By David Sklar
"Will we see women in the UFC?"
"What can I say Ariel, business as usual."
Rarely in modern sports do we see women transcend the landscape and environment of the sport itself and until 2012-2013, MMA was no exception. With the buyout of Strikeforce in March of 2012, fans of MMA were coming to grips with the fact that WMMA (Women's Mixed Martial Arts) fights would now be few and far between. Strikeforce - and its biggest stars - would soon be facing unemployment. Despite Ronda Rousey's new found fame in defeating Miesha Tate in March of 2012 (A top 10 show all time for the dying promotion) the UFC itself had made it clear: they weren't interested in women.
Enter Shannon Knapp. In early April, it was rumoured that a new promotion - one that was to be women only - would be starting up in the very near future. Later that same month, Invicta FC would put on it's very first show which was deemed a success by critics. Fans were left wanting more of the exciting back and forth action that women's MMA produced and Invictia was happy to oblige. With the biggest stars still under Zuffa contract and Invicta just beginning, it seemed natural that names like Rousey, Tate, Zingano, McMann, Carmouche and others would soon be fighting in the Invicta cage. Invicta brass hoped that the SF WMMA fans would translate into much needed viewers for the new promotion. After one more relatively successful Invicta show in July, it was clear that Invicta had a niche in the North American market and the appearance of many former SF WMMA fighters in Invicta solidified the idea that WMMA once again had a outlet in North America.
In August of 2012, Rousey once again defended her belt in her final Strikeforce fight, submitting Sarah Kaufman in under a minute. Her stock was sky high, and rumours began circulating that the UFC was reconsidering their position on WMMA. In November of 2012, the WMMA world was turned on its head when it was leaked that Rousey was to be named the new UFC 135 pound women's champ. That announcement was confirmed in December at the Henderson vs. Shogun press conference when Ronda was unveiled as the first ever UFC Women's Bantamweight champion. In just a few months, the UFC did a total 180 - they were now in the WMMA fight game. The first order of business was to line up their prized possession with a challenger who could draw PPV numbers. The bout was offered to a number of women, and ultimately Liz Carmouche was chosen to be Ronda's challenger. As an openly gay fighter and former Marine, Carmouche was the perfect opponent to draw viewers and showcase Ronda's skills. Fast forward to February of 2013, the UFC put on its first ever women's fight and ventured into the unknown. The results of the bout were predictable as Rousey scored another first round armbar to solidify her claim as the first ever UFC women's champion. What couldn't be predicted was the fan reaction. The numbers came back and they were impressive. The first ever UFC Women's fight secured 500,000 PPV buys. The fan response was clear and WMMA was here to stay.
With Rousey at the helm, the UFC had a star in a new division and was now tasked with building a whole new division of contenders to Rousey's title. The UFC quickly snatched up the top talent at 135 pounds including former champions Miesha Tate and Sarah Kaufman, as well as top prospects like Sara McMann, Alexis Davis, Cat Zingano and Jessica Andrade (just to name a few.) With fights occurring on almost every card, it was just a matter of time before fans got behind more WMMA fighters, turning women who thought they would be relegated to small shows for their entire careers into WMMA pioneers overnight. Names like Tate and Zingano became household names and for the first time, TUF was to feature women who ended up putting on a better show then the men they shared the house with.
Rousey and Tate will rematch again at the end of the year in what is sure to be a hell of a fight both in the cage and for the rating guru's. The expectations for PPV buys is at an all time high, especially on a card that also features Silva/Weidman II (another testament of how far WMMA has come in 2013, co-main event on the most important card of the year) but the pressure is off the UFC a little bit. As a coach on TUF, Tate garnered many, many new fans who saw Ronda as stuck up and when UFC 168 rolls around, there will be more then enough "Cupcake" fans in attendance that would love nothing more than for Tate to get her revenge. But where is WMMA and the UFC going in the future? That question was answered in November of 2013.
By now on our journey through 2012-2013 Invicta has put on 7 shows and the 135 lb WMMA division in the UFC is quickly becoming a powerhouse division. In a surprising and totally unpredictable move, the UFC announced that it would be adding a second women's division - the 115lb division which in WMMA is stacked with great talent. News quickly broke that the first ever 115 lb champion would be crowned via another season of TUF, and in an even more shocking development, Invicta itself would be lending 11 of its fighters to the UFC to participate in TUF. With the UFC agreeing to pay the women on TUF, it was final: Not only is the UFC in the WMMA fight game, but it is committing itself beyond just "the Ronda Rousey" factor.
In one year, the UFC went from never wanting to have a women's fight in their cage to having two full women's divisions in the promotion. As more and more women's sports are falling by the wayside, Women's MMA is doing the exact opposite. Dana White is famous for saying that they wouldn't have gotten started in WMMA without Rousey which may be true, but it's clear that even without Rousey, the UFC see's value in building their WMMA stars. In turn, more and more women are looking forward to getting that call from Joe Silva and more and more women will begin to get involved in WMMA as a whole.
Business as usual? Not quite.