first round. Giving up her first loss in her professional career, Carano left MMA for Hollywood while Cyborg is a dominating factor in 145-pound women’s division.
Coming from the grappling side of fighting, Meisha Tate and Ronda Rousey owe much of their success to the art of the submission.
A Washington-state high school wrestling champion, Tate discovered MMA in college and quickly excelled.
Down in California, Rousey started training Judo under her mother, a former World Champion, who reportedly woke her daughter up each morning with an armbar attempt. Whether it was her mother’s fierce training or her own discipline, Rousey qualified for the 2004 Olympic games in Athens at age seventeen, the youngest Judoka in the entire games.
In 2007, Rousey became a World Judo Champion and won a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, becoming the first American to earn a medal since judo became an Olympic sport in 1992. After retiring from Judo, Rousey spent time learning more fighting styles, including Brazilian Jui Jitsu and Muay Thai.
Tate made her MMA debut in 2007, and Ronda followed suit in 2010.
A fierce rivalry between the two developed, culminating in a fight for the Strikeforce Women’s Bantamweight Championship.
On March 3, 2012, Rousey defeated Tate by armbar in the first round, dislocating her elbow in the process. Tate and Rousey would rematch almost two years later for the UFC title. This time Tate took it into the third round, although she once again lost to an armbar submission.
Rousey would remain champion until her loss to Holm.
Tate rebounded and went on a five fight winning streak, culminating when she beat Holm last March for the title, only to lose it four months later to current champion Amanda Nunes. Tate just retired last month after another loss to up-and-coming fighter Raquel Pennington.
All of these women are trailblazers, defining a sport where females are seen as equals.
The proliferation of underground media, including blogs, podcasts, and social networks, has helped to ensure this platform.
Unlike women’s boxing which continues to be ignored by mainstream broadcasters and even their promoters -female MMA fighters arrive at a time when fighters can connect directly with their audience, allowing both their fan base and their market value to grow.
With no space constraints and plenty of devoted fight fans to produce content, sports blogs are fostering fight communities.
Vox Media’s SB Nation runs several sports journalism blogs, including MMAFighting, MMA Mania, and Bloody Elbow. The fans themselves run other blogs and often include video commentary, lengthy fight predictions, and plenty of humorous memes. Unlike mainstream media or the Fox Network, which has a biased interest in UFC television ratings, these blogs don’t feel the pressure to comply with the fighting promotions. On the flip side, they provide an unfiltered channel for fighters to share their opinions, allowing them to construct their own narratives.
Podcasts also provide opportunities for fighters to reach the public. i-Tunes lists hundreds of MMA podcasts, including MMA Junkie, The MMA H.E.A.T with Karyn Bryant, and Girl Fight Talk. Ariel Helwani hosts the weekly podcast The MMA Hour, which incorporates interviews with quality analysis. Comedian and leading UFC color commentator Joe Rogan regularly hosts fighters, trainers, and celebrity fans on his widely popular podcast, The Joe Rogan Project, which registers millions of downloads per episode.
Unlike other professional sports where women are seen as “second fiddle,” female fighters are given equal weight using the same level of detail, respect, and awe.
In episode #771, Joe Rogan and Jiu Jitsu black belt Eddie Bravo breakdown UFC 196, a highly entertaining card that included Meisha Tate’s title win over Holly Holm. Describing the fight as one of the greatest victories in the history of MMA, Rogan and Bravo compare it to an epic Super Bowl game that will be watched decades later.
“Her scramble, they way she held on as Holly kept moving and changing and adjusting. She kept holding on and then finally, that ‘Hail Mary,’ Holly tries to flip her over the top and [Tate] hangs on…And then when Holly went to sleep, it was like she didn’t want to tap. She just went out. She went out punching…Do you know how bad ass that girl is?…It’s amazing. The best fight of the night.”
Rogan and Bravo never imply that these women are weaker or less deserving than the men.
The rise of social media has also allowed fighters to build relationships directly with fans. Tate has 1.6 million followers on Instagram, 706k on Twitter. Rousey has even more—8.8 million on Instagram, 3.23 million on Twitter. When Rousey posted a photo on Instagram of a recent training session, she garnered 85.5k likes within fifteen hours.
Strawweight fighter Paige VanZant, who captured attention as a finalist on Dancing with the Stars and is set to headline her second main event on December 17, regularly posts her sparring sessions, dancing GIFs, and polls considering whether or not she should grab a late-night chocolate milk.
Clearly, the distance between fighters and fans has closed, granting each side more power and lessening the promotion’s control. Fighters also tweet each other— sometimes to trash talk, other times to unionize.
Cyborg had been routinely tweeting for the creation of a featherweight (145-lb) division, inspiring other fighters and fans to join her cause. When the UFC scheduled this fight without her, White explained that he had offered Cyborg three separate fights, only for her to turn them down. Towards reporters, Cyborg reacted somewhat civilly, telling MMAFighting;
“I’m happy the UFC created my division. It’s been 11 years I’m fighting for women to have the same rights as men with several divisions.”
Later she flooded her Twitter feed with her frustration, detailing her weight-cutting issues and even calling out White for being a disrespectful boss.
Having been overlooked and dismissed in previous combat sports, women have proven to be integral to MMA and its continued expansion. While Rousey’s dominance was critical in building this platform, she did not do it alone. When she was knocked down, there were other women to carry on.
Last week, Rousey visited Conan O’Brien’s show and explained why she is doing fewer press events;
“I’ve done a lot of learning in this last year, and I’ve learned that the views I get or the money I make doesn’t mean anything for me or my happiness.” Rousey continued, “Now that I know the women’s division is secure, I don’t have to do that anymore. I choose not to.”
What if Rousey loses again?
Perhaps her ability to say “no” says it all.
Photo: UFC 200 on July 9, 2016 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. Just moments before former UFC bantamweight champion Miesha Tate loses to current champion Amanda Nunes. © Nancy Kidder All Rights Reserved