Mixed martial arts is a global professional combat sport dating back to Ancient Greece. However, it has only been recognized on the professional level since 1993.
In the mid-90’s, organizations like Pancrase, Pride and the Ultimate Fighting Championship ushered in the new era of professional MMA. At the time, the sport was largely considered a thug-like blood sport. Due to the public perception of illegal brutality and the early lack of safety rules, which are now in place, the sport was considered a barely palatable brawl.
Being barely palatable as a male sport, the female aspect was not even considered as a part of these contests in the United States. However, professional women’s MMA (WMMA) dates back to the mid-90’s as well, but was only held in Japan. The first all-women’s MMA promotion, Smackgirl, was finally formed in Japan in 2001.
So, why the lack of respect for WMMA in the U.S.?
Women have trained just as long and hard as men, and there are plenty of female fighters out there that are much scarier than some of their male counterparts. Some of these fighters have major credentials in martial arts, but in the beginning, none had Olympic credentials, which actually helped some of the men add credibility in the early days of the MMA.
Fast-forward a little over a decade from 2001 to today. MMA is the fastest growing professional sport in the world, with the largest organization, UFC, becoming a multi-billion dollar business. UFC, owned by parent company Zuffa LLC, not only operates in North America, but also hosts events in Europe, Asia, Australia and South America.
The one thing UFC is still missing? Women. Why is the largest MMA organization in the world still without female divisions?
Women competitors may not be in UFC, but other major organizations in the United States—the largest of which being Strikeforce, also owned by Zuffa—have had women’s competition for several years. The promotion is currently considered to house the best female fighters in the world. The promotion also has male fighters, but the women have made a big splash in the last three years.
Only two women’s divisions exist in Strikeforce, featherweight (145 pounds) and bantamweight (135). But, there’s a new sheriff in town, the all-women’s 2012 up-start, Invicta FC.
Invicta FC also has contracts with some of the best female fighters in the world and has three additional divisions, flyweight (125 pounds), strawweight (115), and atomweight (105). The promotion hosted its inaugural event on Apr. 28, and it was a huge hit. The second event from the promotion was held on July 28, and a third is scheduled for Oct. 6.
So, with two promotions housing incredibly talented female fighters, what is the X-factor that is blowing the sport up in 2012?
In a little over a year, both Strikeforce and Invicta FC have brought in former female Olympic medalists.
In 2011, undefeated fighter Ronda Rousey, the first American woman to earn a medal in Olympic judo, joined Strikeforce and became an instant contender for the bantamweight strap. Earlier that year, the first-ever American woman to receive a silver medal in freestyle wrestling, Sara McMann, had her first professional fight in a smaller promotion.
In March 2012, Rousey won the Strikeforce bantamweight championship, and, in July, McMann fought in and won the first-ever Invicta FC bantamweight title eliminator.
The question is, can Olympic credentials help the women catch up with the men as a widely respected demographic in the public eye?
Ronda Rousey is a 4th dan black belt in Judo and the Strikeforce women’s bantamweight champion. She also happens to be an Olympic bronze medalist in Judo from the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.
Rousey is the current face of WMMA and a person UFC President Dana White has a tremendous amount of respect and professional interest for. In popular culture, she is widely considered the Jon Jones of WMMA and was featured in the 2012 Body Issue of “ESPN The Magazine.”
Rousey made huge waves in the world of WMMA when she faced off against Strikeforce veteran Miesha Tate for the bantamweight championship. The undefeated Rousey faced her toughest opponent yet in the then-champion Tate, but won in the same fashion as all of her previous fights, by first-round armbar submission, a skill she definitely picked up in her Olympic Judo training.
McMann comes from a much different background. She is a lifelong wrestler. Competing since high school, she has won multiple Pan-American and World Championships, and earned a silver medal in freestyle wrestling at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games.
While not being as big in the public eye as Rousey, McMann, five years the elder, has a much more decorated amateur career and an equally undefeated professional MMA career. She made big waves in her Invicta FC debut, beating MMA veteran Shayna Baszler for a shot at the Invicta FC bantamweight title. In fact, her impact was so big, that on Sept. 4, it was announced that she signed with the much larger Strikeforce and her first fight will be in November against former bantamweight title contender Liz Carmouche.
Assuming both McMann and Rousey maintain their undefeated status through their next fights, it can be assumed that fans will see a huge fight in the making. Will a battle of two former Olympic medalists, both with grappling backgrounds, be what WMMA needs?
If that doesn’t spring the female aspect of the sport into mainstream MMA—and, hopefully, into the UFC—nothing will.
An Olympic showdown could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and launches WMMA into the Octagon. The marketing efforts that would go into that event could make for one of the biggest MMA promotions ever.
In the United States, and most of the world, Olympians are held in the utmost regard. The respect and admiration for Olympic medalists could be exactly what WMMA needs. And, the future is just getting started.
The year 2012 has been a big one for two other female Olympians.
Randi Miller is a former U.S. Olympic freestyle wrestler who won a bronze medal at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. The 28-year-old featherweight made her MMA debut earlier this year in the first installment of Invicta FC. She won her debut with a crushing third-round TKO of Mollie Estes. Miller currently trains and coaches at Zingano BJJ in Broomfield, Colo. In the spring of 2011, Zingano BJJ became an affiliate of the famous Black House MMA, so Miller trains with some pretty high-level company.
More recently, Kayla Harrison won the first-ever gold medal for the United States in Olympic Judo at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. While Harrison has not yet competed in MMA, and still plans on focusing on the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, she did sign with an MMA management company in August and has begun training under acclaimed BJJ Master and MMA trainer Renzo Gracie.
With Rousey and McMann setting up for a future battle, Strikeforce appearing to be nearing extinction, and up-and-comers Miller and Harrison in the spotlight, the sport of WMMA appears to be on its way to the biggest stage. And this meteoric rise is coming at the hands of Olympians.
However, none of this Olympian talk is designed to take anything away from some of the greatest, most talented female fighters, like Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos, Shayna Baszler, Miesha Tate or Gina Carano. However, it appears that the Olympic backgrounds of some of the newer, equally talented fighters provide the X-factor that will propel women into the UFC.
The jump to the UFC, whether at the hands of the Olympians or not, would further consolidate professional MMA, and finally take WMMA from a cable- or internet-only event to Fox Networks, right along the best male fighters in the world.
Photo: Ronda Rousey (James Law/Heavy MMA)