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Fighting for Breadcrumbs: The Radical Evolution of Women’s Mixed Martial Arts

In 2011, Dana White, president of the UFC famously said that he would "never" allow women to fight in the world's premier mixed martial arts organisation. Fast forward to 2015, and on the eve of UFC 194, one of the UFC's biggest pay per view events ever, which was headlined and co-headlined by two female fights, White commented the following:

"This whole women’s power movement that’s going on right now is crazy...We’re sitting here in Melbourne, Australia, where the main event and co-main event are women with a possible 70,000-seat arena sell-out. It’s never been done in the history of combat sports. It’s awesome. It’s powerful. It’s cool. I’m really glad to be a part of it.”

Let's get one thing really clear straight away. White didn't suddenly have an epiphany of feminist transformation. There was one clear motivation for the change of tide and it's the one clear motivation that guides the gigantic selling machine that is the UFC - money. Now, the fact White realized that women could not only compete to an equal standard to men, but that they could also generate as much, if not more revenue than their male counterparts is significant in this discussion. Here we have a hyper rapid evolution in women’s combat sports that is unprecedented – sure, the all-female Invicta organisation had been founded in 2012, and among other organisations, there was a growing body of underground WMMA outlets, but, the big problem was that in a world where fighter pay was (and still is) a big issue, women often suffered the brunt of the lowest pay and conditions of all. The meteoric rise of Ronda Rousey in the UFC however meant that she fast became the most well-paid athlete on their roster, leading to ironic social media battles between Rousey and boxing king-pin Floyd “Money” Mayweather over who was paid more. We’ll not get into the overall general issue of fighter pay equity right now, but the women’s divisions while in a process of evolution in terms of their breadth and options, have been receiving the same core pay structure as the male divisions, albeit with problems relating to sponsorship that we will come to shortly.

Fast forward again, it is July 8th, 2016, the night before the landmark UFC 200 card and in the midst of UFC’s International Fight Week, featuring a mammoth display of fights, the Ultimate Fighter Finale, UFC fight-night card is headlined by Muay Thai specialist Joanna Jedrzejczyk defending her strawweight (115 pound) title against Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black-belt Claudia Gadelha. The following night, Miesha Tate and Amanda Nunes headline the historic UFC 200 main card itself in a bantamweight title fight, slated to be the biggest selling UFC event ever. Two weeks later, it’s July 23rd and 18-time boxing champion Holly Holm competes against Muay Thai champion Valentina Shevchenko, in the headline slot of the UFC on Fox 20 card. And then, the following week, Rose Namajunas takes on Karolina Kowalkiewicz in the strawweight division in a co-main event fight billed as a title contender match-up, with the winner assumed to be put straight in against Jedrzejczyk for the title. Three of the previous four UFC cards had been headlined or co-headlined by women at this point. The quality on display in these fights was exceptional. Although the Tate vs Nunes title fight was short-lived, the fact a women’s fight headlined UFC 200 is remarkable – something that would have been completely unthinkable just four years earlier.

It is now November 12th, 2016 and the UFC makes its debut in New York, which until 2016 was the only state in the U.S. to keep MMA illegal. As Liz Carmouche and Katlyn Chookagian walked to the Octagon for the first fight of the night, they became the first MMA fighters (female or male) to ever make that walk inside Madison Square Garden. Later that night, Joanna Jedrzejczyk defended her strawweight title against Karolina Kowalkiewicz, as the two Polish female fighters put on an exciting striking display to a standing ovation. Also, on a less jubilant note, legendary WMMA pioneer Miesha Tate drew a line under her career, announcing her retirement, signalling almost the passing of the guard from the previous generation to ‘the future’ as she called it. Regardless of what Dana White has said of the influence of Rousey to WMMA, Tate should take equal praise, because if it wasn’t for Tate, none of this could have happened the way it has.

The revolutionary shift in the recognition of WMMA, supported by the UFC’s infrastructure has been a major feat, to the extent that the term WMMA is fast becoming an unnecessary term, such is the total integration of women’s fighting. It seems like the recognition of women’s fighting has taken a huge leap forward in recent times, both in terms of representation and the sheer quality that is emerging as the younger fighters train to meet higher and higher benchmarks of standards and quality. However, female fighters still face a particularly unique set of lingering circumstances and obstacles in gaining equal legitimacy and exposure from the wider public, due to dated sexism, and in some cases, even dated understandings of feminism that hinder the development of women's fighting. For instance, it’s almost expected that female fighters routinely receive sexist comments and even direct harassment in some cases on social media and occasionally at shows. It doesn’t take long to scroll through someone like Miesha Tate’s social media posts, to find that the majority of comments come from men talking about her appearance, etc. Claudia Gadelha recently reported that she receives frequent obscene pictures from men online. There are still clearly sections of society struggling to come to terms with the idea of equal female participation in combat sports, and also, on the other hand, critical feminism is having a hard time making sense or supporting a women’s movement that includes women punching each other in the face! And of course, violence itself is something that many people still cannot accept or integrate into their worldview as legitimate sporting activity (this is a view far more profound in the U.K. where I’m from, where, for instance, women’s participation in Olympic Boxing is still a major controversy).

