Round 2: Women’s MMA goes to the big leagues

Let’s talk about violence. Specifically, martial arts and being really specific mixed martial arts. In the span of my adult life, MMA has gone from a thing Brazilian men do to out manly one another, frequently bare-knuckled, and, I suspect, very occasionally on fire, to the sort of mainstream sport that gets covered by all those sport/news channels I’m supposed to give a crap about. The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s pay per views regularly outperform boxing matches in terms of attendance and on air buys, the sport itself is increasingly viewed as more demanding and more ‘legit’ than other combat sports and, in a final sign its achieved mainstream acceptance, clubs in Fremont are offering mom and daughter mixed martial arts classes. Those burning Brazilian men would be consumed with manly rage. Or fire. Whichever. MMA is huge business, hugely popular and hugely, hugely sexist.

Or at least it was.

A few months ago, Shannon Knapp’s Invicta Fighting Championship began broadcasting internet only, all female events. In the space of three such events Invicta has established itself as one of the cornerstones of modern mixed martial arts, a place where female competitors can show that they’re at the very least the equal of the men.

Just not the equal of the men’s pay scale.

Or endorsements.

Or TV time.

The reason for this is small, bald and uses profanity as punctuation. Dana White, the face of the UFC, is a modern PT Barnum, a pathological talker who becomes weirdly charming the more furious he gets and Uncle Dana, known to some as the Baldfather, gets furious a LOT. Earlier this year, he gave an excoriating press conference when the organization had to cancel a pay per view for the first time in its history, throwing current champion Jon Jones, a man with a ring name so stupid I refuse to even type it, under the bus for refusing to fight a last minute opponent when his original dropped out due to injury. Jones, and his unusually, shall we say, morally pliant version of Christianity is a story for another time. White’s barely contained rage, and the fact he buried one of his champions live on air, is a story for now. He’s a fiercely articulate man, almost too articulate at times, and he has no filter. If a UFC competitor is an idiot, and make no mistake their roster is engorged with idiot manchildren, then White will tell you. And often him. To his face. His approach is as simple and as logical as it is irritating; it doesn’t matter if the men in the cage are thunderous asshats, if they bring the buys, then they get to fight.

But just the men.


(Image from Collider)

A couple of years ago, before Hollywood noticed Gina Carano and she’d transitioned from world champion Thai boxer to mixed martial artist, White was asked about the possibility of a women’s division. It’s easy to see why; Carano’s phenomenally talented, tough as hell and beautiful, she was the definition of a bankable champion. White shot down any hope of her being signed however, initially because of her trouble making weight and more sensibly because he was worried about the depth of talent in a possible women’s division.

Let’s look at this a little bit; White’s concern, at least as he expressed it, was that signing someone like Carano would be great, but there was essentially no one for her to fight. Carano’s own MMA career, unfortunately, illustrates this.  She fought seven professional bouts, beating some of the best female fighters in the world before being knocked out in under a minute by Cristiane Santos. Santos, whose ring name is Cyborg, would go on to dominate female MMA before being found guilty of using steroids and suspended for a year. Following the defeat, Carano functionally retired, a planned return bout against Sarah D’alelio cancelled for reasons which to the best of my knowledge have never been made public. What has been made public, however, is the fact that Carano now has a promising career as a female action lead. Or to put it another way, she still gets punched in the head for a living, but these days the punches tend to get pulled. A quiet, wry woman who was never comfortable with being labelled ‘The face of women’s MMA’, there’s a real sense that Gina Carano got out exactly when she needed to. More power to her elbow. Or maybe not, her elbow strikes are frightening enough already.

But, seven fights, top of the heap and done. Like it, and him, or not, you can sort of see White’s point. UFC, and their parent company Zuffa, are a business. They’re a business founded on the blood and sweat of their fighters but their bottom line is still their top concern. I don’t doubt for a second a women’s division has been looked at, constantly, for years but for them the time’s never been right.

Until now.

(Image from Sherdog)

Ronda Rousey is an American Judoka and an Olympian, having won a bronze medal at the Beijing games. She’s also the daughter of Ann Maria Rousey DeMars, the first American to win a Judo world championship in 1984. American Judo has always been, let’s say, burlier, than a lot of other countries’ approach to the sport and Rousey is no exception. She wrestles in a fast, nasty, smash mouth way and when she made the transition to amateur mixed martial arts in 2010, it seemed like a good fit. For a time she even stated her aim was to get to the top of female MMA in under two years, win a title and use that to promote Olympic Judo, a sport so marginalized it wasn’t even streamed on the NBC website when she fought in Beijing.

Herbert Von Molthke once said no plan survives contact with the enemy. No plan survives contact with media attention, good pay and respect either. Rousey fought as an amateur three times, turned pro and fought a further six times. None of her matches lasted past the first round, almost all of them finishing inside the first minute and all of them with a win by submission. Rousey specialises in the armbar, a manoeuvre which involves hyperextending the elbow. This causes excruciating pain and, if you don’t submit, rips muscles, tendons and breaks bones.

She’s an extremely talented, tough, ruthless, photogenic female martial artist. So far, so Carano. However, Rousey has one thing Carano doesn’t, and it’s almost impossible not to view this as what sealed the deal for her; she’s a trash talker. Where Carano is quiet and laconic, Rousey is loud, cocky and completely tactless. Her ring name, ‘Rowdy’, comes from her inability to shut up about her opponents in the run up to a fight, something which a pathological talker like White can’t help but love.

