Women’s mixed martial arts has come an extraordinarily long way in a short amount of time. Sure, smaller promotions such as HOOKnSHOOT were promoting female matchups as far back as the early 2000s, but mainstream respect, attention, and legitimate stardom wouldn’t come until much later.
In fact, it was nearly a decade before two warrior women would headline an event for a major promotion. On August 15, 2009, Gina Carano and Cris Cyborg fought in the main event of a Strikeforce card, a big-time promotion that rivaled the UFC in terms of talent during its peak. It was a much-anticipated bout, marketed around the natural beauty of Carano in contrast to the beastly athleticism and physique of Cyborg.
Despite the incredible milestone that main-eventing a PPV represented, women’s MMA still had a long journey towards relevancy ahead. This should have been evident by the way this significant contest was promoted, but 2009 was a different time, and the absurdity of focusing on looks rarely came up. The issue was further exasperated in 2011, when Dana White, the CEO of the most dominant mixed martial arts promotion in the world, gave his famous quote.
TMZ asked the outspoken promoter if he had any plans to bring women into the UFC family, to which he dismissively exclaimed, “Never.” But if there’s one thing MMA fans have learned these last two decades, it’s that Dana’s statements are often reversed, and by 2012 the women’s bantamweight division was created to accommodate budding superstar Ronda Rousey.
The more Ronda won, the brighter her star shown. By the end of her run, she was the highest-drawing athlete on the entire roster and had more mainstream fame and attention than any other fighter in the world. The women had finally arrived.
Since her meteoric rise, Rousey has since lost consecutive fights and retired. Meanwhile, the field of female fighters has exploded into four separate weight classes in the UFC. The rest, as they say, is history.
So where does that leave us now? What was it about Ronda Rousey’s relatively one-dimensional skillset against outmatched competition that captured the hearts and minds of the casual public so enthusiastically? Are female fighters held to the same standard as their male counterparts?
The Question of “Equality”
If there’s one thing Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” taught us, it’s that equality can be a tricky thing. Some voices out there on the internet would suggest that there are no biological advantages or disadvantages for either sex, and any current athletic obstacles that women face are merely the result of eons of patriarchal conditioning and not nature. If you don’t believe that fact, you are considered a bigot to some; if you do, you’re deemed an idiot to others.
If the UFC was strictly a meritocracy, it could be argued that there is no need for men’s or women’s divisions. Simply having a 135-pound bantamweight division would take care of all the equality necessary, and both men and women could compete in the same weight class. However, most people, myself included, would be disgusted by such a decision.
First, it would be extremely uncomfortable to see a man punching and kicking a woman in an athletic competition, no matter the skill level of both fighters. Second, we all know that this blended weight class would result in disaster and that the rankings would mirror the current men’s rankings, without any women included. After all, men naturally:
- Are stronger
- Have denser bones
- Are faster
- Have many more years of experience in the industry
- Are more explosive
To me, it means that in a certain sense, men and women’s MMA are definitely held to different standards. It takes significantly less strength and skill to win a women’s belt than it does for a man to capture a comparable title if you don’t factor in any relative advantages or disadvantages. For example, Amanda Nunes could never beat T.J. Dillashaw despite each of them being current bantamweight champions. It’s an absurd thought.
Opportunities and Mainstream Stardom
But if we know that a female champion will be physically inferior and less skilled than her male counterparts, why don’t we see this reflected in fighter opportunities and mainstream fame? At the time of Ronda Rousey’s reign, there was no fighter in all of MMA that garnered anywhere near the adoration that she did.
The Biggest Star in the Sport
Rousey was consistently interviewed on the most prominent shows, from Howard Stern to Ellen to The Tonight Show; she was everywhere. During this same period of time, there were several men’s champions with longer tenures on top, more impressive wins to their name, and more time spent in the Octagon. For example, Jon Jones and Anderson Silva both had remarkable championship runs that would land them among the all-time greatest fighters ever.
So if Ronda was able to step into the sport and immediately ascend to the top, does that mean she was held to a different standard? Perhaps. Does that mean that she or other female fighters’ roads to the top were any easier? I don’t think so.
Sure, the mainstream media latched onto the Ronda story because it was something unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. There have been plenty of badass cage-fighting men throughout the years; that was old news. Ronda represented something new. And it wasn’t just the newness that counted; she also inspired women and girls of all ages. She was beautiful, focused, and bad-ass.
When discussing the two sexes being held to the same standard, I think comparing the opportunities that talent from each side receives is a mistake. Rousey wasn’t gifted more opportunities and fame because she was a girl; she earned them because she was a trailblazer.
Trailblazers, by definition, change what we believe is possible. The road you must craft for yourself is the hardest road to travel. When Ronda Rousey spent her entire life training in judo, she had no idea it would lead her to fame and fortune. And who could have known her dominance and skill could change Dana White’s mind about who was allowed in the UFC?
The men, on the other hand, have had their own UFC divisions since the early 2000s. Their path had already been carved for them. They knew what was possible already, and that’s a very reassuring thing. Taking everything into context, perhaps both sexes are held to the same standard when it matters most. What did you do with whatever opportunity was provided to you?
Ronda created a new industry. Jon Jones and Anderson Silva just repeated what the legends of the past had already built for them.
Development of a Talent Pool
Men’s MMA had nearly a two-decade head start on the females’. At first, we learned the importance of jiu-jitsu after watching Royce Gracie mow down and submit a long line of uneducated tough guys. Once people learned grappling, the sport evolved more, and the wrestlers dominated the next few years. Next came the striking specialists with exceptional take-down defense, and finally the well-rounded athletes that grew up learning everything came last.
The talent pool has had time to evolve. The skillsets have had to adapt over time in response to whatever discipline lorded over the sport at any given time. Eventually, there was a deep pool of talent from which to draw.
The women’s divisions are still in their earlier stages. Ronda Rousey was the Royce Gracie of female mixed martial arts. For years, she could just walk down her opponent, use her judo skills to toss them to the ground, then finish them with an armbar. In response, the female contenders adapted.
Rather than play into Rousey’s strengths, a new breed of women’s athlete appeared in the sport. Fighters like Amanda Nunes, Holly Holm, and Joanna Champion came on the scene with brutal striking skills and the footwork to neutralize Rousey and any other opponents stuck in the past. As time goes by, more young girls will choose MMA as their career path, and the talent pool will grow deeper and deeper.
So, Are They Held to the Same Standard?
Trying to determine if both sexes are held to the same standards in MMA is a difficult thing to accomplish. I believe “same standard” can mean different things to different people. On the one hand, female fighters are not expected to be as physically impressive as male athletes. They can garner much more attention and money for lesser performances when compared directly to the men.
However, their sport is in an entirely different spot in its history as well. The women fighting now shouldn’t be compared to the current male athletes. They’ve had a twenty-year head start. Instead, the Cris Cyborgs and Amanda Nunes’ of the world should be compared to the fighters in 2000 – 2003, which they are much more comparable to.
Furthermore, if anything, these early generations of female fighters may have been held to a higher standard. If Ronda Rousey had blown her chance and lost her first or second fight, there’s a decent chance women in the UFC would already be a thing of the past. There’s nothing a male MMA fighter could do to end men’s MMA as we know it.
Ronda and the women that have come after her had to put on thrilling fights that captured the world’s attention, or they’d be gone. Looking back at the last seven years, I feel I can confidently say they are held to different standards. But surprisingly, it’s the women that have been held to a higher standard than the men.