It doesn’t seem like ten years ago that women entered the UFC Octagon for the first time. Perhaps it feels like a hundred years, considering that the ladies are as much a fabric of the promotion as the men are.
Nunes. Shevchenko. Zhang. Namajunas. Grasso. Tate. Holm.
I can go on, but you get the picture. In the UFC, main events are a regular occurrence, media attention is as high as its ever been, and there are girls and teenagers around the globe who watch the aforementioned fighters and their peers and say, “Yeah, that could be me.”
But it all had to start somewhere, and that origin story truly began in Seattle in November of 2012, when UFC President Dana White announced that the headliner for UFC 157 early in 2013 was going to feature Ronda Rousey versus Liz Carmouche for the women’s bantamweight title that was presented to “Rowdy” Ronda at that press conference for the Benson Henderson-Nate Diaz fight.
At that point, if anyone was going to be the first female fighter in the Octagon, it was Rousey, an Olympic judoka for the United States with a perfect 6-0 record in which each bout ended via first-round armbar submission. That was enough. What made her addition to the roster a no brainer was Rousey’s charisma and ease under the bright lights. Those lights really started shining when the Californian competed in the Strikeforce promotion, and as she entered her final fight against Sarah Kaufman there, she was already a star.
“I feel like I’ve been able to use the more theatrical and entertaining side of the fight business to get myself the fights that I wanted instead of sitting back and hoping someone will hand them to me,” Rousey told me before the Kaufman fight. “I learned to demand them and get the fans behind me and to have their support so that I get the fights that I want. I came into this business thinking that I’m gonna make it impossible for people to ignore me.”
The UFC couldn’t ignore her, and despite Rousey’s dominant run in Strikeforce, White saw that the talent level in the ladies’ side of MMA had grown exponentially, removing the barrier to entry that had kept him from bringing women into the Octagon. Mismatches were the exception, not the rule like they used to be, so White was ready to roll the dice.
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It was a gamble, because if Rousey was brought in to run through overmatched foes, fans used to seeing competitive scraps between the best of the best would get bored quickly. So getting Rousey a legit dance partner for the main event at the Honda Center in Anaheim was key.
She got one in the form of Liz Carmouche. A rising star with an 8-2 record that included victories over Jan Finney, Kaitlin Young and one Valentina Shevchenko, Carmouche had the experience edge of Rousey and U.S. Marine Corps veteran was tough as nails. She wasn’t showing up to show up – she was showing up to win, and in the lead-up to the fight, her team pulled out all the stops to make sure she was ready for Rousey’s deadliest weapon.
“When I’m in the middle of talking, when I’m in the middle of instruction, or somebody’s instructing us and we’re supposed to be learning a new move, somebody will just decide to randomly try and jump my back or just try for the armbar,” laughed Carmouche, who did successfully defend each armbar coming her way in practice.
“They have yet to win,” she declared.
Of course, Rousey wasn’t bothered about someone trying to stop her signature move.
“When people say that I’m a one trick pony and only have the one armbar, they don’t realize that I have so many setups to that armbar that I don’t even know them all – I’ll make them up on the fly,” said Rousey. “When you’re watching boxing and you see somebody knock someone out with a right hand every time, they’re not like, ‘Oh, they’re a one trick pony.’ No, they have a billion different setups for that right hand. And just because it ended with a right hand on the face, it doesn’t mean it’s the same thing every time. And just because so many people are unfamiliar with grappling and they just see the armbar ending the same, they assume the setup’s the same, but if you look back at all those fights, I’ve jumped into that armbar from many different positions. It ends the same way, but the setups are always different. So they can prepare for a certain setup, but I’m always gonna think of more.”
On February 23, 2013, Rousey would have to adjust on the fly, as all the hype and pomp and circumstance died down and left two prizefighters in the Octagon trying to win a fistfight. And early on, Carmouche was thisclose to winning as she locked in a rear naked choke on the champion. The choke was tight, but Rousey shook the challenger off her back and went to work, firing off ground strikes before she locked in the armbar that ended matters at 4:49 of the first round.
The crowd loved it. The ladies were here to stay, and Rousey was going to be the face of the women’s divisions of the UFC, a tough job to say the least, but one she was prepared for.
“When I have to deal with media that hasn’t covered MMA before, there’s a lot of new interest in the sport now because of the first women’s fight,” she said. “And in those instances, I feel like I’m really representing the sport. I know they try to get me to say things like, ‘I like hurting people,’ and things that are stereotypical ideas of what MMA is, and I try very much to steer the conversation away from that and try to explain how beautiful a sport this is. It’s not some barbaric spectacle, it really is an art, and that’s why the word ‘art’ is in it.
“So a lot of progress has been made, but there’s still a lot of progress left to make,” Rousey continues. “I know that we don’t live in a Utopian society where everyone is treated equally. People are a lot more tolerant than they used to be, but they’re not as tolerant as they should be. And so I’m not surprised that we still have progress to make, but it gives me goals to get after.”
By the time Rousey had her last fight against Amanda Nunes in late-2016, she did more than win fights. She changed sports. Notice the plural, as Rousey didn’t just change mixed martial arts, but boxing, as well, as her success and visibility in the UFC had boxing promoters seeking out the top female talent in the ring to put on the big stage.
“He (White) put Ronda Rousey out there on a regular basis on the UFC pay-per-view cards, so she’s been able to build up a following,” said Boxing Hall of Famer Christy Martin. “In order to have a female fighter in boxing do that, we’re just gonna have to get a promoter that’s willing to bite the bullet and say ‘Hey, I’m gonna stand by this woman fighter.’”
Today, some of the biggest fights being made in boxing are featuring the ladies, from Katie Taylor-Amanda Serrano to Alycia Baumgardner-Mikaela Mayer and Claressa Shields-Savannah Marshall. It’s proof positive that when a female fight is atop the bill, whether in MMA or boxing, more often than not, fireworks follow, and that’s what fight fans want to see.
Ten years. What a decade it’s been.