By far the most common complaint about Women's MMA people bring up, other than some people just not being a fan of it, is the lack of depth. To be honest, this is not completely invalid. I wouldn't pretend there are enough remotely quality fighters to sustain any division above Featherweight. The fact that Cris Cyborg or Ronda Rousey would likely annihilate any female fighter above Featherweight no matter how large they are makes it an even more pointless endeavor, akin to the UFC creating a Men's Super-Heavyweight division.
However, over the last several years Women's MMA seems to have finally formed some consistency in their weight divisions, with five divisions ranked monthly in a Unified Women's Professional MMA Rankings with input from journalists from a number of high profile outlets including Sherdog, MMAJunkie, MMARising, and USA Today. JCS's computerized Fight Matrix also publishes regularly updated rankings in the same five divisions. I still wondered if there truly was enough depth to build up challengers, which was the motivation for researching and writing this article.
Inspired by Invicta FC's upcoming WMMA supercard, headlined by Marloes Coenen vs. FILA Grappling World Champion Romy Ruyssen, as well as some comments made by Lorenzo Fertita a few weeks ago, I took up the challenge to figure out if Zuffa could actually run multiple women's divisions with existing talent. This would be either in the UFC directly or in a sister promotion, and not just a handful of fighters in two micro-divisions like in Strikeforce, but three or more fully fleshed out divisions. So I decided to try to answer this with fantasy booking three full PPV-style cards without using the same fighters twice, without using Cris Cyborg or Gina Carano, and coming up with disciplined match-ups, to see what I could determine from it. The main question I had though was still "if Zuffa wanted to run 3-5 self-sustaining female divisions, could they really do it?" Lots of nerdy matchmaking and conclusions were to follow.
The short answer I came to is "probably." Or "mostly" if you prefer. As best I can determine, there is sufficient depth for Zuffa to keep Women's MMA viable in the long-term in the three deepest divisions (Strawweight, Flyweight, and Bantamweight), and additionally they could probably keep Featherweight afloat at least, with the longer-term viability of that division being reliant on emerging talent. The long answer is really long and below.
To start, I determined that while there were five divisions that are recognized as "competitive", four female divisions to complement the eight men's divisions would make more sense, for a nice round 12 divisions with 12 champions. So I decided to fold one of the divisions. Only the middle three divisions mentioned at the beginning of this article have a guaranteed amount of depth anyway (Strawweight, Flyweight, and Bantamweight). This leaves Featherweight and "Atomweight", which is a real thing and is generally contested at 106 and below.
Michelle Waterson, laying the smackdown and showing that Atomweight is a real thing
Featherweight is kind of "broken" right now, thanks to Cyborg running a train through it and then getting popped for steroids, and Rousey running another train through it before dropping down to rule Bantamweight. Nevertheless I decided it was necessary to keep it, since whenever Cyborg returns, she'll still be the baddest woman on earth as will anyone who defeats her. So the division needs to be repaired, even if it's on life-support right now. It is the smallest of the four divisions I made, with just 12 fighters, but I think it could be run in a way that several challengers could be built up to Cyborg's no-longer-official World Champion status, starting with an Interim Champion
Atomweight, on the other hand, is competitive enough that you could crown a World Champion and regularly build up challengers, and what's more it's getting deeper, and even has one fighter who is a bit of a draw in "The Karate Hottie" Michelle Waterson. However it is not really vital to WMMA's credibility to keep it, and any top fighter in Atomweight could probably hold their own at Strawweight, so that was the division I decided to ditch, folding a few top fighters into the division above it.
Hitomi Akano and former Olympic Silver Medalist Sara McMann, who in addition to being an MMA fighter is an adorable nerd in her spare time
So, the goal was to come up with three full fight cards without re-using a fighter. There was preference given towards marketability. Unfortunately, in most cases that means "pretty", but there are certainly other ways to make yourself stand out. Aisling Daly stands out by both having pink hair and still managing to look like she's about to start a bar fight at any given second. However, all fighters had to be legitimately talented. Outside of two exceptions at Featherweight, all of them have winning records, and with three exceptions, all of them have four fights or more. Finally, with another three exceptions, all of them have had a fight within the last 15 months.
As Sally Krumdiack shows, one excellent and praiseworthy way to stand out is to look completely insane
Exceptions to the above:
-Two of those who have not fought within the last 15 months are currently booked for fights soon (Claudia Gadelha and Sophia Bagherdai respectively), and I made an additional exception for Shayna Baszler since I know she had more than one fight fall through in the last year and is still active to the best of my knowledge.
-The exceptions for number of fights are Olympic Bronze Medalist Randi Miller (0-0), who is considered a very blue chip prospect and is making her debut at Invicta FC on April 28th; 5-time boxing world champion Holly Holms (2-0); and Ashley Cummins (2-0), who happens to also sport an 8-0 amateur record.
-Miller is also one of my two exceptions for having a winning record, the other one being Strikeforce fighter Julia Budd (2-2), who is generally considered very legit due to her wins and her Muay Thai record, despite her two ugly losses to very talented fighters.
The current face of women's MMA, Olympic Bronze Medalist in judo, and all around wrecking ball Ronda Rousey. Even if I was a girl instead of a guy and I liked guys instead of girls, I still think I'd be crushing on Ronda Rousey.
