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Can the UFC handle a female Roy Nelson? Or is it all Rouseys? (Guest Post)

While plenty of other Canadians were obsessing over hockey this week, I was looking forward to UFC 170, in which as-yet-undefeated bantamweight champ Ronda Rousey would take on former Olympic wrestler Sara McMann. Those of you who care might already know that McMann didn’t manage to end Rousey’s domination of the division, though instead of ending the match with her signature arm bar, Rousey TKO’d McMann with a knee – admittedly with some controversy around whether or not the referee ended the match too early.

But that’s not what I want to talk about at the moment.

I want to talk about the future of women in the UFC. Fans might know that the UFC is planning on adding a female strawweight (115 lbs) division, in addition to the existing bantamweight (135lb) division. And I think that’s pretty great since it means more opportunity out there for female fighters. On the other hand, the cynic in me wonders what motivated the decision to add this division rather than another. I know they can’t do everything at once, but the issue of female athletes and weight is, well, complicated. While journalists don’t report the weights of many female athletes, it’s pretty much inevitable in MMA, or any other fighting sport. So could it be that the UFC is playing it safe by adding more female athletes who are likely to be conventionally good looking and, well, marketable?

I’m sure there’s a lot I don’t know about the politics behind it all, and there are certainly plenty of talented strawweight fighters. But there has also been a thriving division of talented featherweight (145lb) fighters for quite some time. In fact, Cris “Cyborg” Justino has recently called out Rousey, and wants to drop divisions to fight her. Gina Carano used to fight in that division and is now making action movies. There’s no shortage of amazing women there who already have a fan base.

Maybe this has some selfish motivation, but I want to see some heavier women fighting. And by “heavier,” I mean “heavier than the current fighters,” since 145 lbs is not exactly heavy, and that was about the heaviest women’s MMA division I could find much media coverage for. The world is already saturated with images of super-thin women who can apparently kick anyone’s ass. (See: basically any action movie with a female central character) We need to see something else as well.

This might also be a good time to point out that even the super-sexy Rousey has to cut plenty of weight to fight as a bantamweight. Her Olympic Judo career was spent at 155 lbs. So let’s not even entertain the thought that there aren’t talented female fighters over 135 lbs. I’ve met plenty of great female heavyweight fighters in taekwondo.  I’m sure MMA has them as well. And, fine, I don’t deny that sexualizing the fighters could just be arguably a good way of getting more people to watch them fight. But anyone who watches fights knows that, while some fighters (male and female) have conventionally hot bodies, there’s not too much of a correlation between how hot you look and how you perform in the ring.

So how about it, UFC? How about some women at lightweight, welterweight, heavyweight? Let’s get a female version of one of my favourite unsexy and super-tough fighters, Roy “Big Country” Nelson. Let’s get women who are just there because they can fight. Fine, market them with the usual moderately manufactured controversies, but get them fighting. I definitely see a lack of women at the higher weight classes, and I don’t think this needs to be the case. So… lack of encouragement? Not wanting to compete in a sport where weight class is one of the defining features of a career? What’s the problem? I don’t believe for a minute that it’s aptitude.

Get it started, world. If you really believe that “strong is the new skinny,” then let’s give some strong women (who might not be all that skinny) their day in the ring. And female Roy Nelson – if you’re out there – I want to see you fight.

12 thoughts on “Can the UFC handle a female Roy Nelson? Or is it all Rouseys? (Guest Post)

  1. Roy “Big Country” Nelson is ‘unsexy’? Since when?
    It’s certainly true though that his body resists the mainstream aesthetic conventions of a male fighters body.
    Granted it would be great to see heavier weight categories for women in not only UFC but other fight promotions for women’s MMA like Invicta FC. It’s worth noting fighters like Lana Stefanac who retired from MMA undefeated

    1. Thanks for the mention of Stefanac. I’ve never seen her fight, but I’ll try to look her up. And I 100% agree about other fight promotions. After all, the strawweight competitors were “acquired” from Invicta.

