By: Kaitlyn Kacsuta, Ruling Sports Intern (Twitter: @KRKacsuta)
Welcome to the dawn of a new era in women’s professional sports. For the first time in the modern era of professional sports, a woman has joined the highest level possible in her sport and will be fighting alongside the boys.
Ronda Rousey recently signed the first contract for a female mixed marital artist in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). She will be fighting in the 135-pound, bantamweight division, with thoughts of additional female fighters to join the UFC fold in the bantamweight division. Rousey’s signing moved her from the soon-to-be-defunct Strikeforce, as its champion, to the UFC women’s bantamweight champ. UFC President, Dana White has announced that Rousey’s first fight in the UFC will be the main event on a pay-per-view card.
While there have been some women’s MMA main events of note, particularly the most widely-viewed women’s fight between Gina Carano and Cris “Cyborg” Santos in 2009, Rousey’s entrance into the UFC is different. The first time that she steps into the octagon will mark a turning point in women’s sports.
The UFC has dominated the MMA stage for years, and was far and away the most popular MMA organization when the 2009 Strikeforce event of Carano-Cyborg took place. But with Rousey to serve as the main event, at the top tier in her sport, she will step into uncharted territory. That is why her entrance into the UFC is a progressive step for women’s sports. Unlike Invicta FC (the women’s MMA league), the WNBA, professional soccer, or any other women’s-only professional sports organization, Rousey will become a female athlete at the epicenter of her sport.
Most people remember, or have learned of Billie Jean King’s epic Battle of the Sexes tennis victory against Bobby Riggs in 1973 and appreciate the impact that event had on the landscape of sexual equality in sport. The more recent attempts by women to take on the challenge of facing the top males of their sport have included Lindsey Vonn’s rejected attempt to race against men, Michelle Wie’s failed game at PGA Tour events, and Annika Sorenstam’s score of 74 on the second day at the Bank of America Colonial Tournament. While those women did, and are trying to, compete against the top males in sport, Rousey will be working alongside the men of the UFC. This is a different level of sexual equality in sport because it is not competition. The UFC has opened its doors and included a woman into its ranks.
It is more accurate to equate Rousey’s jump to the UFC to Augusta National Golf Club’s decision to finally allow female members into the club. Augusta National, the annual site of the PGA Tour’s Masters Tournament, one of the most prestigious events in all of sports, restricted its membership to males until August 2012. In essence, Augusta’s two female members, Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore, are now able to play with the boys on the most prominent stage of golf. Similarly, Rousey will now be fighting on the same cards as the men of the UFC – the biggest and brightest octagon in the sport of MMA.
Undoubtedly there are still some questions about the viability of the women’s bantamweight division in the UFC, largely due to the fact that Rousey is the shining star of women’s MMA and true challengers for her title seem to be rather limited. While it has been speculated that a fight between Rousey and the aforementioned Cyborg is the one that many MMA fans and the UFC want to see, Cyborg appears unwilling to drop to the 135-pound class in order to make the fight a reality. No doubt Dana White and the UFC want Rousey’s first appearance in the octagon to be a huge pay-per-view draw and UFC will wait for the most enticing opponent before a Rousey fight is announced. The viewers for women’s matches do exist, but it will be critical to make Rousey’s first fight one that draws the attention of those MMA viewers who are anxiously awaiting the Silva-GSP-Jones “superfights.”
Rousey has positioned herself well when she dominated Strikeforce with arm bars. In the process, she may have taken a huge step for all female athletes. Rousey is not fighting in a women’s-only MMA organization, nor is she fighting in the second-tier of her sport; she has catapulted herself onto the highest level in MMA and possibly helped to revive the UFC from its recent drop-off. If the UFC does regain its upward trend in popularity, and surpass sports like football (in Canada) or one day become the world’s most popular sport as Dana White has envisioned, it will be the UFC’s 2013 fight cards, including Rousey and the superfights that change the state of MMA. Rousey has not only changed women’s sports with her signing, but she may have set the UFC toward a course for an even brighter future.