Ashley Cummins nearly reached the UFC, a goal she has been chasing for a decade. Most fighters view it as the top of the MMA mountain. Cummins came closer than she ever had when she attempted to compete on Season 23 of The Ultimate Fighter.
She fought Lanchana Green at strawweight and lost via second-round TKO. Cummins, a 5’2″ atomweight, was giving up three inches of height from the get-go. Cummins used her superior grappling to dominate Green in the first round. But then, size became a factor.
In the second round, Green used her physical advantages to keep the fight standing and land a vicious knee that broke Cummins’ ribs. Just like that, Cummins lost her chance to reach the UFC.
“After that loss, I was at an all-time low,” Cummins said. “I had two choices: retire or keep reaching for my dreams. I had to dig deep and do some soul-searching. With the support of my gym and friends, I was able to push forward and make the adjustment to drop a weight class and continue pursuing my dreams.”
Now, she’s hoping that she’ll get another opportunity to achieve her goal at her natural weight class.
Women’s mixed martial arts has seen an exponential growth in all areas over the past five-plus years. Since late 2012, the UFC has been adding women’s weight class divisions intermittently. Currently, the UFC has four women’s weight classes. However, it’s missing one: atomweight.
Atomweights are calling for the UFC to introduce their weight class. They wouldn’t have to fight women who are bigger and stronger than them to get noticed by the UFC, they could realize their lifelong dreams of reaching the most prominent stage in MMA, and they would gain more in money and platform.
The UFC has come a long way in the women’s MMA field. Today’s landscape is a far-cry from 2011 when the promotion’s president, Dana White, said women would never fight in the UFC. That has changed, as the promotion has implemented strawweight, flyweight, bantamweight, and featherweight for women over the years.
Many credit former UFC and Strikeforce bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey’s ascent to superstardom as what paved the way for women in the UFC. Since then, we’ve seen women like Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Rose Namajunas, Amanda Nunes and Cris “Cyborg” Justino rise to prominence.
Atomweights want that opportunity.
Cummins, who fights under all-women’s promotion Invicta Fighting Championships, said reaching the UFC has been her goal from Day 1.
“That’s why it’s frustrating [the UFC] doesn’t have my weight class,” Cummins, 30, said. “I’ve been training my ass off and I don’t know if I can ever reach my dream.”
Katie Saull, an atomweight signed with King of the Cage, shares the same goal.
“It would mean that I’ve lived my life authentically and that I did what I wanted to do,” Saull, 30, said. “If I were to get into the UFC and become world champ, there would be no regrets. There’s nothing else in this world that I want more. It would mean EVERYTHING.”
The UFC did not respond to questions about whether it plans to open an atomweight division. However, Invicta FC atomweight Amber Brown is confident that it will happen soon.
“I think they wanted to make sure women would do well in the UFC,” Brown said. “I know [us atomweights] will be there. It’s just a matter of a little more time.”
Unfortunately, there has been no indication of what the UFC’s plans are, however.
One frustration atomweights share is the women’s featherweight division the UFC opened has barely progressed. It debuted in February 2017 and has seen only a handful of women compete in it. The division’s champion, “Cyborg,” has been forced to fight bantamweights due to the UFC’s inability to find her natural featherweights.
As a result, “Cyborg” has infamously mauled most women who have faced her in the UFC due to them being under-sized at featherweight. Very few have been able to even land return damage on her.
By comparison, the other three women’s weight classes in the UFC had been immediately fleshed out with a standard top-15 ranking after being introduced.
“There are so many atomweights not only in the United States, but around the world,” Cummins said. “Then you look at the 145 lb. female division and there’s no one. They don’t even have anyone to fight ‘Cyborg’. The UFC has that division but not 105. That blows my mind.”
Cummins is right. Tapology’s atomweight world rankings list features dozens of women the UFC could sign to launch a division.
In addition, some natural atomweights compete up a weight class in order to give themselves the best shot of reaching the UFC, via the 115 lb. division. That usually doesn’t pan out, as Cummins knows from experience.
She’ll be the first to say that a smaller woman competing at 105 lbs. compared to 115 is a night and day difference. Cummins went on an 0-3 stretch when she fought Joanne Calderwood, Emily Kagan and Alexa Grasso. A fourth consecutive loss came to Green.
The broken ribs Cummins suffered in the Green fight wasn’t even the worst injury sustained from fighting larger women. In her 2012 fight against Calderwood, she nearly lost her vision– permanently. Calderwood landed a punch that shattered three of Cummins’ orbital bones. Cummins stayed in the fight, but would see two of Calderwood every time she went to throw a punch. A minute later, Calderwood, who now competes at flyweight, TKO’d her.
“I was fearful my life would change forever and that I’d get fired from my job,” Cummins, who is a St. Louis police officer, said. “I was told it wasn’t a guarantee my vision would be back to normal.”
Fortunately, Cummins’ vision came back and she was able to continue her career. After enduring a few more losses to bigger, stronger competition, Cummins is adamant she won’t ever go back to strawweight unless the UFC offered her a fight there. She’d much prefer to get into the promotion as an atomweight.
Saull suggested the UFC hold a season of The Ultimate Fighter to determine its first atomweight champion, akin to what it did for strawweight and flyweight.
Regardless of how the UFC introduces atomweight, Saull wants to see women from promotions like Invicta, ONE FC, King of the Cage and more drawn into the organization. Brown said she’d like to see some natural atomweights who are currently competing in the UFC’s strawweight division to move back down.
Cummins, Saull and Brown would only be the start of a potential UFC atomweight division.
“There’s a lot of excitement with atomweight,” Saull said. “There are so many fast and explosive women at 105, and it’s a common size. It’s the last [UFC women’s division missing].”