Despite Sexist Past, UFC Becomes Champion for Women
Guest contributor Rachel Piazza is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu purple belt living in New York City. She has a master’s degree in women’s & gender studies, and aside from teaching courses in social justice at a university, leads feminist self-defense programs for women and girls. She recently did a TEDx talk on sexist language. Don’t try to mansplain to her, or she’ll choke you out.
Saturday night, Ronda Rousey (11-0) showed the world just how good she really is. Finishing #1 contender Cat Zingano (9-1) in 14 seconds, she cemented herself as one of the most dominant and talented fighters in UFC history. What makes Rousey so special, and her career so important, is that her talent transcends gender. Currently ranked as the #7 best pound-for-pound fighter in the UFC, she’s not only the best female fighter, but widely recognized as one of the best fighters, period.
The UFC, despite having a long history of sexism and misogyny, has become a leader in providing equal opportunity to female athletes. By showcasing women’s fights alongside men’s, the UFC has given women a platform that few other sports have. Instead of creating a sub-category for women, as most sports do, female fighters in the UFC are strictly MMA fighters. They fight in the same Octagon, on the same card, in front of the same crowds, and even headline pay-per-view events. The desegregation of women in MMA is one of the reasons they have risen so quickly in the UFC.
The inherent nature of fight sports – dividing athletes by weight class – also contributes to how fully women have been embraced in the sport. In the fight game, talent is revered no matter the size of the fighter. Fight fans recognize that featherweight champion Jose Aldo’s talent is on par with middleweight champion Chris Weidman, who is in turn on par with heavyweight champion Cain Valezquez. In this same vein, it is not a departure for fans of MMA to recognize Ronda Rousey as equally talented.
In addition, fans appreciate what each division brings to the table. The featherweights are touted for their speed and athleticism, and heavyweights for their power. Similarly, the women bring a fire and determination unrivaled in men’s divisions. As if making up for lost time, women have exhibited a unique mix of aggression, power, technique and heart that has riveted viewers.
By tapping into the potential of women as professional athletes, the UFC is tackling one of the long-standing issues for women’s sports: the lack of professional opportunities. While many boys grow up dreaming about becoming professional football or basketball players, little girls have had nothing of the sort to dream of. Yes, there’s the WNBA, women’s tennis, and the Olympics, but they simply do not compare to the opportunities men have in professional sports.
Women in the UFC have taken this unique opportunity and run with it, showcasing to the world that female athletes are deserving of equal recognition and attention. While credit goes to UFC president Dana White for making a quick turnaround from his previous assertion that women will NEVER fight in the UFC, to creating and full-heartedly promoting a women’s division, let’s not pretend this was a philanthropic gesture. The women’s division in the UFC is a money-maker, plain and simple.
Who would’ve imagined that the most brutal, hyper-masculine sport, with a long history of sexism, would be the one to lift women up as top competitors and break boundaries for all women? With women’s increasing success in the Octagon, it is time to ensure that the UFC stops using women as props, promoting them as sex objects, serving as a safe haven for hate speech against women, and treating domestic abusers with impunity.
The UFC and its female fighters have cleared a path for little girls to dream big. Now that the UFC has a vested interest in little girls becoming strong, fierce and determined fighters in the Octagon, perhaps it will work to create a better world for them outside of it.
Photo Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports