Today, thanks to the huge box office appeal of fighters like Ronda Rousey, women’s Mixed Martial Arts has gained mainstream acceptance and women are able to play a significant role in most major MMA promotions. However, such widespread acceptance has certainly not always been the case.
Historically, Mixed Martial Arts has been male-dominated and the very mention of women competing in a sport once known as ‘cage fighting’ often sparked fierce debate. Indeed, as recently as 2011, the President of the Ultimate Fighting Championships, Dana White, was quoted as saying women would “never” compete in the Octagon.
So how exactly has women’s MMA grown from a taboo subject to a box office success in such a short space of time?
Although it is widely considered to be a recent phenomenon, the history of women’s MMA actually dates all the way back to the mid 1990s, with various Japanese companies promoting contests featuring the likes of Yoko Takahashi, Svetlana Goundarenko and Megumi Yabushita.
In 2001, the Smackgirl promotion was established in Japan, becoming the first major all-female MMA promotion in the world. Soon after, professional women’s MMA made its way over to the United States, thanks to promotions like HOOKnSHOOT and King of the Cage. Before long, Bellator and Strikeforce also invited women to compete.
Gina, Ronda and Mainstream Appeal
A significant turning point in the history of women’s MMA came with the emergence of Gina Carano, whose Muay Thai skills and sex appeal helped her to gain mainstream press coverage. Carano was the feature of an ESPN E:60 documentary, became one of the most-searched people on Yahoo! and was included in the Maxim Hot 100 in 2009.
That same year, Carano’s bout with Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino became the first women’s fight to main event a major US MMA show. The event, named Strikeforce: Carano vs. Cyborg, set a new ratings record for the Strikeforce promotion, attracting 856,000 viewers and proving that women’s MMA belonged in the mainstream.
Yet, the biggest MMA promotion on the planet, the UFC, continued to resist calls for women to compete. That was until former Olympian, Ronda Rousey, emerged as the dominant woman on the planet. Rousey, ranked as the pound-for-pound #1 female, became the first woman to be signed by the UFC in 2012. She quickly became a box office success, main eventing pay-per-view events and winning four of her first five fights in the first round.