      As for Big Country, I should have been more careful with my wording. I just mean to refer to his mass-media portrayal/marketing as a fighter. Nothing to do with whether or not he can/ought to be seen as sexy.

  2. If the the UFC thinks they can get people to plunk down 50 bucks for a ppv they’ll promote it. However, given that women’s MMA is a rather new entry into the UFC and it wasn’t long ago that Dana White said that women will never fight in the UFC, I expect any expansion to proceed cautiously. The UFC likes to ensure that there is enough depth in any weight class (male or female) to produce marketable stars that will prop up their ppv numbers. Historically the heavyweight class has suffered from a lack of depth on the men’s side. Even now the UFC is somewhat stuck in a cycle of Cain vs Junior rematches with no compelling contenders emerging from the talent light division, and historically it has been even worse. Perhaps a women’s heavyweight class may suffer the same problem and so may not be a likely first choice for expansion.

    Even the current UFC women’s divisions are deemed shallow by some fight journalists. For the moment they have a star to plaster on posters, but I’m curious about how it will develop should Rousey retire or lose. Chris Cyborg certainly did reasonably well selling fights and was certainly not a typical cover-girl like Rousey. So, again, I think this bodes well. At the end of the day I hope that what fans ultimately want to see are talented fighters, and I don’t think they’d keep tuning in to see a bad product sold with a pretty face. Long story short, I guess I’m cautiously optimistic that the UFC isn’t just about marketing beauty with women’s mma. Not that they don’t use that in their marketing when they can as they clearly do with Rousey (Carano as well in her time with Strikeforce). But I think they would get behind and promote talented fighters and interesting personalities regardless of looks.

    I’m very curious about talent development outside of the UFC as well. I think MMA has issues across the board here for both men and women. Fighters on the top of the heap make decent money, but nowhere near the standards of other pro athletes. At the lower levels it fight pay is still an issue. It can be difficult to lure the talent into the sport when the payoff is relatively low. But perhaps this is an advantage for the development of female MMA talent where there are fewer established pro-leagues with which to compete.

    1. I’m also very cautiously optimistic, though maybe more cautious than you. And I agree that starting at heavyweight wouldn’t be the way to go – I just think that there’s lots of ways in which it makes more sense to add fighters at higher rather than lower weight classes, so the cynic in me wonders whether there isn’t some sneaky marketability views in there.

  3. Dave makes some good points there. Theoretically there could be a division above heavyweight (265+) for guys in the UFC, but right now it’d be Brock Lesnar (who’s retired) not cutting weight and a bunch of bungling ex-NFL players and circus fatmen. A women’s heavyweight division would be impossible for the same reason – currently, the skill level in it would be embarrassing:

    For what it’s worth, I think the UFC is currently treating female athletes more respectfully than maybe any sport but tennis. What other sport is paying its women the same, and putting them at the top of cards? It’s not a perfect system, but right now I think it’s working okay.

    1. I have consistently been impressed by how well the UFC treats the female fighters at the events themselves. I really like seeing them on the same card as the male athletes and seeing their matches called the same way. When McMann went down from that liver shot, I mentally gave Joe Rogan a cookie for mentioning a bunch of other high-profile male athletes who’ve gone down the same way.

  4. Not MMA, but here’s Kayla Harrison’s 2012 gold winning judo match against Gemma Gibbons.

      1. Thanks! Some of the women’s heavyweight TKD matches from London 2012 are also up on Youtube for the watching. 🙂

      2. I watched that entire day of women’s judo – Gemma’s run was incredible. Was yelling at my computer (at work) by the semi finals.

  5. “So could it be that the UFC is playing it safe by adding more female athletes who are likely to be conventionally good looking and, well, marketable?” I read this entire, excellent post, but let me just say that the answer to this introductory query has got to be a resounding “YES.”

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