How Women’s MMA Became the Sport’s Main Event

In just three years, Women’s MMA has gone from special attraction to the main event and it has been a phenomenal journey to watch unfold.

When Ronda Rousey debuted in the UFC in 2013, it was considered a game changer for women’s MMA.  The infamous statement by Dana White that women would never compete in the UFC was suddenly archaic, and the spotlight allowed amazing female athletes to gain the same recognition as their male counterparts.

Today, women’s MMA is more popular than ever before and several promotions are putting their women front and centre.  Earlier this year, the UFC crowned an inaugural featherweight champion.  Shortly afterwards, Bellator crowned their own 145 champion.  They joined an Invicta division that has housed some of the world’s best female talent for the past several years.

Invicta FC has been the gold standard in promoting women’s MMA, featuring several of the best female fighters in the world.  The organisation provided a platform for the women to showcase their skills, and the UFC took notice.  Fighters like Megan Anderson, Paige VanZant, Tecia Torres, Carla Esparza, Rose Namajunas and so many others built their name with the company headed by Shannon Knapp and many would later go on to show their skills in the major promotions.

Now, organisations are looking to get ahead of the curve by building stars in weight classes not featured in the UFC.  Bellator’s flyweight division is developing notoriety by featuring fan favourite fighters like Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, Anastasia Yankova, and Lena Ovchynnikova.  Combate Americas is developing an atomweight division, putting names likes Kyra Batara and Paulina Granados up front.  Other talent is also getting discovered, such as BJJ expert Mackenzie Dern in the Legacy Fighting Alliance.  All the while, Invicta continues to discover and showcase more of the best female talent in the world.

Years ago, women’s MMA was something fresh and exciting for the sport.  Organisations were learning quickly that they had something new on their hands.  The women fought as hard if not harder than the men, and the marketability of their looks and personalities were impossible to miss.  Fans noticed and soon enough women’s MMA was finding it’s way more frequently onto televised events.

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In just a few short years, women’s MMA has grown and evolved.  A case in point is the bantamweight division.  Upon it’s arrival to the UFC, Rousey took the world by storm by destroying her competition.  Now, the division is dotted with better athletes and martial artists than in 2013.  Elite grapplers like Julianna Peña and strikers like Valentina Shevchenko are showcasing a higher level of skill than just a few short years ago.  The champion, Amanda Nunes, is a perfect example of the talent that has emerged: a high-level grappler who is also a phenomenal athlete that possesses the best knockout power in the division.

How did we get to this point?  To begin, Rousey captured the world’s attention like a shooting star.  She was nothing that MMA had ever seen before.  She captivated audiences outside the cage by being unapologetically confident in her abilities and never shying away from personal topics.  When she stepped into the Octagon, she put on a brilliant display with devastating finishes of her rivals.

Plenty of women built a name off facing Rousey early on, but her presence had a snowfall effect.  People cared about women’s MMA because the hunt was on for competition for the biggest star in the sport.

As the scope grew, fans were introduced to fighters nowhere near Rousey’s division who captured their attention as well.

While a new game-changing female star isn’t currently on the table, that doesn’t mean that a woman can’t move the needle for the UFC.  Cris “Cyborg,” the most dominant champion in the history of women’s MMA, debuted in the UFC in 2016.

After just two catchweight bouts, fans made it clear that they were ready to see the best female fighter in MMA history begin her reign on the big stage.  The promotion obliged, creating the 145 division with plans to open it with Cyborg.  While those plans have been complicated, the Brazilian is still the key component to the future of a brand new division.

As the sport continues to grow, women will only continue to be a huge part of it.  While Rousey continues her absence, new champions will continue to carry the mantle as the best in the world.  Cris Cyborg, Amanda Nunes, and Joanna Jędrzejczyk are looking to continue their dominance.  As with all things, the next great female superstar is somewhere on the horizon.  Or possibly, fans simply are not paying attention to her yet.  Until then, women’s MMA will continue to grow and thrive behind the talented athletes that have built the fastest growing attraction in the fastest growing sport in the world.