By Adam Martin
For years, UFC president Dana White was firmly against bringing women into the Octagon to fight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
In 2011, just two years ago, White told TMZ that women would “never” fight for his promotion. And yet now, in 2013, there are 15 women signed to a Zuffa contract and the UFC women’s bantamweight division is quickly becoming one of the promotion’s most crowd-pleasing weight classes.
So what changed?
The answer is simple: Ronda Rousey emerged as a superstar, and it’s Rousey that has singlehandedly brought women’s MMA into the mainstream — although White must be praised for giving her and other female fighters the platform to perform.
Now I really hate admitting this is the case, because I have been a fan of women’s fights ever since the HOOKnSHOOT days and I want to believe it was all of the women in sum putting on great fights that changed White’s mind, but it’s not a coincidence that White’s softened stance on allowing females to compete in the UFC coincided with Rousey’s unbeaten run to the top of the sport.
White, who is one of the smartest promoters in all of combat sports, was quick to realize Rousey could be a draw based on her good looks and vicious fighting style, and therefore make his company a lot of money, and the decision was made to bring her along with some other notable 135-pound females into the UFC earlier this year as a test drive of sorts.
And so far, the ride has been nothing but smooth.
UFC 157, which took place in February, featured not only the first women’s fight in UFC history but it was also the first UFC event to be headlined by two female fighters (Rousey and Liz Carmouche), and yet it did 450,000 PPV buys and a $1.35-million U.S. gate despite having a poor undercard. To the UFC, those numbers were a huge success and a slew of ladies were quickly signed by White and Co., who realized the fans loved Rousey vs. Carmouche and that they’d probably enjoy watching even more women fight.
And they have. The second women’s fight in the UFC was between Cat Zingano and Miesha Tate and it won “Fight of the Night” at the TUF 17 Finale. Then Sara McMann stopped Sheila Gaff at UFC 159, much to the crowd’s delight. And it continued on with exciting fights between Alexis Davis and Rosi Sexton, Gaff and Amanda Nunes, and Carmouche and Jessica Andrade.
In fact, the only bad women’s fight so far in the UFC was Julie Kedzie vs. Germaine de Randamie, meaning that of the seven female fights promoted so far by the UFC, the fans went home happy six times. That’s a good ratio – very good, actually – and it’s why the fans can expect the UFC to sign more females to its 135-pound roster in the near future (former Bellator standout Jessica Eye is the latest to be inked), and possibly even introduce additional female weight classes as soon as next year.
It’s clear that with TUF 18 featuring women in addition to men, the UFC wants to push its women’s division even harder through the end of the year. The new season, which stars arch-rivals Rousey and Tate as the coaches, is almost guaranteed to be a ratings hit when it premieres this Wednesday, bringing in even more new fans who are drawn in by women being in the spotlight.
That’s why I expect the UFC at some point to make a push to absorb Invicta Fighting Championships, the all-female promotion run by Shannon Knapp that has quickly become known for its extremely exciting fights between the best women fighters in the world at 105, 115, 125, 135, and 145 pounds.
Although the UFC has an informal talent-sharing agreement with Invicta at the moment which has thus far worked out nicely for both parties, the UFC will likely eventually see them as a competitor and buy them out like they did with PRIDE, the WEC, Strikeforce, and so many others. There’s no doubt in my mind the UFC is going to introduce more women’s divisions soon and they’re going to need a roster of non-bantamweight female fighters, which Invicta clearly has.
If I had to guess, the next female division that will be added is the 125-pound weight class, as many of the UFC’s female bantamweights (Eye, Sexton, and Gaff before she was cut) were actually flyweights who moved up for the opportunity to fight in the big show, just like male featherweights used to move up to lightweight to fight in the UFC before that weight class was added in 2010.
If I had my choice, though, the UFC would introduce the women’s 145-pound weight class, as the #1-ranked fighter in that division, Cris Cyborg, is one of the most dominant pound-for-pound fighters in the world regardless of gender, and she deserves the chance to show off her wares to a bigger audience than Invicta is giving her. Even though Cyborg tested positive for PEDs in 2011, it seems as though the fans have forgotten about it pretty quickly, and that’s probably because they want to see a super-fight between her and Rousey — a fight that is sure to be a pay-per-view blockbuster if and when it goes down.
Personally I want to see Rousey fight the other top contenders at 135 before she moves back up to 145 and fights Cyborg, but I know a Rousey vs. Cyborg fight is big and it could make the UFC a lot of money if they’re ever able to put it together.
For now, though, I think the UFC is happy with Rousey fighting at 135 and that’s why she has been booked in the co-main event slot at UFC 168 against Tate, which is the UFC’s year-end pay-per-view show, and which features the rematch between Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman in the main event. If Rousey can help the PPV exceed 1,000,000 buys — Silva vs. Weidman at UFC 162 did only a tad more than half a million, and their rematch is expected to draw somewhere north of that — that will prove Rousey’s drawing power and importance to the growth of women’s MMA better than any other statistic.
It took women a long time to find their way into the Octagon, but if the first six months of competition has shown anything, it’s that there is definitely an appetite from the fans for female fights, and that’s why I expect the women to not only stick around for the present, but to be one of the driving forces behind the UFC’s expansion in the years to come, in everything from television broadcasts to international markets. Ronda Rousey is very much responsible for much of that, even if there are many critics out there who don’t always give her the credit she deserves.