There’s something about two people in the middle of a ring beating each other up that captivates audiences. The fighting industry in the world used to be ruled by boxing. Legends such as Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Joe Frazier were absolute icons, and really ramped up the popularity of fighting during their careers. However, in recent years boxing has taken somewhat of a backseat to a newer fight industry: MMA or Mixed Martial Arts.
Now MMA is not necessarily a brand-new sport, but it has risen up in popularity over the past 16 years, since Zuffa LLC purchased the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). The UFC has been the premiere brand for pay-per-view MMA events, which started out in 1993 as a barbaric tournament pitting fighters from different fighting backgrounds, such as Karate, Taekwondo, and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. In 2001, the UFC did only five events over the whole year; in 2016 that number had jumped all the way up to 42, with an increase every year since 2001.
While the UFC flourished, there seemed to be something missing: there were no women fighters. And although certain companies like Pride in Japan and Strikeforce dabbled in women’s MMA, it wasn’t taken serious until a woman by the name of Ronda Rousey hit the scene. Rousey’s background in fighting started in Judo, where she eventually went on to compete and medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the first American woman to do so. After returning to the states, Rousey had trouble finding work, and even took a job as a waitress and bartender in Los Angeles, Calif. Eventually, Rousey began training in MMA and gained notoriety through amatuer fights, where she repeatedly won by first-round armbars. Rousey eventually signed with Strikeforce, which was her first big break into professional MMA. Rousey then defeated Sara D’Alelio, took the championship belt from Meischa Tate, and defended her belt against Sara Kaufman, all of which were won by first-round armbars. As Rousey’s popularity began to shatter every glass ceiling imaginable on women’s fighting, the UFC was unable to ignore women’s MMA any longer, Rousey was signed to the UFC in November of 2012.
The first ever women’s UFC fight took place on Feb. 23, 2013 and featured Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche. The fight was part of the UFC 157 event held in Anaheim, Calif. and was in front of a sold-out crowd in the Honda Center. The fight was scheduled as a five-round (five minutes each) championship bout in the Bantamweight division (135 pounds). Rousey was victorious, finishing the fight at 4:49 of the first round via, you guessed it, an armbar. Shortly after the event, UFC President Dana White stated he had signed 10 female fighters to the roster, and that five more were on the way as well.
Rousey continued her dominance for the next year and a half, defeating Miesha Tate again and then Sara McMann at UFC 170 in just over a minute via technical knockout (TKO), Rousey’s first win not due to an armbar. Rousey then picked up wins against Alexis Davis, Cat Zingano, and Beth Correia via knockout in just 34 seconds. Rousey was on top of the world, and her success in the octagon led to magazine covers such as Maxim, ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue, and even the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. Rousey also starred in “The Expendables 3,” “Furious 7,” and “Entourage.”
Although Rousey looked unstoppable, the rise of women’s MMA led to a new breed of women fighters who were only getting better. At UFC 193 in November 2015, Rousey was set to defend her title against Holly Holm, a decorated kickboxer and striker. Holm’s striking advantage was evident as she bullied Rousey on the feet, eventually finishing Rousey with a couple punches after knocking her down with a kick to the head. Holm ended Rousey’s three year reign as champion and finally made Rousey seem human.
Rousey seemingly disappeared for a year, and eventually returned to fight current champion Amanda Nunes at UFC 207 on Dec. 30, 2016. The fight was the main event and led to over one million pay-per-view buys. Unfortunately, Rousey was defeated again. Nunes pushed the pace on the feet, and finished Rousey via TKO just 48 seconds into the fight.
Although Rousey has fallen off the UFC mountaintop, her impact is immeasurable. Before Rousey’s first fight in the UFC, President Dana White was quoted as saying that women would never fight in the UFC. However, during a radio show promoting UFC 205 White stated that Rousey was, “By far the biggest star ever.” White even reflected on the backlash he received before that first-ever women’s fight, stating it opened his eyes not only to how women were perceived in sports but also how they were valued in society. Rousey busted open doors for women in sports and society, and gave women an icon to lean on as Rousey became the biggest star in a male-dominated industry.
Overall Rousey’s pay-per-view buys currently sit at over six million, at around $50 a pay-per-view ($60 for HD); I’ll let you do the math. There is now over 60 women UFC fighters, according to their website, and they just recently launched a brand new weight class for women, Featherweight (145 pounds). Her impact to both women’s sports and women in general will be felt for generations; hopefully she has inspired many more women to break through whatever barriers lie ahead.
Column by Nick Fields