Women’s MMA: The Evolution of Perception
When UFC President Dana White signed Ronda Rousey, he went back on a long history of bold claims that the world’s largest MMA organisation would never have a female fighter. White was questioned by a reporter from gossip website TMZ when leaving a restaurant in Los Angeles if ‘the UFC would ever have a female fighter?’ His response was a pretty comprehensive “never”.
Now we as MMA fans are well accustomed to the Dana White ‘nevers’. For instance, he announced in 2011 that last month’s show headliner Nate Marquardt was “never going to fight in the UFC again”. Likewise, Karo Parisyan, who one year before his last UFC appearance would “never fight in the UFC again.”
Or possibly like when he told BJ Penn, 8 fights into his now 23 fight UFC career, that he would “never fight in the UFC again”. Dana’s nevers are often as temporary as a January diet. However, I digress. No matter how short-lived the UFC President’s finality can be. It was clear it would take a major, transcendent star to change his mind.
Many thought that that star would be Gina Carano, the former Strikeforce and Elite XC 145lb standout. That started her career with a run of seven straight wins before a knockout loss to a (possibly juiced) Cristiane Cyborg. Carano was the first woman who teamed movie star good looks. An actual ability to fight and the luck of being around in an MMA organisation that was seen by a lot of people.
Gina Carrano Women’s MMA Superstar?
Carano fought on some of the most-watched Mixed Martial Arts cards of all time. Including underneath Renzo Gracie vs Frank Shamrock, and the famous Kimbo Slice CBS fights against James Thompson and Seth Petruzelli. Although conspiracy theorists may point to the mysterious way Carano pulled out of her bout with Sarah D’Alelio in June 2011. Which would have been her first fight under Zuffa control.
Loretta Hunt of SI followed the story, with Carano originally reported to not be medically cleared to fight. Until curiously it was revealed she passed every necessary test and withdrew for other reasons. Nonetheless, Carano’s UFC status was a favourite of forum topics for quite some years. And whilst there is no way of knowing the legitimacy of any claims, it could be argued that Carano’s crossover appeal was too great for the UFC.
Shortly after leaving Strikeforce, Carano starred in well-reviewed Hollywood action film Haywire. Before taking a major part in The Fast and the Furious 6 last year. Carano didn’t just put Women’s MMA on the map; she put MMA on the map full stop and paved the way for many of the current crop of stars.
Where Gina laid the foundations, ‘Rowdy’ Ronda Rousey took the reins. The Olympic Bronze Medalist made her debut just a few months before Carano’s final bout fell through. And the young Judoka set about switching focus to the 135lb division. Ronda’s professional career began to develop a pattern. 4 successive wins, all by submission, all by armbar, all in the first minute.
The Rise Of Ronda Rousey
This success earned her a shot at the Strikeforce bantamweight title. Where champion Miesha Tate managed to fight out of one armbar attempt, only to tap when it was applied again just shy of the end of round 1. A further defence of this belt followed before the long-awaited breakthrough finally came. In November of 2012, Dana White announced Ronda Rousey to be the new UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion, and the ‘Rowdy’ hype train was just kicking off.
Dana’s resistance to women’s MMA was never due to any chauvinism or a Zenaida Mendez style ‘women-shouldn’t-fight’ attitude. It was due to his belief that there was not a profitable, sustainable division. However, Ronda made a believer out of him. “There’s no doubt, for people who say, ‘Oh, this is the Ronda Rousey show,’ [expletive] right it is. You’re absolutely right…This is the Ronda Rousey Show.”
Having fought 3 times in the last 7 months, Rousey has headlined pay-per-views as well as played chief support to two of the biggest shows in the last 12 months. This, in addition to her co-sharing the honour of first-ever female Ultimate Fighter coach. And landing roles in The Expendables, Fast & Furious 7 and the upcoming Entourage movie. Have made Rousey arguably the most marketable asset the UFC possesses. Some progress from that LA restaurant, huh?
Invicta FC Opens Its Doors
Somewhere in the middle of that, all-female MMA organisation, Invicta FC put on their first show. Armed largely with Strikeforce veterans and the very women who would go on to populate the UFC’s bantamweight division. Invicta began to slowly turn people around to the idea that women’s fighting could be about more than just one or two leading names. Whilst president Shannon Knapp began to receive praise for her work rate and innovation. Fighters such as Michelle Waterson and Felice Herring began to take advantage of the new-found attention.
The two were among a batch of fighters keen to shine the spotlight on the previously ignored Atomweight and Strawweight divisions and it began to pay off. In just a few short months, the third wave of progression will begin.
TUF 20 will begin in late-September, and at the end of that show. The UFC’s second women’s champion will be crowned, this time at Strawweight. Coached by Anthony Pettis and Gilbert Melendez, two teams of accomplished 115lb’ers. The majority of which came from Invicta will be showcased in an already explosive exclusively female season.
The Evolution Of Women’s MMA
Women’s MMA is evolving in front of our eyes and is almost like a microcosm of the entire sport. Albeit happening at a much quicker pace. It has the controversy that the men’s game largely dropped at some point around mid-way through the last decade.
It has the speed of growth that the men’s game enjoyed in the 1990s and it has just enough detractors to make people take note. The change in perception of the sport is undeniable. At UFC 175, it was the first time there was more discussion regarding the technical breakdown. And actual martial arts contest with the championship fight than there was about it being between two women.
The old, inconvenient truth that sex appeal was required to make money as a female fighter is no longer applicable (and that’s not a knock on any of the fighters, but it isn’t marketed in that manner at all). Yes, the likes of Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey have found extra fame and adulation because of their looks.
However, they are both athletic and strong, serving as the role models to young girls. That combat sport has never previously had. Perhaps Mixed Martial Arts can match the likes of tennis and athletics on that mark, and who would’ve ever thought that in the dark days of Smack Girl?
Image courtesy of Insidesical.com