3305 / Analysis

The Rising Popularity of Women’s MMA

Gina Carano and Cyborg Santos prior to their 2009 bout.  Photo courtesy of Michael Dunn via Flickr.

Women’s mixed martial arts saw some major growth in 2012 and I don’t think it’ll be slowing down any time soon.

The women’s division continued to prove it’s viability in mainstream markets with the success of Strikeforce champ Ronda Rousey as well as the rise of the all-female promotion Invicta Fighting Championships.  But fans have only recently started to accept women fighters into the fold.

“When I first started writing a year and a half ago for Yahoo, it was just so weird for guys to think about women hitting each other in the face,” said Cheryl Ragsdale, a frequent MMA writer.  “Now, like after the Sarah Kaufman-Alexis Davis fight, where they were just pummeling each other for three rounds, it’s not so unusual anymore.”

According to Ragsdale, fans needed time to get acclimated to the notion of two women fighting each other in a cage.

“It’s like, we saw it,” Ragsdale said.  “Nobody died or got seriously injured and it’s okay.  Nobody got in trouble for girls fighting or hitting each other in the face.”

Unlike female sports leagues like the WNBA, MMA as a whole has given women a better chance at fighting on a playing field virtually equal to men.  Female fighters showed they could dominate male-heavy cards, such as the Ronda Rousey vs. Sarah Kaufman bout, which not only took the main event slot but also earned Strikeforce its best viewer ratings of 2012.

According to Ragsdale, it’s the individualized nature of the sport that gets fans equally excited for both male and female fighters.

“It’s one person’s game plan; it’s one person’s courage; it’s one person’s skill and response that you are watching versus a whole team,” Ragsdale said.  “I don’t get as excited for women’s basketball either. I don’t know why—it’s the same game—but I would watch women fight or men fight with the same level of excitement.  To me, there’s no difference between men or women fighting in MMA.”

For Ragsdale, the personal nature of watching a fighter’s technique or skill helps to transcend any type of gender barrier that may hinder someone from watching the opposite sex.

With female fighters increasing their popularity and mainstream acceptance, there has also been a shift in focus on how women factor into the marketing of the sport.  No longer are they just a novelty act or used for eye candy as Octagon girls, but MMA is now being actively marketed towards women.

Grapplers Quest, one of the most popular grappling tournament organizers in North America, recently held its New England Grappling Championships at the Reggie Lewis Center in Boston and allowed all adult female fighters to compete for free.  The generous move showed an increased commitment to the development of these women athletes and happened to be sponsored by Gaspari Nutrition, one of Rousey’s biggest sponsors.

Everyday, more and more women of all ages are getting into MMA as both fans and aspiring fighters, something Ragsdale knows quite intimately.  Five years ago, Ragsdale began her martial arts training in boxing at the age of 49, eventually transitioning into MMA under UFC mainstay Kenny Florian and brother Keith Florian in Brookline, MA.

As both a practitioner and industry insider, Ragsdale gives Rousey a lot of credit for the sport’s recent spike in popularity among women.

“She kind of made it more normal, more accepted for people to speak about women cage fighting,” said Ragsdale, “she’s got a very acceptable look so more women are getting interested as fans.”

WMMA is still a long ways away from being fully accepted into the fold as it still does not have a home on the world’s biggest MMA stage—the UFC.  However, I have a feeling that “Rowdy” Rousey is the perfect female fighter to finally break the mold.

3 thoughts on “The Rising Popularity of Women’s MMA

  1. I hope so. I love mma. I started training in muay thai eight years ago in a gym that also trained folks in bjj. I wanted so badly to do both but couldn’t afford it. This was before I knew mma existed. I watch it now and love it. I just turned 34, but I’m pretty fit (run track — 200/400m plus all the weight, circuit and plyo training for it and train muay thai on my own). It’s probably too late for me to do much of anything in mma, but it’d be great to take it up just for fun and meanwhile to watch younger women coming up have the opportunity to be taken seriously in doing it professionally.

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