Earlier this week, Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker officially announced what most of the MMA world already knew was coming: bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey will make her first title defense against Sarah Kaufman on August 18 in San Diego. With the organization headlining a women's title fight for the second time this year, one has to wonder when the UFC is going to jump on board with women's MMA.
History of women's MMA
Seven years ago, the idea that women could headline a main event for a major promotion was laughable. Women rarely fought on local cards and weren't treated well when they did compete. Former Strikeforce bantamweight champion Miesha Tate remembers those days well:
"My first fight was in early 2006, and women's MMA was pretty much nonexistent at that point," Tate said. "Bodog was the first organization that embraced women's MMA, but I don't feel like we were given the same treatment as their professional guy fighters were. Nonetheless, it was an opportunity."
Those opportunities have grown since bodogFight went out of business. Fighters such as Tate, Kaufman, and Gina Carano rose up through the ranks and eventually found themselves fighting in Strikeforce. Each of them proved to be key in the rise of women's MMA. Current Bellator 115-pound champion Zoila Gurgel pointed towards Carano's success as the turning point for women's MMA:
"I don't know if it was when Carano had already fought on Showtime against [Elaina] Maxwell or if she had already fought Cyborg [Cristiane Santos]," Gurgel said. "But that was the big thing that happened then, and that was a few years back. Before that, women's MMA wasn't heard of. There were a lot of women fighting, but it wasn't really showcased at all on national television until those fights started happening with Carano."
Tate credited both Elite XC and Strikeforce for the rise of women's MMA in the United States:
"Elite XC was also a big proponent of pushing women's MMA forward," Tate said. "So Elite XC and Strikeforce, when they took on women's MMA and gave us the opportunity to have televised fights, I think that's when we turned the most heads because we had the opportunity then to get exposure."
Elite XC made a lot of mistakes while it was in operation, but marketing Carano and Santos wasn't one of them. Both women became stars while helping to legitimize women's MMA. Even though Elite XC is no longer in existence, Strikeforce and Bellator have continued to feature women's fights.
However, those outlets aren't the only ones that feature women's MMA. Invicta Fighting Championships is an all-women's promotion that is preparing for its second show at the end of July. Other organizations such as Resurrection Fighting Alliance (RFA) and Xtreme Fighting Championships (XFC) have also highlighted women's fights on their cards.
"Now, it's completely different," Gurgel said. "Every show that I've been to, there has been a female fight on the card. There are female fighters all over the place. You have Olympic-caliber athletes jumping into MMA. You have kickboxers, wrestlers, judo players - a bunch of different people coming from a bunch of different mixed martial arts. So it's on fire right now, especially with the whole Rousey-Tate fight. That was huge for women's MMA. I think the next step would be the UFC."
Fighting in the UFC
The UFC would seem to be the next logical step for women's MMA, but the company's president, Dana White, has been resistant. He believes that there isn't enough depth to create a women's division. In a March interview with MMAnytt/Studiomma reporter Marcus Kowal, White explained that his best example would be the heavyweight division. He noted that in the past, it was difficult to find enough heavyweights to fill a card, but now it's deep enough to have an all-heavyweight card like there was in May.
"Every heavyweight fight [at UFC 146] is a great fight against great fighters, you know what I mean? That's what I'm talking about," White said. "We don't have a deep enough women's division … To be honest with you, I think we're going to be in the position with Ronda Rousey pretty soon where there's nobody exciting for her to fight."
Bantamweight Julie Kedzie disagrees with White's assessment. She believes that a lack of exposure has kept women's MMA out of the UFC:
"I believe the divisions are deep enough," Kedzie said. "The problem it's facing is that it hasn't had as much visibility, so officials are not seeing how deep the divisions are because the females haven't been given the platform to prove it. Now with Strikeforce placing more emphasis on female fighters … and the new all-female fight organization, Invicta, you're going to have a lot more visibility, and you're going to have a lot more female fighters being given the platform to see how deep the divisions are."
Kedzie notes that most of the women's talent can be found at the 125 and 135-pound weight classes and that the quality of fights taking place in women's MMA "are very high." Tate agrees. She believes that although the 135-pound weight class isn't deep enough to fill an entire UFC card, there's enough talent to put one bantamweight fight on each event:
"I feel like there is definitely enough talent to do that and have competitive fights and new matchups," Tate said. "Skill-wise, absolutely. Talent depth - I definitely think there's enough women to have in the UFC."