There are also certain well-known fighters, or fighters who on paper have very pretty records, who I omitted for various reasons. Roxanne Modafferi is a well known fighter from her Strikeforce match against Sarah Kaufmann and her upset of Tara Larosa. She also has had a bit of a cult following because she possesses the character trait of being "adorkable." However, she is on a five-fight losing streak. Even though all five were to fighters I did end up using for this, I didn't feel that it was realistic to sign anyone who lost that many in a row. Adrienna Jenkins (17-5) was considered a hot prospect at W135 before she lost three in a row, but looking at her record her best win was over a Flyweight journeywoman named Sarah Schneider (5-5). Schneider might be better than her record would indicate but Jenkins is still a can crusher extraordinaire, and combined with her losing streak I can't justify it. Lena Ovchynnikova (8-1) is a fighter I've been harassed repeatedly about by MMA fans both because of her record and the fact that she looks like a pin-up model (mostly the latter), but her 8 wins were over 7 opponents with a combined 0-9 record, including their 8 combined losses to Ovchynnikova. Maybe she's a nice person and she may or may not have control of her career, but I don't think the term "can crusher" is even adequate for her. She finally faced someone who wasn't presumably pulled out of the audience when she fought at Super Fight League 1. Ovchynnikova put up a decent fight but ultimately got submitted by Sanja Sucevic (3-1)... a fighter I did not consider quite good enough to be included in this hypothetical experiment.
At any rate, after putting way too much time into this, and watching Invicta's nice little documentary promo while writing this piece, I did manage to pull together a viable roster of 72 fighters. However, my goals here weren't just to throw a bunch of random matches together, or make fights that don't lead anywhere, but to try and make compelling match-ups that make sense. There's a reason that usually fighters coming off a loss are pitted against another fighter coming off a loss, as one of those two is guaranteed to raise their stock and turn things around. I also figured that W125 and W115 needed World Champions, and W145 needed an Interim Champion. With W145 I selected 4 fighters who hadn't been smashed my either Cyborg or Rousey, and who all had fine records with at least one signature win. However one of those wins was by one of those fighters over another with a 34-second KO, so I decided that Yana Kunitskaya and Cindy Dandois would need to rematch. Milena Dudieva and Romy Ruyssen fill the other half of that bracket.
W125 was more elaborate, with an 8-woman Grand Prix and 2 reserve fights spread out over the first two cards, since it's a much deeper division.
True fact: Top-3 W125 fighter Cat Zingano's maiden name was, no bulls***, "Cat Albert," which might have been the best real fighter name ever
W115 is a bit more of a problem, since there is a technical world champion already in Bellator Champion Zoila Gurgel. However, she has not fought at 115 in over a year, has been advised by her doctor to never cut that much weight ever again, and most people don't think she legitimately beat either Jessica Aguilar or Megumi Fujii in her respective matches against them in the tournament that crowned her. I figured that at the very least, Fujii was deserving of a rematch, albeit at catchweight. No matter the outcome, a W115 tournament would proceed starting with the fourth card, with Fujii going back down to 115 and Gurgel to 125, and the first three cards would simply showcase the strawweight division.
With that out of the way, I finally came up with:
12 fighters at Featherweight (in 6 fights)
18 fighters at Bantamweight (in 9 fights)
21 fighters at Flyweight (in 10 fights)
21 fighters at Strawweight (in 10 fights)
And 1 fight at Catchweight 120 aka Zoilaweight
72 fighters total, 3 cards, 12 matches per-card
The current #1 Zoilaweight fighter
As proven by the WEC, 18-21 fighters does indeed make for a viable division. 12 fighters less so, but it should be able to sustain itself for a little while at least.
Behold, my nerdy Fantasy WMMA Matchmaking (complete with individual Sherdog links):
HYPOTHETICAL ZUFFA WMMA CARD 1
HYPOTHETICAL ZUFFA WMMA CARD 2
HYPOTHETICAL ZUFFA WMMA CARD 3
Potential Injury Replacement Fighters:
So, at the very least, if Zuffa had access to 100% of the active talent pool, they could reliably put on decent cards, at least for fans who don't wretch at the very idea of Women's MMA. Dropping that down to 80%, which is about how much of the top talent Zuffa controls in any given men's division, I think it's a safe assumption that Strawweight, Flyweight, and Bantamweight are all still doable, while Featherweight might be supportable. With new talent emerging all the time though, I think it would certainly be worth a try.
Ronda Rousey is definitely awesome, but she's not the only fighter with superstar potential. If Strikeforce and Bellator combined are only going to showcase less than 10 fighters at a time and in separate organizations, that's hardly reaching the full potential WMMA has to offer even with the existing talent pool. Everyone knows Ronda Rousey and Gina Carano both generated a lot of interest, but on the very same card that Dan Henderson captured the Strikeforce Light-Heavyweight Championship, Marloes Coenen vs. Liz Carmouche drew slightly more viewers in the preceding match. There are a lot of very marketable hungry young female fighters in MMA and most of them have no place to fight. If Zuffa decided to get their marketing machine behind it, there are plenty of stars just waiting to happen. So I hope Invicta FC does well, I hope Zuffa buys them, and I hope Lorenzo Fertita decides that Women's MMA really is worth investing in and getting behind. Until then, despite a lot of real talent out there, fantasy booking is the only way to even imagine most of it.
Constructive criticism and ad-hominem attacks are welcome.