Fixing the ‘Face’ of Women’s MMA in the Bantamweight Division

Fightland Blog

By L.A. Jennings

Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Since its inception in the late 1990s, several women were, at various times, named the ‘face’ of women’s MMA. Sports media promoted the idea that one woman would, somehow, embody the sport in its entirety, and thus bring women’s MMA into the mainstream. Ronda Rousey is, undoubtedly, the most famous fighter in WMMA history, but she was not the first woman considered the ‘face’ of the sport. As a consequence, this idea has, at times, pushed all other fighters into the background, with the media concentration on one female fighter at a time. Today, CBS Sports published an article claiming that the women’s bantamweight division is “a wreck” with the belt changing hands four times in the last eight months. What some fans see as the excitement of a sport with a wide breadth of fighters ever vying for the belt, CBS apparently sees as a disappointment. A distraction from the Ronda Rousey show.

Many women occupied the ‘face’ role throughout history: Elizabeth Stokes in the 1720s, Hattie Leslie in the 1880s, and Christy Martin in the 1990s are all examples of female boxers who the media promoted as if they were the only women fighting at the time. Of course, this insistence is ludicrous; if Christy Martin was THE female boxer, who was she fighting? In the earlier days of MMA, Gina Carano occupied the center of the women’s division, becoming the first WMMA fighter to become popularized outside of the insular world of the UFC and Strikeforce. Even as the UFC introduced additional bantamweight female fighters, Ronda has remained at the center, perhaps due, in part to UFC president Dana White’s claim that Rousey is the only reason he allowed women to fight in the UFC. But proclaiming Ronda, or any other woman, as the ‘face’ of women’s MMA is problematic because it reinforces the idea that women are always represented by a singular ideal. And it becomes even more problematic because female athletes are judged not only on their athletic performance, but on their looks.

Gina Carano was considered the face of women's MMA but most people commented on her beauty before detailing her skill as a fighter. In 2009 Carano faced off against Cris “Cyborg” Justino for the Strikeforce championship title. The match was referred to as “Beauty verses the Beast” by certain sports media outlets. Cris was an incredibly talented fighter, but was given the unfortunate title of “The Beast” in this match. Internet pundits and commentators alike seemed disgusted by the Cyborg because she apparently looked “too masculine” and did nothing to promote her femininity. Even after a devastating defeat by Santos, Carano’s popularity far exceeded her former opponent. In 2012, Santos tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, prompting many “I knew she was a man!” conversations and may have ultimately ended her career. Yet beyond the confirmation of drug use, MMA fans seemed most displeased by Santos’ physical appearance.

Although her promoters attempted to follow the centerfold imperative, Santos did not make the same “hot” lists as Carano. Unfortunately, a female athlete must be beautiful in order to receive publicity and subsequent endorsements. In fact, female athletes must not only be beautiful, they should be sexy as well. Many female athletes pose for risqué and sexualized photography in order to promote their image as an athlete and a woman. For many women, their popularity as an athlete is invariably tied to the presentation of their sexuality. Auto Racer Danica Patrick received little public attention until famously posing for Playboy magazine in 2009. For women who participate in historically male sports, posing in bikinis for men’s magazines is a way to reassure viewers that while they are competing in a male arena, they also fulfill the expectations of conventional femininity.

When the UFC offered the first WMMA bout in 2013, Ronda Rousey was already positioned by the organization to be its star. 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. Her position became even more problematic when, after coaching the first season of The Ultimate Fighter to include both men and women (TUF 18), women’s fights that did not include her were almost always scheduled on the preliminary fight card, receiving little media attention. If Ronda was not in the cage, then WMMA was simply not interesting enough for the media to cover or watch. This neglect was 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 Ronda Rousey to the detriment to the rest of the bantamweight division.

Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The strawweight division did not have the same problem as bantamweights, because when the 115-pound division was created, it introduced a bevy of exciting fighters rather than just one and her opponents. Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Claudia Gadelha’s recent match at the TUF Finale was the fight of the night, and the potential challengers to the belt will undoubtedly yield another exciting bout. But, as Bleacher Report has noted, the UFC has utterly failed to bolster the strawweight division because with the exception of the two TUF seasons featuring the weight class, there has been few opportunities for the fighters to showcase their skills. If Friday night’s match proved anything, it is that the appeal of the strawweight division lies not in a single fighter, but in the type of high-energy, fast-paced action that excites a wide swath of the UFC fan base.

Photo by Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

Amanda Nunes’ victory Saturday evening demonstrated that the bantamweight division is populated with fighters who deserve recognition and an opportunity to fight on a main card, even if Ronda is not part of the match. Nunes’ next fight, be it against Holly Holm, Julienna Pena, or even Ronda Rousey, should energize the division and give her another opportunity to defend her title. In order for the UFC’s women’s divisions to succeed, the UFC must give them time in the cage.

When one fighter dominates a division, fans and analysts delight in fantasizing about what fighter using which method may unseat the champion. But the division would not perish if that person lost. The middleweight division exists no matter who is at the helm, because it does not have a singular person who embodies that weight class. And ultimately, this is the problem with the bantamweights—for so many people, it exists only as a playground for Ronda Rousey. There does not have to be one face of the women’s bantamweight division, just as there does not have to be just one man who completely encapsulates the featherweight division. 


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