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History of Women’s MMA

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By Jillian Bullock

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womens-mmaThere was a time, recently in fact, when UFC President Dana White was adamant that women would never fight inside the octagon at UFC. Now White is one of the biggest supporters of women fighters and has given a giant push for them to be included on the biggest stage in mixed martial arts.  This push came in the form of scheduling a championship title fight at UFC 157 between current bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey and Marine Corps veteran Liz Carmouche at the sold-out Honda Center in Anaheim, CA, on Saturday, February 23.

The fight ended the way all of Rousey’s bouts have – an armbar submission in the first round. This display of superiority in the octagon is the reason Rousey caught White’s eye, and eventually overturned his decision. She is also the reason why women are finally starting to get the recognition and respect they’ve worked so long for in a male dominated sport.

Even Misha Tate, who has never had kind words for Rousey, had to acknowledge that the UFC women’s champion has done a great deal to help women get recognition and respect in MMA.

“As much as Ronda might not be the kind of person I want to go have coffee with, she’s done a tremendous job building women’s MMA to this point,” Tate said. “She’s made one hell of a champion.”

Give Credit Where It’s Due

While Rousey is MMA’s golden girl, some people find it disrespectful to shine the spotlight on her when so many other women have lead the way and broken down barriers in the sport long before she came along. In fact, Becky Levi is credited with being the first MMA female fighter in the United States. Levi, who trained in wrestling, judo and boxing before she made the transition to mixed martial arts, first stepped into the octagon in 1997. With a professional MMA record of 6-1, Levi retired in 2000 after she lost to Marloes Coenen.

Zee Viesalicu also fought in MMA shortly after Levi made her debut. With a background in judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Viesalicu fought from 1997-1999. She retired with a perfect professional record of 8-0.

These two women, who some consider pioneers in the sport, were there in the infancy of  women’s MMA. In fact, the MMA Hall of Fame has listed Levi and Viesalicu as retired female fighter candidates. It is because of these two women that fighters like Rousey is where she is today.

Some Things Never Change

Throughout the history of women’s MMA they have been objectified and judged more on their looks than their actual fighting ability. With the case of Rousey and former MMA superstar Gina Carano, despite their amazing fight skills, it was their beauty that helped them make it to the top of their game.

The preoccupation with a woman’s looks in mixed martial arts or any sport is what makes it difficult for them to be taken seriously. During a recent interview with Global MMA, Vjesalicu weighed in on the tendency for women fighters to be judged by their looks and believe that it does a great disservice to them.

If I want to see a beauty contest, then I go to watch Miss America,” she said.

Although it’s a silent rule, women who have the looks to be showcased on the front of a magazine will gain the most popularity whether they are great fighters or not.

MMA fighter Olga Bakalopoulos, who is on the list of attractive women fighters, knows the stereotype well. Many people still believe the only place for good looking women in MMA is as a ring girl, but Bakalopoulos strongly disagrees.

In every other sport you see women having a place,” she said. “Women have as much right to be in this(MMA) as the guys do. Every year, the sport gets bigger, more women get into it, and they’re saying, ‘hey, I can do this.’ It’s going to be awesome.

After the recent UFC fight with Rousey and Carmouche, most reporters did focus on writing articles centered around the bout, but others honed in on Rousey’s looks. In fact, according to Matt Saccaro, a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, he noted that Eric Holden, a writer for The Examiner concentrated on the champion’s post-fight celebratory meal, and talked about the “hot meat in her mouth.” There was such outrage over the reporter’s comment in the MMA community that the original article was deleted. However, Holden’s statement got Saccaro thinking, which lead him to write the article:   Are Sexist, Sensationalistic Headlines Going to Be the Norm for Women’s MMA?

Unlike male fighters, who are judged solely on their athleticism and fight skills, women fighters are still judged more on their looks and not their ability to ground and pound.  As Saccaro wrote in his article: “Rousey—a champion, an Olympian and one of the world’s greatest and most dangerous female athletes—had to be sexualized and reduced to a punny headline.”
However, the blame for how women have always been treated throughout the history of MMA can’t rest on the shoulders of one reporter. MMA organizations and promoters continue to market female fighters in a sexist way. They are often featured in magazines half naked and in sensual poses or they are featured in commercials wearing leather outfits, like Rousey and Sarah Kaufman wore to promote their 2012 bout.

invictaFortunately, leading up to the match between Rousey and Carmouche the UFC made strides to change this image by not focusing on sex appeal. They did extensive promotion for the fight by highlighting the women’s background and personal stories, especially Carmouche, her service as a marine and the fact that she is the first openly gay MMA fighter.

Next Up For WMMA

Over the years, mixed martial arts has taken baby steps, and often misguided actions, when it came to how to market, promote, recruit, and best serve female fighters. However, the UFC,   Invicta FC’s all-female MMA organization, and other mixed martial arts associations are working to shift people’s attitude when it comes to seeing female fighters in the octagon and helping them get the respect they deserve.


About Jillian Bullock

Jillian Bullock has written 28 post in this blog.

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