Let's not kid ourselves here. This past Tuesday when Dana White told SI.com that a UFC women's division is "absolutely going to happen" he only had one woman in mind - armbar queen and potential megastar Ronda Rousey.
For years White was dismissive when asked about the potential of women fighting in the UFC. As recently last November he was still negative on the idea of implementing a women's division. It isn't a coincidence his change of heart has come in the wake of the eminently marketable Rousey announcing her presence as the top female fighter in the world at 135 pounds over the past year. An Olympic medalist with cover girl looks who knows how to grab headlines almost as well as Chael Sonnen? And she wins every fight within the first round via armbar? Sounds like a license to print money to me.
And I'm not the only one. According to an annual ESPN poll interest in MMA among women has increased over the past year. This would suggest the UFC see Rousey not only as a drawing card, but also as a crossover star who could help them build upon this already growing demographic. What remains to be seen is if the potential UFC women's division will end up being a one woman act or if other female fighters will be be able to break out of the supporting cast role.
Casting a camera-friendly woman as the face of female MMA has been tried once before in the United States and it was a smashing success while it lasted. Gina Carano was a charismatic bombshell who also happened to be a pretty good fighter. She was a major part of the second most viewed MMA fight card in American history when she took on Kaitlin Young on Elite XC's Heat telecast on CBS back in May of 2008. A year later she drew a huge rating for Showtime when she met Cris Cyborg for the inaugural Strikeforce Women's Championship. She lost that fight badly. Whether or not she would have been able to rebound from that loss and remain a top drawing card is a question we'll never know because she never fought again before embarking on her current career as a Hollywood action star.
Rousey's profile hasn't reached the heights of Carano in her prime but she's getting there. As long as she keeps snapping her opponents' arms like turkey wishbones on the day after Thanksgiving this shouldn't be a problem. But what happens if she loses? Will the UFC have enough marketable women to keep the division solvent? Will they even try? This is the risk that comes with building around a single fighter. Cyborg had an imposing aura about her but she wasn't in the same universe as Carano when it came to charisma and projecting herself as a star. If the superfight between Cyborg and Rousey comes together and the former Olympian gets knocked out before she can get the fight to the ground, don't expect Cyborg to emerge the caliber of draw that will maintain Dana White's interest in women's MMA.
Another major question when it comes to women in the UFC is whether or not people are ready for it. I'm not talking about the kind of people who take to the Underground and lambaste Dana White for not taking time out of his schedule to personally green light DVD's like Ultimate Grinders: The UFC's Most Epic Battles for Octagon Control, but about the silent majority of fans who don't spend much time talking about MMA on the internet. These are the ones who make the difference between a 200,000 buy pay per view and a 600,000 buy pay per view. Unfortunately they're also by and large the types who booed the perfectly decent inaugural flyweight title fight between Demetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez. How are they going to react to a fight between two women when neither of them have the star power of Ronda Rousey?
It's a fair question. Fans have been hesitant to embrace the lighter weight classes the UFC has adopted over the past couple years; it's probably naive to think they're going to accept women's MMA overnight just because it's the "right" thing to do. With the UFC product already overexposed it might be asking too much to expect fans to invest their time in following yet another division.
Not only that, does even the toughest woman meet the criteria average fans look for in fighters? For years part of the UFC's marketing strategy has been to present its biggest stars as tough guys willing to lay it all on the line against every comer. It goes at least as far back as the original "Do You Wanna Be A F'ing Fighter" speech all the way to Dana White's recent burial of Matt Mitrione where he implied Mitrione wasn't "a real guy" because he wouldn't take a fight on short notice. Seven plus years of this bluster has cultivated a fan base who shares Lorenzo Fertitta's preference for "fighters who WAR." Are the fans who buy into this cult of machismo going to be able to appreciate women "who WAR" or is gender bias going to be too much for them to overcome?
Speaking of gender biases, how are people going to react to seeing a woman's battered face after one of these wars? The sight of a woman with bruises and cuts on her face is an inherently distressing image in a culture where domestic violence against women is still a depressingly frequent occurence. Will your average man be comfortable the first time he sees a woman on TV with a broken orbital bone reminiscent of Josh Koscheck after the GSP fight or looking like an extra from ET after suffering a Mark Himminick-like hematoma? Sure women who fight may be willing participants and they undoubtedly could beat up most of us untrained men watching at home, but I'm not sure the majority of male fans are going to think about the issue deep enough to come to that conclusion. It seems far more likely that an image like that could turn them off to the idea of female MMA.
Even with these potential obstacles in the way Ronda Rousey has the chance to be a huge success in the UFC. The future of women in the UFC, however, rests upon how the company handles the ancillary parts of the division. If they take time to invest in talent with star potential it could yield big returns for the company for years to come. On the other hand, if they neglect this talent and focus exclusively on Rousey the division will only last as long as she does. Of course none of this matters if the public rejects the concept of watching women fight.
Ronda Rousey has a lot more than just her own future riding on her shoulders as she readies to become one of the first women to fight in the UFC octagon - like Billie Jean King she also bears the burden of being a trailblazer who could open the door for an entire generation of little girls who might one day grow up to be champions.
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