One division that has received little attention is the 125-pound weight class. Most of the women interviewed agreed that the flyweight division is one of the deepest, if not the deepest, division in women's MMA.
Strawweight Carla Esparza explained that most women mixed martial artists "don't walk around at 155 [pounds] and cut down to 145." Instead, many of the athletes that she's come across throughout her career are lighter:
"I haven't seen any hard specifics or anything, but as far as when I've competed in any other competitions like jiu-jitsu and wrestling, those were always the biggest weight classes," Esparza said. "I think that's where a lot of women fighters weigh. They weigh around 130, 135, and they cut down [to 125]."
Kedzie is so convinced of the depth in the 125-pound division that she provided a list of what she believes are viable contenders in the flyweight division, including Gurgel, Rosi Sexton, and Michelle Ould. "I do think that 125 is deeper than 135," Kedzie said. "I think a lot of girls are fighting above their weight classes at 135."
Tate is potentially one of those women. She noted that she's not a "very big 135-pounder," and that she would consider moving to 125-pounds. In Gurgel's case, she had to drop down to 115-pounds to compete in Bellator's tournament because they weren't offering a flyweight division at the time:
"When it comes to 125, neither of those two [Bellator and Strikeforce] that have been in the spotlight for the past two years haven't showcased many 125-pound fighters," Gurgel said. "But there are so many out there, all over the world, that are completely well-rounded. So if they were to have a 125-pound tournament with the top eight girls in the world, I can guarantee that it would be a lot harder to win that belt than it would be to win the 115 belt. The depth in that division is just crazy."
With so many women talking about the depth of the flyweight division, it appears that White could be mistaken in his belief that there isn't a deep enough women's weight class for the UFC.
Women's MMA is also gaining steam among fans. There are multiple facebook groups and blogs online that are pushing for women to be included in the UFC. Roger O'Brian created his clothing company, Apocalypse MMA, to both fund and raise support for the Petition for Women in the UFC. He believes that the exclusion of women from the UFC is an equality issue:
"Women can join the military and help protect our freedom, but they can't be on the same level as a guy fighting mixed martial arts?" O'Brian asked. "It doesn't make sense because you can take Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate, Zoila Gurgel, and put them up against most guys." They'll probably take out most guys. Gender doesn't matter. Women should be fighting women in the UFC and not just in the smaller promotions. It's 2012, and everybody should have the same opportunities on an equal playing field. That's what we believe in."
The Petition for Women in the UFC currently has almost 35,000 supporters and is growing by the day. O'Brian thinks that additional support for the petition could send the message to the UFC that there is enough interest in women's MMA for the company to take a shot at it.
"Can you imagine if that petition was over 250,000?" O'Brian asked. "Then somebody, somewhere, has to wake up and say, 'Wow, there is a following it.' There is a following now for Women's MMA. Look at everybody who tuned in to Strikeforce for Tate vs. Rousey. Everyone was like, 'Wow,' when they saw the Tate vs. Rousey fight. That's why I tuned in to watch. I don't usually tune in to Strikeforce unless the females are competing."
While O'Brian uses his company and social media to push for women in the UFC, the fighters are taking a different approach. Gurgel, Tate, and Esparza all noted that women have to keep doing what they've already been doing, which is putting on great fights.
"We need to keep putting on good shows," Esparza said. "Other organizations are featuring the 115s and 125s. So I think as long as we keep moving up and getting our fights onto the mainstream television, I think the UFC is gonna have to take notice. I just hope the smaller organizations keep focusing on the women."
Their efforts appear to be paying off. Rousey and Kaufman are headlining for Strikeforce in August, and Bellator recently announced that they will be holding a women's flyweight tournament soon. Even Dana White has recently changed his tune about women in the UFC:
" … Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate have changed my mind," White said. "They have changed my mind. I was excited for that fight; it was an awesome fight. They both looked like skilled mixed martial artists, and they changed my mind, so if more Miesha Tates and more Ronda Rouseys keep popping up, then the answer would be yes."
It appears that women mixed martial artists may have their day in the UFC after all, and it might be sooner than many people think.
Derek Ciapala has been following MMA since the days when Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie fought in the octagon. You can follow him on Twitter @dciapala.
Source: Personal Interviews