Expanding Definitions: The New UFC Strawweight Division Moves WMMA Onwards

Fightland Blog

By L.A. Jennings

Photos via Invicta FC

The UFC’s women’s division is often called ‘the Ronda Rousey show,’ which, unfortunately, presents WMMA as residing squarely and solely in Ronda’s performance, both in and out of the cage. In the history of women’s MMA, there has always, for some reason, been a quest to find the one woman to act as ‘the face’ of the sport. Gina Carano was once considered ‘the face,’ although Cristiane Justino, the Cyborg, has never been considered for that role, perhaps because her face does not conform to mainstream beauty standards. There has never really been a male ‘face of MMA’ because there were more divisions and more fighters to share the distribution of media interest and presence. But women’s MMA remains rooted in the idea that one woman should carry the sport as a whole. This is the environment of the current UFC women’s division, and it is a result of Dana White’s many assertions that Ronda Rousey is the only reason that WMMA exists in the UFC.

Ronda’s domination in the bantamweight division is unquestionable. The accusations leveled against Ronda that her fights have been ‘easy’ are unfounded. In fact, they destabilize the sport itself by suggesting that the ‘face of WMMA’ is undeserving of the title. Some internet trolls and other hucksters claim that Ronda is a terrible fighter, which is both preposterous and spurious, but that is nothing new in the world of sports. However, Ronda’s status as the sole embodiment of women’s MMA is problematically reinforced by many individuals and some media outlets in the MMA community.

Fortunately for WMMA fighters and fans everywhere, the UFC will finally expand beyond this singular definition of the sport with The Ultimate Fighter Season 20. It is not just the introduction of another weight class, but the manner in which the TUF 20 fighters will enter the UFC that makes it a departure from last year’s creation of the bantamweight class.

When the UFC offered the first WMMA bout in 2013, Ronda Rousey was already positioned by ZUFFA to star in ‘the Ronda Rousey show.’ She was crowned the champion before the first fight even occurred. The division originated in this sort of ‘king of the mountain’ mode, where everyone waited in line to fight Ronda. This is the model for any weight-class division; fighters stand in queue for a title shot. But in the women’s division, the rest of the bantamweight cohort did not seem to matter unless they were facing Ronda, the predetermined champion and media darling. If Ronda was not in the cage, then WMMA was simply not interesting enough for the media to cover or watch.

This neglect is the unfortunate result of creating a division based entirely around one person. In many of the men’s divisions, non-title fights are still heavily promoted and analyzed based on an interest in the division as a whole, rather than on one particular fighter. This does not make Ronda any less influential or important as a fighter; rather, it highlights the way that the UFC promoted ‘the Ronda Rousey show’ to the detriment of the rest of the bantamweight division.

Unlike the creation of the first women’s division in the UFC, the strawweight division will be introduced as a cohort rather than an individual fighter. Of course, there are certain strawweight fighters who already have more of a media presence than others. But the UFC did not give preferential treatment to the reigning Invicta strawweight champion, Carla Esparza. Although she, as well as Tecia Torres, Rose Namajunas, Felice Herrig, Bec Hyatt, Joanne Calderwood, Emily Kagan, and Alex Chambers bypassed the tryouts and were admitted directly to the TUF house. The remaining ten spots (eight fighters and two alternatives) were contested last week in Las Vegas, and the rest of the cast should be announced soon.

This time, the UFC has a different purpose in the creation of a new women’s weight class. The bantamweight class already established that women deserve to be in the UFC, even if the promotion of that particular division is defined by a particular person. By introducing the fighters in the TUF house, and by not preordaining a champion before the first punch lands, the strawweight class will not be built on a face, but rather, on a division.


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