Photos by Mike Calimbas
Sometime I wonder why MMA still needs ring girls in these magical times when we could probably have a hologram of an animated breakdancing robot hovering over the cage telling us what round is coming up. Or maybe, since most MMA fights are only three rounds long, we could trust ourselves to keep track? And even if we’re watching in a loud bar and have had a lot of whiskey, we can always read the little number in the corner of the TV screen.
But a ring girl’s true purpose isn’t to hold a giant number over her head, of course. Nobody’s looking at the number. Ring girls are as much a fixture of fights as staredowns and bad tattoos, and they serve much the same purpose—giving the audience something fun to look at in between fights.
But with the sudden, rapid rise of women’s MMA over the last couple of years, and a general push toward equality in the industry, isn’t it time we rethink the role of ring girls at least a little bit, that we address a glaring disparity?
Nael Chavez, the fighting reverend of Austin, Texas, thinks so. Chavez operates the Belts of Honorious promotion, and at his last event on Sept. 7, he did the formerly unthinkable: He introduced ring boys to the game. (The condescension built into the term “ring girls” is made kind of obvious when you start calling grown men “boys,” isn’t it? I think I’m going to start calling them “ring dudes” and “ring ladies.”)
Chavez got the idea after the first Honorious event, which featured three women’s fights. “I saw one of the women who knocked out her opponent standing with her belt next to this model, and I didn’t like how it looked,” Chavez says. “The fighter body is completely different from the ring girl’s body, and they’re both beautiful.” To Chavez, the juxtaposition of the two women seemed unfair to the female fighter, who worked at least as hard for her body as the model did and definitely took more hits to the head doing it.
One Honorious fighter, Brittany Robertson, has opinions as well. After she won her fight that night, she says, “One of the ring ladies pulled me to her and said ‘Want to take a picture with me?’ before posing us for an official picture.” Robertson posed for the photo, but she says that “my gut reaction at the time was indignation that someone thought my moment could be improved upon by a more ‘acceptable’ version of a beautiful woman. And thoughts of: We're undoing everything for WMMA in a single picture.”
But for Robertson, the ring girl question goes beyond issues of sex appeal, aesthetics, or even equality; it has to do with tapping into the whole long history of human combat. “I would love to see barely clothed men. I would like to hold onto one for a while post-fight, just like my teammates get to do,” she says. “Spoils of war and decoration.”
Spoils of war. It’s a good point—dark, but good.
When I talked to Chavez before the September 7 Honorious fights, he was concerned about how the crowd would accept his new ring dudes. “I’m going to be careful to make sure I don’t see it as a joke, because if I portray it as a joke, then it’s not going to be taken seriously,” he says. He talked to the announcers, the ref, even the cage door guys, telling them not to mock the ring dudes, to consider them as much a part of the fights as the ring ladies.
Before the event, Chavez got some angry calls and emails—some from fans, some from male fighters--so he made sure to get a couple of guys who could handle pressure: model Malcom Rogers, who is used to people staring at him, and amateur MMA fighter Eddie Wittern, who submitted his opponent at the first Honorious event 20 seconds into the first round and who fights in pink booty shorts. Wittern, an Army veteran who did two tours in Iraq and taught judo to his Army combatives team, made sure that they both wore “Ranger panties” (brief, silky shorts worn for physical training).
As it happens, the first fight on the card that night was a women’s bout, so the ring dudes got an early introduction. When they came out, I didn’t hear any boos, only cheers and whistles, and several female audience members took photos with them between fights. My friends in the crowd reported hearing some predictable jokes from their male companions, but the mood in the room was cheerful overall. The ring dudes carried the cards during the women’s fights, and in between rounds of the men’s fights the got in the cage to encourage the audience to cheer for the ring ladies. The crowd seemed to love them.
The ring ladies liked the ring dudes, too. One of them, Breanna Dupre, was carrying the cards for the first time that night. “I like that the crowd responds when the guys come up,” she says. “It makes me less nervous.”
Still, I’m not sure the MMA world is quite ready for the introduction of ring dudes.
The crowd for the Honorious fights is made up of people who love Chavez and his causes and laid-back Austinites who made a hero of a homeless crossdresser--liberals to the end. Several people from my gym, all of whom were fighters themselves, argued it out on Facebook for a while, and their issue wasn’t with the idea of ring dudes but whether substituting one half-naked person for another is just “equal opportunity exploitation. But that doesn’t necessarily describe the majority of the MMA audience, and certainly not the percentage of it that can be found all over Internet forums arguing about female fighters’ relative hotness.
A lot of male fighters have given Chavez some shit since the debut of the ring dudes, as well. “I had people leave my team because of it,” he says. “It’s sad that in MMA we have men that are such assholes and machistas about this. The crowd loved it. The female fighters loved it. But many male fighters said the ugliest things to me because I am trying to have equality for the female fighters.”
It hasn’t stopped him. He’s going to use ring dudes in the next Belts of Honorious event in December.
Maybe we do need more discussion of what ring ladies are there for and who they should be. Are they spoils of war, like Brittany Robertson says? Are they there to “bring softness to the savagery,” as Chavez believes? Or are they “weird cheerleaders,” which is what one commenter on a Facebook thread called them? Should we demand that our ring people be fighters themselves, or just attractive people who can hold a card over their heads while walking in a circle?
All I know is that we shouldn’t avoid discussing the gender politics surrounding ring ladies just because it’s complicated, and we shouldn’t avoid the addition of ring dudes just because it freaks some people out. After all, the very existence of MMA freaks a lot of people out. And screw them.
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