From the outside it’s a fantastic psychological tactic, and one that combat sport athletes have used successfully for decades. Everyone from Muhammad Ali to pro wrestler CM Punk have used it and Rousey, a woman who has cheerfully called out future opponent Santos on multiple occasions by referring to her as ‘Cyroid’ is extremely good at it. The fact her fights rarely last more than four minutes more than backs her words up.

It does make her hard to like, however. Rousey’s flirted with and at times full on crossed the line into being a bully, a female jock who brags about hurting her opponents before doing just that.  Her fight with Miesha Tate, also a trained wrestler who expressed disdain at the rapidity of Rousey’s ascension bears this out. The two traded barbs for weeks  and whilst many people ate it up, at least as many got sick of what amounted to a High School canteen bitch off which dragged on far too long before someone got brave enough to throw a punch. The fact that although Tate pressed Rousey harder than anyone had previously but still tried to outwrestle an Olympic Judoka, only made it grimmer.  To make matters worse, there’s been an air of the stage school kid to Rousey at times, the overachieving daughter of an overachieving mother who has no idea how to do anything other than perform.  Rowdy certainly, but also brash, arrogant, elitist and increasingly shrill.

All of which changed a couple of months ago. On her arrival in MMA Rousey very publicly criticized the depth of talent in the sport (Sound familiar?), saying she didn’t think it would take her long to get to the top.  She’s called out opponents, criticised them, and been completely upfront about how she feels they did, or didn’t, do against her. She marks the women who fight her in more ways than one, assessing them at the same time as breaking them apart.

(Image from Fighting Insider)

Until Liz Carmouche began quietly, politely, canvassing for a shot at Rousey. Carmouche is an inspiring figure, balancing Carano’s wry sense of humour with the sort of physicality that earnt her the splendid ring name ‘Girlrilla’. She’s also a veteran and the first openly out lesbian MMA fighter. Carmouche isn’t just a real in-cage talent, with nine fights and only two losses, she’s a good story and she more than deserves the shot. What’s fascinating about her though, is how Rousey responded when asked about fighting the prospective winner of a now cancelled fight between Carmouche and Sara McMann:

“Both of those girls are really high-class fighters… Of course Sara McMann, an Olympic medalist, she’s an elite athlete, and Liz Carmouche, not only is she extremely marketable with such a cool back-story, but she was beating Marloes [Coenen]…”

That’s Ronda Rousey talking about her prospective opponents in October 2012. And this is Ronda Rousey talking about her opponent in March 2012. Notice any difference?

“I think of it as the fight starts as soon as it’s announced, and all of this has a psychological effect,” she said. “Every time we do a joint interview or joint thing, I always try to get under her skin as much as possible. Every single time we’ve done a debate or interview, I always try to just get a couple jabs in on her just to bug her because I know that I’m wittier and more well-spoken than her, and she knows it, too. So whenever I catch her in an interview and kind of make her sound dumb, I know she’s getting used to being owned by me on the regular [basis].”

Yeah, thought so. Rousey’s in-cage arsenal is phenomenal; her fights may be predictable but she’s finished credible threats over and over with exactly the move she said she would, the move her opponents will have trained for months to defend against and counter. Her fights may be predictable but her technical ability is, for now, unmatched.

Her media skills though, ironically, have become her weakness. The Rousey backlash, following her increasingly ubiquitous presence online and in sports media has been contained but fierce and a good chunk of that seems to have come from her arrogance. Compare the March quote up there with the October quote, notice the change in tone, how respectful she is. The chest pounding cocky rock star has been replaced by someone who either knows there are women equal to her and she has to work for a living, or alternately, she’s still cocky but she’s finally had some media training.

Which brings us back around to Dana White, and women in the UFC. Less than two years after saying there wasn’t enough talent, he now has a bantamweight women’s division of…two. Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate. Not only have they signed a talent pool of two, but one of those two has publically said she’s in absolutely no hurry to fight the other again. Tate’s arm was all the way broken following the first fight with Rousey and she’s reluctant, to say the least, to repeat the experience.

So where does that leave White? With a plan, clearly. He’s on record as saying he has five fights lined up for Rousey and by definition that means five possible opponents. The way MMA tends to run, I would guess what’s actually being looked at is ten women, five primaries and five alternates should someone get injured in training. Who those ten names are is anybody’s guess, although, despite what she says, I suspect Miesha Tate is one of them. I’d love Liz Carmouche to be on that list too, and it wouldn’t remotely surprise me to find out the organization has at least sat down with Gina Carano. If nothing else that would appeal to my sense of narrative symmetry. Regardless, the UFC has a women’s division, albeit a single weight class and with a roster of exactly two. It’s not much, but it’s both an admirable turnaround from combat sports’ loudest critic of female MMA and an overdue step in the right direction.

As for where it leaves Ronda Rousey?  That’s obvious; the centre of the spotlight, the centre of the cage, ready to take on whoever is put in front of her. Rousey, like her or loathe her, has been instrumental in dragging one of the largest sports on the planet kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Like it or not, she’s the face of women’s MMA now, in a way that not even Gina Carano managed. The world is watching, and it’s time ‘Rowdy’ showed everyone what she can do.





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