By Yvonne Cruz
2015 saw Holy Holm handed MMA superstar Ronda Rousey her first professional loss in the most spectacular of fashions at UFC 193. In 2015, the world also barred witness to the end of both Jose Aldo’s 6-year reign as featherweight champion and his 10-year winning streak. It took one punch and a mere 13 seconds for Conor McGregor to deliver Aldo his first defeat in 10 years. While both Rousey and Aldo’s defeats shocked fans and experts alike, only Rousey received considerable backlash for her loss over social media.
Women have historically had to battle for recognition and attention within the public eye for their achievements in professional sports. UFC president Dana White famously declared that women would never fight in the UFC. Ronda Rousey was the woman who changed his mind. The UFC introduced the women’s bantamweight division with Rousey’s signing in November 2012. Rousey quickly rose to stardom, “proving” that women could capture the attention of fighting fans. Since then, the UFC has introduced a second women’s division at strawweight.
When Aldo lost no one questioned his legitimacy as great champ. Sure he had let McGregor get inside his head. Sure he had rushed in and got caught but it’s MMA and that shit happens. The emphasis was on McGregor cementing and earning his status as the UFC’s most prominent star. On the other hand, after her loss, Rousey went from hero to zero in less than two rounds. Up to that point, Rousey was MMA’s most celebrated female star, transcending the sport, and landing in Hollywood. She was a name known even to those with less than a casual interest in MMA, but with that level of success comes those who live to see a star fall and the reaction to her first loss was instant and as brutal as the KO itself. Many where quick to use Rousey’s loss as proof that she was never that good of a fighter to begin with. She had finally been unmasked as the “bum” she always was. The focus was on Rousey’s loss and not on the remarkable skill and smart game plan Holm displayed in her win.
You might think being a professional athlete, Olympic medalist, world title holder might mean you’re done proving you’re a legitimate fighter. Apparently not. When critically comparing Aldo and Rousey’s post-fight reactions hard not to pick out a tinge of patriarchy in the discrepancies. The zeal with which many on social media revealed in Rousey’s loss and the swiftness in which her critics were ready to declare her a talentless bum was disturbing. Since when did one loss make you a bum? The fight for legitimacy in a constant one for women fighters and one. While a loss for a male fighter might be attribute to the fighter being in a slump, in a career characterized by its highs and lows, it is less likely that all their previous accomplishments will be dismissed, which is exactly want many did to Rousey. Those painting Rousey as a bum are with the same stroke undermining Holy Holm’s own talent. If Rousey is such a terrible fighter it would be natural to then conclude it wouldn’t take that much more skill to beat her.
It would be disingenuous to claim that women’s MMA is on the same level as the men’s game, but it also hasn’t been around as long. The current state of women’s MMA can be compared to where the men’s game was in the early 90/s, when it mainly consisted of fighters who all individually specialized in one particular discipline. The most successful fighters were those who so excelled in one discipline above and beyond their competition that they could use those specialized skills to dominate their opponents. Doesn’t that sound familiar? That is exactly how Ronda Rousey managed to dominate as long as she did. The Olympic judo medalist simply out “judoed” everyone. Holm, a 16-time world titleholder in boxing and a skilled kickboxer, was able to use her ability to control distances, superior footwork and striking to defeat Rousey. If Rousey stands any chance in a rematch she will have to stop depending on her judo and do what that early crop of male fighters figured out they had to do: develop a more complete game. As more and more well rounded women fighter’s emerge, the quality of the bouts will undoubtable increase just like it did in the men’s game.
In this nascent period, for women’s MMA to reach the level of men’s MMA, promoters must be willing to meaningfully invest in it. The UFC certainly put a lot of marketing effort behind Ronda Rousey in order to make her a profitable star which resulted in a more than high return in investment. In a post-undefeated Rousey world perhaps the UFC can evolve its focus into promoting women’s fighting as a whole and developing new talent, and there are promising signs that this is happening. Holy Holm will be defending her new bantamweight title against Miesha Tate as the co-main event to Conor vs. Diaz at UFC 197. Putting women’s bouts on the undercard (or in this case making it the co-main event) of a major men’s fight exposes female fighters to a wider audience of people who might have otherwise not tuned in to see or even have known about these ladies. This type of exposure is crucial for any meaningful growth in the women’s game to take place. And it’s the kind that has been missing in another, older combat sport, boxing. Coverage for women’s boxing is close to none existent. Ring Magazine, the sports most popular magazine, received criticism for putting Rousey, who has never competitively competed in boxing, on its January cover. According Oscar De La Hoya, who’s Golden Boy Promotions owns the magazine, this is a good thing for female boxers and is just the beginning of Golden Boy’s involvement in female boxing. It remains to be seen if this is true. Golden Boy, like all the other major boxing promoters, currently does not have any female boxers on its roster.
This is where MMA has the upper hand. The UFC and other major MMA promotion companies already have a base talent to promote and expand. Invicta FC, an all female promotion, has made great strides in bringing female fighters to the forefront with their jam packed, all female events. In an exclusive deal, all Invicta events are broadcasted live on UFC Fight Pass, the UFC’s digital streaming service. Past Invicta events are also available for viewing there. The 2014 deal represented a huge leap in the public’s accessibility to viewing female bouts, but accessibility is only part of the growth equation. For example, Cris Cyborg, arguably the best pound for pound female fighter in the world, defended her Invicta FC Featherweight title against Daria Ibragimova on January 16 to little to no fanfare. UFC is synonymous to MMA for the general public. If it puts effort behind showcasing their female talent, by doing such things as putting female fighters on the undercards of their TV fightcard and not just burying them in Fight Pass cards, the UFC could generate enough interest in the public to have them seek out more female fighters within the UFC, Invicta, and beyond.
Female athletes have already started to take note of the opportunities for greater exposure and better money in MMA as opposed to other combat sports. Holy Holm, realized this, having stated before that the ability to make more money influenced her decision to switch over from boxing. As MMA’s popularity grows and as attitudes towards and prescriptions of female fighters shift, the number of women practicing MMA will also increase. More women in MMA means more competition which in turn creates a higher quality of fighters. Promoters like the UFC are in a great position to help propel the women’s game to the next level. If more elite female athletes see that UFC values and prioritizes its female fighters, these top level athletes may see the value in pursing MMA which could only do the sport good. Higher quality competition breeds more popularity and visa-a-versa.
The level of competition displayed in the men’s game is possible on the women’s side, even if many in the general public are yet to realize it. The UFC must be willing to put its money and efforts into fostering this revolution in the way women’s combats sports is received in the mainstream. There will come a point when silly questions of legitimacy as it pertains to female fighters and their skills and talent will become a thing of the past. The current climate calls for female fighters to be exceptional in skill and achievements and conventionally attractive to boot (i.e. Rousey). In order for that shift in societal expectations and perceptions of female fighters to happen the UFC, other promoters, and media must make a real effort to expose female talent to the public.
The next season of UFC’s reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, will feature Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Claudia Galdelha, the top ranked fighter at strawweight, coaching both male and female fighters in the show’s tournament. The two will face off in a rematch of a close first fight on the night of the finale. TUF format offers a great platform for two leading female fighters to showcase their knowledge and understanding of the game. The decision to appoint Jedrzejczyk and Galdelha the next TUF coaches shows an initiative by the UFC to bring its female fighters to the forefront, in a post-undefeated Rousey world. With a more conscious effort to women’s MMA on display soon the sport’s next female stars won’t have to maintain perfect records and appearances to be respected as elite athletes and marital artists.