In just two decades, mixed martial arts has developed into a popular and mainstream sport. Prior to the turn of the century, MMA, with its limited rule set and reputation for unchecked violence had become a marginalised sport that had disappeared from television networks.
Under the investment and strategy of the promotional company ‘Zuffa’, the world’s leading MMA organisation, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, claimed a foothold as a legitimate, organised sport and has grown exponentially in popularity since the new millennium began. Today, the UFC holds events several times a month which are shown on major broadcasting channels such as FOX and BT Sport.
Despite its remarkable ascent, the UFC and its president and figurehead Dana White, received criticism for a long-standing reluctance to allow women to compete in the organisation.
In 2012, the Judo Olympic medallist turned MMA fighter, Ronda Rousey, became the first UFC female fighter after her impressive performances in the Strike Force promotion. A division of competitors at her weight class were signed before another three weight divisions were formed and filled with world class fighters. These female fighters compete alongside men on the same fight cards.
On the surface, MMA now appears to stand as a rare example of a sport in which both male and female competitors receive almost commensurate media coverage, career opportunities and popularity among fans.
Traditionally, women’s sport receives precious little media coverage in comparison to men’s sport. One ESPN study in the United States revealed that women’s sport received only 2-4% of available coverage in 2015. Here in the United Kingdom, in sports such as football or rugby, the disparity between the amount of media attention given to male and female versions of these sports is significant.
By contrast, the UFC holds a pay per view event every month. For the last twenty pay per views, a women’s fight served as the main event for six of them. A company driven by the need to persuade customers to spend $60 on an event decides to market a women’s contest as the main reason to do this over and above men’s bouts.
The question of why female athletes in MMA have arguably come further than their contemporaries in other sports in gaining equal standing to men in terms of popularity is a complex one. In an attempt to reach an answer, I spoke to three experts from the world of MMA in the UK.
First, I spoke to Sally Brown, the Production Lead for the UFC on BT Sport. I asked her why BT have dedicated significant resources to providing so much MMA content and whether or not the rapid rise in popularity of its female fighters was a contributing factor.
“Women are not the reason why we promote UFC,” said Sally. “But we like strong female athletes as role models and BT Sport in general are strong supporters of women in sport so we adopted UFC as part of a wider strategy of covering women’s sport. In MMA the quality of the female divisions is high and I am a strong supporter of that.”
I asked her why she thought women had gained a measure of parity with men in popularity.
“I think fans of the sport whether male or female appreciate the highest quality of fighting there is and some women are so good that they provide the highest quality on offer which maybe is not the case so much in other sports. Great technique and a will to win engage viewers and men seem to respect a great fighter be they male or female.”
I then asked Sally what other sports such as football or cricket in which female athletes struggle to garner the same attention, can learn from MMA.
“I think it helps that female bouts are featured on the same cards as men so they can be promoted alongside each other. Football or rugby are championships that run own their own. This makes a huge difference. Would fully female fight cards work as well as mixed events? I’m not sure at all.”
Alex Channon, meanwhile, is the author of ‘Global Perspectives on Women in Combat Sports.’ He sees the development of women’s MMA as a layered phenomenon involving various factors. Unfortunately, one is not particularly gratifying.
“I think the male gaze plays some part in determining how female fighters are given promotional or career opportunities and exposure,” said Alex. “If a fighter is conventionally physically attractive they tend to receive these opportunities more often. Even Rousey, a great fighter, had this appeal as well.”
However, hyper-sexualisation of fighters is not an adequate explanation on its own. Alex studied the European MMA media’s discourse on the Polish UFC champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
“I found that words like warrior, demolish and crush were frequently used to describe her alongside grisly images of her standing over her opponents,” said Alex.
“So there is little attention or emphasis given to her femininity so gender is rather disregarded. This doesn’t mean she is viewed as an honorary man but rather as a fighter to be celebrated in her own right. The trivialisation, emphasis on femininity and sexualization or even the silence that characterizes some coverage of women’s sport is entirely absent in Jedrzejczeck’s case.”
Above all, he feels that MMA’s unique nature and status as a new, developing sport nested within a modern day, fast-moving culture explains a lot. “I do think MMA, being only 25 years old as a sport, is less weighed down by cultural baggage unlike older sports like boxing, rugby or football from which women have traditionally been a little excluded.”
“I also do agree that the nature of the sport contributes to the more egalitarian media coverage. I don’t uncritically accept claims of its ultimate and exceptional nature as a sport,” he says. “That said, there are not many cultural spaces within which such dramatically visceral skill, tenacity and power can be seen.”
In the video below, I spoke to former MMA fighter Jacez Toczydlowski about the success of female fighters. Jacez also owns a thriving MMA gym in London filled with professional MMA fighters.