In addition to this, women get unfairly centered in discussions over MMA’s ethics and legitimacy. For instance, in the struggle for MMA legalization in New York, a particularly staunch opposition voice came from Zenaida Mendez who is the New York National Organization for Women President. Mendez said the following in a letter slamming the Governor if he went ahead and supported MMA legalization:

“We know that violence begets violence…We know that violence in sports exacerbates violence within the homes of women and children. Time and again, it has been proven that when children witness violent sports, they become desensitized to violence. Who are the recipients of this violence? Women! How can you espouse women’s equality and violence?”

The clear point being that Mendez believes there can be no such thing as both women’s equality and legalization of violent combat sports. A bizarre argument, cleverly unpacked by the feminist scholar LA Jennings (who also teaches boxing and Jiu Jitsu) in an interview for the article “MMA Meets Third-Wave Feminism”. Here, Jennings attributes such views to a dated interpretation of second-wave Feminism:

“They’re using a dated feminist approach for their argument. I think that the argument that violence will increase because of [MMA] is an argument that’s predicated on the idea that women are inherently victims. And when you talk in that sort of language – women are victims, women are passive, women are unable to protect themselves; they’re not in control of their own bodies, their own destinies – it’s a very, very slippery slope. It’s the kind of slope that can really get us into trouble when we then talk about other things we want to happen for women that are good, things like birth control and abortion rights. Most of the academic work out there dealing with women and martial arts is about the link between feminism and self-defense. Which is interesting; it’s kind of 1970s, end of the second wave of feminism. But I’m curious to see how we can use the newer iterations of feminism to talk about what MMA has really done for women, especially in light of the recent developments of the past year. I’m trying to use a newer, third-wave feminism to talk about the competitive aspects of martial arts.”

Jennings goes onto attribute the association between third-wave feminism and competitive MMA to the feminist principle of “having power over your own image, over your own body and that you’re not completely subjugated to patriarchy”. She also interestingly points out that MMA is now “uniquely situated to deal with and change the dialogue of violent comments about women because the sport is not just men anymore. The more women that we have competing, the more fighters are going to be interacting with female fighters as colleagues….I think MMA could, in the future, change a lot of misogynistic dialogue that goes along with fighting sports and a lot of these traditionally male-dominated sports.”

And this is the thing that really needs celebrating here, that we have a situation now in mixed martial arts, where women are competing at the highest level, to the most audiences, at the best gyms in the world, training and competing alongside men, including in the area of pay equity. However, as I mentioned before, the UFC's Reebok sponsorship deal with its tiered pay according to length of time in the UFC can be seen to unfairly discriminate against women who as a body of fighters are clearly new to the organisation. In addition to this, when you look at the UFC more broadly, you see that overall, the organisation is still largely a male-dominated environment with the vast majority of owners, managers, matchmakers, coaches and referees being male. So, clearly there's still a way to go before women's participation in the sport can be said to reach a fairer representation. However, in the few years that women have begun competing in the UFC, what they have been able to achieve remains extraordinary.

I was going to write more about the complexities of the feminist movement and how and why women’s fighting is absent from most feminist writing and literature, but firstly, I’m probably not really the best person to open that discussion, and secondly, more importantly, what is perhaps most impressive about the history of women’s fighting is that the women involved in this sport just don’t care – they’re so focused on just getting on with what they do that they have substantially overcome the obstacles that gender inequality once imposed on them.

They have built a movement from scraps on the assumption and expectation of total equality from the start. They’ve set out to prove that women should be allowed equality in MMA and over the past few years, they’ve achieved this on an extraordinary scale, never once utilizing ‘feminism’ as a slogan term to increase their value. They are not interested in anything other than the substance of getting on with their job to the best of their ability, regardless of their gender. That this represents perhaps the truest of feminist movements is ironic.

I want to close this with a couple quotes from Miesha Tate, who at the very peak of her career had this to say about how women’s recognition in MMA has dramatically changed over the decade in which she has journeyed through it:

“My very first fight was…in a casino with 200 people, for free - no medical, no commission, truly fighting for breadcrumbs…no money, no potential opportunity… And now here we are with such a strong presence in the world’s fastest growing sport, it’s kinda crazy. I feel like the most noticeable change has been the acceptance of women’s mixed martial arts as a real, serious sport. That we’re actually taken seriously as athletes, and headlining huge pay per views…and I just remember where it first started, back when it was a spectacle, and people laughed at women’s mixed martial arts, and it was not taken seriously, and I feel it was viewed as a circus act at best and now people understand that women can fight”.

“I’ve seen over the past decade the perception of women and women in combat sports change dramatically, and a huge part of that has to do with being on an equal playing field in the UFC, and being right there next to male counterparts with the same opportunity to shine on the biggest platforms. And it’s really cool that I’ve personally got to experience the worst of it I’ve gotten to experience and the highs and the best of it, and I’m really honored and proud to say I had a part to do with that perception change of the general public, and the way that they view women and what we’re capable of”

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