NO ONE CAN ACCUSE the UFC of not promoting the first women’s fight in the company’s history, which also happens to be their first women’s title contest, transpiring this Saturday, February 23 in Anaheim, CA. All of their commercials and preview shows feature tags like, “history in the making,” and Dana White’s organization has taken every opportunity to place defending UFC female bantamweight champion “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey in front of the camera as much as humanly possible. And to great effect; White recently declared that the bronze medal-winning Olympian in Judo has attracted more mainstream media attention than even Brock Lesnar when he made his highly publicized leap to mixed martial arts. This isn’t an under-promoted card by any means — entirely the opposite. If anything, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s undeniably stellar publicity machine has done an even better job promoting this fight than usual — the last five minutes in the first instalment of the Rousey/Carmouche UFC Primetime, with Rousey addressing her father’s suicide and memory, were some of the most affecting T.V. of any of these types of shows.
However, all of the UFC specials, ubiquitous commercials and magazine covers haven’t quite conveyed the enormity of what is actually happening this weekend: women’s MMA is finally coming to the octagon. Why is this such a big deal? Well, as recently as January 2011, UFC President Dana White publicly stated that women would never fight in his organization. Despite the success of women’s MMA in Japan for years, with organizations like Valkyrie and JEWELS, the success of female divisions in Strikeforce (which the UFC would purchase and recently absorb), and the draw of excellent fighters in recent years (especially Gina Carano and Christiane “Cyborg” Santos), White and many other UFC representatives didn’t believe the female talent pools deep enough, their fights exciting enough, or their skill levels high enough for the greatest stage currently in MMA.
So, why the change of heart for White and the UFC? Quite simply, female fighters proved White and all their detractors wrong. The women’s fights on cards featuring both genders were almost always the most exciting fights of the night. The original “face of women’s MMA,” Carano, and the current chosen one, Rousey, have demonstrated undeniable star power and charisma, with both having the ability to handle themselves in front of the press, as well as the skills to handle themselves in the ring. (Carano has since gone on to parlay her fame and MMA/Muay Thai accomplishments into an acting career.) Rousey’s last two contests in Strikeforce, where she first won and then defended the Women’s Bantamweight Championship against Miesha Tate and then Sarah Kaufman, were incredibly exciting fights. She’s an arm collector; she’s won all six of her professional victories by armbar. And she doesn’t believe in getting paid by the hour — the time of her combined professional fights has been less than eight minutes. When the UFC absorbed Strikeforce after its final show in January and began importing fighters, Rousey’s peerless talent and undeniable energy earned her a place in an organization that had once publicly declared women weren’t welcome as fighters.
Of course, it isn’t just Rousey who’s made this possible. Female fighters in other organizations, like the newly founded, all-female Invicta FC, have been putting on incredible performances, refusing to be ignored. Women’s MMA is consistently some of the most exciting and ferocious to watch, as every fighter has a gigantic chip on their shoulder — something to prove — with critics constantly watching. Female fighters all want to have the most dynamic, the most exciting, the most memorable fight of the night. There is immense pressure to stand out, to be impossible to ignore, which results in fireworks. As fantastic as Rousey has been, she can’t be a division all on her own. The UFC had to see enough potential opponents for her in the world to create the division, and women’s MMA has demonstrated again and again that the talent and the potential for incredible fights are most certainly there.
This Saturday’s main event is gigantic; it is immense. It is one of the biggest deals in sports in the history of big deals in sports. And as much as the UFC is pressing, pushing and publicizing the hell out of how cool it is, somehow the publicity machine hasn’t captured or conveyed exactly how crucial this moment is for the history of the sport. The UFC has become so good at building up hype and marketing their ever-increasing number of yearly events that their promotional efforts have become, at times, too efficient, too mechanical to capture the raw exultation, once-in-a-lifetime nature and joy of the moment, as well as exactly what having women in the octagon means for so many young female fighters. It represents a genuine chance at a real, profitable career in women’s MMA for so many female fighters who previously were toiling in obscurity, facing uncertain futures, struggling to survive while scheduling training around day jobs. It means that now female fighters have a legitimate chance to reach the upper echelons of fame and exposure that the UFC can provide.
There is also another reason UFC 157 is a history-making event, one that has been discussed less and publicized more subtly, but is also incredibly important: this card will mark the first time an openly gay fighter will step into the octagon. Liz Carmouche is a former Marine who was forced to stay closeted due to the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, before it was repealed. Post-service, she moved to San Diego, CA to find a more open-minded and welcoming community, and to live more openly with her partner. Quietly but fiercely confident, she has stated that, “to be closeted for so long was so difficult. I never planned to be in the place I am today, but for it to have fallen into place is an honour. I’ve heard nothing but positive feedback and support. I want to be somebody they can look up to so that they can come out.”
In the often testosterone-dripping, Tapout-wearing, alpha-male environment of the UFC, to have someone who proudly carries their identity as a member of the LGBT community into a public forum is immensely important. It is a small step, but an important one that will one day hopefully lead to bigger ones, and more open and accepting attitudes.
I’m buzzing with excitement over UFC 157. Never before have I been quite this excited to purchase a PPV and throw my support behind an MMA event. A great deal of this excitement is due to the fact that I think Rousey/Carmouche is going to be a hell of a fight, as thrilling as a main event should be and more, even with Rousey the heavy favourite — such is the unpredictable nature of MMA that a Rousey victory is by no means guaranteed. But I am equally overjoyed for what this fight represents: a new beginning for women’s MMA on the sport’s largest stage.