By Cathal Walsh
For the casual spectator of MMA it may at first glance be difficult to imagine where women “fit in” to such a seemingly aggressive and violent combat sport. Yet from its inception, mixed martial arts have sowed the seeds for women’s MMA to blossom. From Royce Gracie’s multiple victories over bigger and stronger strikers by way of technical submissions to the artistic and “dance like” fighting style of Anderson Silva; the opportunity for women to showcase technical skill, athleticism, finesse and artistic flare has been waiting patiently in the shadows. Last year, Dana White decided to end the gender eclipse by going back on a previous promise and opening the door for women’s MMA competition to shine on the biggest stage of all – the UFC.
Women’s MMA – It’s about time, isn’t it?
Nonetheless, as successful women in virtually every other professional field will be quick to tell you, being invited to the table is only step one. Unfortunately, womens’ MMA is still a novelty in the minds of many self-proclaimed “hard core” fans. Those of us who can appreciate the technical skill and athleticism quickly look past gender and appreciate the talent. But read the twitter and you tube feeds after a main card and comments abound from “fans” wishing to be caught in Rousey’s triangle choke. Yes it’s true; many MMA fans have some growing up to do. But then, so does the rest of society. In the past century women have broken down walls in never before considered fields of endeavour. Science, politics, and business have all had their old boys’ networks rattled to their core and glass ceilings shattered under the unrelenting siege of women ready to assert their talents and bring fresh perspective to established ways of doing things. Now I’m not about to compare Ronda Rousey to Mother Theresa or Gloria Steinem, but suffice is to say that MMA does represent yet another arena that is shifting rapidly away from being dominated by a male culture to one of gender neutrality. The introduction of women into the sport creates balance, diversity and an opportunity for us as fans to watch a new sport grow in the right direction. The right direction being universal acceptance for women in MMA based on their technical skills, athletic talent and mental strengths and discipline. In other words, we need to accept women MMA fighters as true professional athletes rather than a voyeuristic side show spectacle.
So, how does women’s MMA get there? It can happen in three easy steps. Well, maybe not so easy:
1. MMA organizations (UFC in particular), sponsors, managers, TV networks, bloggers, etc…), must commit with vigilance to draw a clear line in the sand between promoting the physical prowess of female fighters and indulging their sexuality. We all get it – sex sells. But let’s not sell out. After all, what do we want for women’s MMA? We want athletes taken seriously for how they compete rather than how they look.
2. All MMA athletes (men and women) need to self-regulate their conduct. Women’s tennis is arguably the most successful international sport where women have emerged as equals with their male counterparts. Modern era pioneers like Billie- Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf etc…) broke down long standing perceptions of women being less entertaining than men by delivering their own brand (some would say a superior brand) of their sport. When Serena Williams makes it to finals of the US Open, it’s about the athlete and the sport. The Association of Tennis Professions (ATP) tennis has held its athletes, coaches, sponsors, etc…) to high standards. The MMA world does not yet have an Association of MMA Professionals. It will need one. Women will need one. Codes of conduct and behaviour for athletes in and out of the Octagon make a difference.
3. Just like tennis, women’s MMA needs to deliver their own unique brand of the sport. This will happen organically if allowed to. The men’s game and the women’s game, though operating under the same rules should look different. Words like power, speed, fluidity, flexibility and finesse will take on new meaning when women showcase their very best. Ironically, innovations soon to be brought to the sport by women will likely serve to elevate the men’s MMA game. They will feed of each other and raise each other to new heights for the sport.
Every gender debate has controversy. Women competing in MMA are not immune. Stereotypes, sexism, homophobia, etc…) all raise their ugly heads when “the establishment” is facing a new dawn. Well, the new dawn is here. For it to stay and thrive we just have to learn from the challenges and victories that have already been realized by women in other sports and other establishments. In the words of Maya Angelou, “How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!” There’s much more to say on this topic but I’ll stop here as my arm is still hurting from an armbar my 10-year old daughter slapped on me last night. Why did I ever let her watch that Rousey match?