The UFC Introduces Another Women's Division, and the World Takes a Great Leap Forward
Newly minted UFC strawweights Carla Esparza and Bec Hyatt pose in front of Invicta President Shannon Knapp
Sometimes life evolves so slowly you think you’re going to die waiting for the world to turn reasonable. Other times everything seems to burst forward suddenly, and you and your shocked and cynical little heart are left standing on the side of the road, watching as the train of progress goes streaming past you. For devoted skeptics like myself, moments like these are cause for both celebration and concern: We love to see the universe take sudden giant leaps forward into rationality but rarely believe our eyes when they do. Then, when they do, we sit back and wait for the backlash.
Still, I have hope for us. And occasionally I’m rewarded for it. Take, for example, yesterday when UFC President Dana White announced that the UFC would be acquiring the contracts of 11 strawweight fighters from the all-women’s promotion Invicta FC and making them the cast members of an upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter. Unlike contestants on earlier seasons of the show, who fought for UFC contracts, the women of TUF 20 will be fighting to be promotion’s first-ever strawweight champion.
What to make of all this quick development? After all, it was only a year ago that Ronda Rousey signed to the UFC and less than two years before that, that UFC President Dana White told the world that women would “never” fight for his organization. But White came around and was rewarded with some of the best fights the UFC has ever put on and a whole new fanbase curious about the possibilities of women’s fighting. And MMA fans came around and watched the women’s fights on the last season of The Ultimate Fighter with far greater enthusiasm than they did the men. Even I came around and paid myself back for my years of ridiculous squeamishness with an act of deserved journalistic self-flagellation. The fact is that the unknown world is inherently more fascinating, more full of possibilities, than the established one, and anyone with an honest interest in mixed martial arts was eventually going to come around to women fighting.
Progress can be a brutal thing, though. Beloved buildings have to come down for newer, bigger, brighter ones to go up. Ask anyone in Brooklyn. The march of time is cruel, and neither human evolution nor late capitalism has any interest in sentimentality. Especially when then those moving up in the world are as keen on their own evolution as the ones lifting them up. I can’t imagine any of the Invicta fighters making the move to the UFC will make it kicking and screaming. Still, the mass exodus of 11 fighters from a division with only 17 amounts to a purge.
But even Invicta President Shannon Knapp isn’t all that upset by yesterday's mass migration. She realizes that the UFC is the place all mixed martial artist wants to be, and though she doesn’t see Invicta as a feeder league, she does know which the wind blows. For her, releasing her fighters to the UFC is akin to seeing a child graduate and head off to college. Besides, one of the great things about women’s MMA still being in its infancy is that the knowledge of up-and-coming female fighters isn’t nearly as comprehensive as that of the men, meaning the strawweight division might soon be filled again with talent we’d never heard of—much like it was when the 11 women now fighting in the UFC first showed up in Invicta. It’s hard to imagine that MMA matchmakers and fans are unaware of too many male diamonds in the rough. The sport has simply been around for too long for that; the tentacles of the UFC recruitment machine are too global and too well-informed. But women’s MMA is still, to some degree anyway, an unexplored world, meaning (hopefully) that replacing 11 female fighters from one division, even fighters with names and reputations, won’t be impossible, and might even be a good thing.
“I have a ton of young athletes that are coming up through the ranks that need a home,” Knapp told MMAFighting.com. “I can fill that division tomorrow. I have a platform that makes it easier for me to build stars and fill divisions out."
So, say what you will about the dangers of monopolies; today we’re living in a brave new world of possibilities. And stability. Even after Rousey signed to the UFC, and especially as that superstar-in-the-making was struggling to get the far-less known and therefore marketable Liz Carmouche off her back during the UFC’s first female fight, women’s place in the big leagues of MMA was precarious. Nothing was sure. But then came Miesha Tate and Cat Zingano and Sarah Kauffman and that season of The Ultimate Fighter, and the world seemed surer under the feet of WMMA. Yesterday’s news is simply further confirmation that women’s MMA is a fait accompli. Moralists and cranky Australian reporters can complain all they want about what the rise of women’s fighting means for the fabric of society. Today we live in a more-evolved world than we did yesterday, and try as the Michelle Bachmann’s of the world might, you can’t stop evolution.
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