The Plight & Future of Women’s MMA

Posted on March 9, 2010


Yesterday (March 8th) was International Women’s Day. Originally established in 1909 by the Socialist Worker’s Party in the United States, the holiday has evolved into a widespread day of celebration for the accomplishments of women and observance of the struggles women face both at home and abroad. Although we have seen great advances in gender equality over the course of the last few decades, women still lag much further behind in areas including but not limited to pay disparity, respect in the workplace, and representation in areas such as politics.

Sports are certainly no exception.

Fighting for acceptance: Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos (right).

For whatever reason, the plight of women in sports – at least professionally – is not seen as a priority. Part of the reason is that sports (particularly in the United States) are still seen as more of a male pursuit. Sure, more and more women are becoming vocal fans and consumers of team sports such as football, but for the most part it’s still seen as a male-dominated industry. The participants are all male, the advertising is directed at males, and the various attitudes and personalities of the participants and personalities contained therein are rooted in stereotypical (and sometimes borderline chauvinist) male attitudes.

While change is occurring on the amateur and collegiate levels, it seems slow going for professional sports. Some blame the WNBA’s lack of popularity on poor marketing, but the fact of the matter is that much of it is due to long-standing attitudes when it comes to women participating in team sports. Many observations are made publically and without shame by both sports fans and those in the media regarding the perceived lack of feminine qualities these female athletes possess. The league, like so many other female sport pursuits, is treated as a joke moreso for its mere existence than for any shortcomings in physical competition.

Interestingly, this doesn’t traditionally carry over as heavily into individual competition. Women’s Tennis, for example, is far more popular stateside than the men’s. The names and personalities are far more recognizable and marketable, and not just because there are more American women in the upper echelon of competition than men. And aside from the embarrassing amount of coverage and attention given to the perennially unseeded Ana Kournikova, very little of it has to do with the marketing of these athletes as sex symbols.

Gina Carano: fighter, centerfold, or both?

Unfortunately, the same can’t always be said for Mixed Martial Arts. The only women given attention on a wide scale are those that are deemed more physically desirable and/or are willing to pose in suggesting photo spreads. I am not trying to vilify the Gina Caranos and Meisha Tates of the sport. They can’t be blamed for knowing how to market themselves. There is, however, a double-edged sword: you become a household name, but for all the wrong reasons. People may be more apt to buy a magazine with your picture in it than a ticket with your name on it.

On the other hand, the argument could be made that they’ve advanced the sport in a very real way. Those adhering to a more hardline feminist ideology may deem it exploitive or even repulsive, but the fact of the matter is that Gina Carano’s pretty face put women in a main event spot and made Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos – an uber-talent who otherwise would have gone unnoticed – into a household name.

The problem now is how we proceed from here. There are always going to people who notice the more physically attractive participants and focus on that aspect of their being rather than their technical prowess. I mean, Hell, I’ll be the first one to admit that I admire many of them for more than just their crisp boxing or jiu-jitsu prowess. On the other hand, I think we need to draw and maintain a firm line between being able to accept the marketing of certain female fighters as sex symbols and marketing certain fighters because they’re sex symbols despite the fact that their talent and abilities are suspect.

Despite the view held by many in the mainstream that the sport is legalized barbarism and bloodsport, the acceptance of women is not be as much of a problem in Mixed Martial as it is in other sports. Certainly no female boxer would be able to headline a major fight card over reputable and marketable male names. And yet, Gina Carano and Cristiane Cyborg headlined a televised fight card back in August that included names such as Renato “Babalu” Sobral, Gegard Mousasi, and Febricio Werdum. Coming out of the event, many fans and analysts criticized Carano for being all flash and hype, pointing to her sound defeat at the hands of “Cyborg” as proof. I disagree and make the argument that it spoke more to the freakish strength and uncanny abilities of Cristiane Santos than it did to any lack of skills on the part of Carano. Additionally, one has to wonder if some folks aren’t just a bit too eager to write off a popular female fighter for the sake of showing that women aren’t as viable in the sport – in terms of marketability or competition – as some seem to think.

Drive & determination: Roxanne Modafferi mounts her competition.

Me, I’m glad that we have the Gina Caranos and Meisha Tates who may be good to look at but also possess some legitimately dangerous tools in their arsenal. I’m also thankful for the likes of Sarah Kaufman, who may not have wowed the crowd but put on a respectable display of technical striking en route to her first 135 pound title back on February 26th. I’m also thankful for the likes of Muay Thai specialist Marlos Coenen, who hung in for almost three full rounds against a dominant champion and showed tremendous heart in the process. And I’m thankful for Roxanne Modafferi, the #3 ranked 135 pound women’s fighter in the world, whose unbridaled enthusiasm for the sport is as contagious as it is inspiring.

It’s great that we have these women to lead the way into a new era of acceptance for women in MMA and sports as a whole. They’re a testament to the heart, skill, and determination that make this sport so intriguing. Every sport should be so lucky as to have such worthy pioneers, and I look forward to the day when they consistently get the attention and spot on a major televised fight card that they deserve.