The Evolution of Women's MMA in the UFC
Why does MMA feature women as centrally as it does men?
Turns out, if you take any sport where women compete with the same set of rules and regulations as men at the same event, they will excel.
Unlike in the WNBA, which operates with a separate set of rules for women, female MMA fighters use the same regulations as male fighters.
Surely, sports with this characteristic are in the minority. The history of women’s MMA in the UFC is fascinating, so stay tuned.
Two Decades of Evolution
Our story begins two decades ago.
On July 18, 1995, Tokyo, Japan hosted the first-ever women’s MMA event, with the legendary Svetlana Goundarenko championing the Ladies Legends Pro Wrestling L-1 competition.
Just two years later, on March 28, 1997, the International Fighting Championship hosted the first documented female MMA bout in the United States, with Becky Levi defeating Betty Fagan in a sweltering first-round TKO.
This was the first WMMA fight in the U.S., and it was notorious. Levi would end her career 7-1, and her opponent, Fagan, would never fight professionally again after getting easily KO’d.
Becky Levi’s Profile
Becky Levi was a talented athlete, and you’ve probably never heard of her
- Tough Woman World Champion Runner-up (3x)
- Black belt in judo, second degree
- 1987 National Champion Women’s Weightlifting (82 kg.+)
Then, in 2009, Strikeforce made headlines as the first major American MMA organization to have a female-dominated event.
Key fighters in this era were Megumi Fujii and Chris “Cyborg” Justino.
These fighters are not just women; they’re also household names.
Early Promotion and Advertising of Women’s MMA
If you were around in the early 2000s, you might remember promotions like Smackgirl, HOOKnSHOOT, and Shooto.
Smackgirl was a Japanese MMA promotion featuring only female competitors. Its inaugural event was broadcasted on December 5, 2000.
Women’s MMA remains popular in Japan to this day, spawning popular fighting manga like Teppu.
Along with Strikeforce, HOOKnSHOOT was one of the first American organizations to allow women in the MMA. This organization had its start in Evansville, Indiana.
HOOKnSHOOT released an all-female card called ‘Revolution’ in 2002. This featured Debi Purcell and Christine Van Fleet. Following this event’s success, HOOKnSHOOT had competitors Jan Finney, Julie Kedzie, and Lisa Ellis star in an all-women, one-night-only competition in 2005.
HOOKnSHOOT really helped pioneer women’s MMA in America. Some call founder Jeff Osborne “The Godfather of North American WMMA.”
Women’s MMA in the UFC
Here are some historically uttered words that have aged the poorest:
“Women will never fight in the UFC.”
UFC’s Dana White ate his words in no time; the org would go on to purchase Strikeforce in 2011, the same year he uttered the sentence.
Enter Ronda Rousey, a woman that will go down in history.
She makes her Strikeforce debut, knocking her opponent out in a blistering 25 seconds.
Ronda Rousey’s Legacy
Ronda “Rowdy” Rousey came to MMA as an Olympic bronze medalist in judo. Turns out she boasted submission skills that translated amazingly well into MMA fighting. This powerhouse of a lady could hit armbars in less than 14 seconds.
Rousey made her UFC debut in 2012 and remained undefeated until 2015.
She is widely regarded as the primary reason why women compete in the UFC to this day, playing a big part in elevating the sport’s publicity.
She was also the first woman to sign a professional contract with the UFC. Therefore, to some extent, MMA evolution is synonymous with Ronda.
The scene would go on with Invicta FC hosting its first event on April 28, 2012. This was the then worlds-largest all-women’s promotion.
Invicta FC is one of the largest WMMA organizations at present.
Strikeforce UFC Merger
Strikeforce then held its last independent event in 2013, before it merged officially into UFC, bringing WMMA to the world stage.
By February 2013, Ronda Rousey punched down Liz Carmouche to win the inaugural UFC women’s bantamweight title. This was an iconic fight as Rousey’s title defense.
Of course, this was just one of six title defenses Ronda pulled off, cementing herself as an absolute icon in the fighting world. She became somewhat of a celebrity, with job offers not just in professional sports but also in acting.
Rowdy would eventually fall, but not before going down in MMA history. Fun fact: she was only finally suppressed just last year by Valentina Shevchenko.
By the end of 2013, the UFC would debut the women’s strawweight (115 lbs). They ended up signing 11 contestants in that weight class.
In a year, Carla Esparza would triumph over Rose Namajunas to earn the inaugural UFC strawweight title (eventually, Namajunas would turn the tide and take that title for herself in November 2017).
More Legends Enter the Scene
Joanna Jedrzejczyk wins the strawweight gold via TKO against 2013 champion Carla Esparza in March of 2015.
She would keep it for more than two years and five blistering title defenses, establishing herself as one of the finest female fighters of all time.
Keeping an Eye Out for the Future
Of all the iconic women that have fought in the scene, two fighters stand out today: Holly Holm, and Chris Cyborg.
Cyborg’s illustrious career is especially remarkable. She is presently the only female grand slam champion, having won titles in four major MMA organizations.
Holly Holm has an outstanding legacy for head-kicking unbeaten Ronda Rousey into unconsciousness to win the UFC bantamweight belt. She now stands at #2 in the women’s bantamweight division.
Prior to her weight class increase, Holm would become the first female to defeat the renowned Ronda Rousey, which appeared to be the beginning of the end for Ronda.
The Fiercest Female Fighters in History
MMA might be the fastest-growing sport right now, and fighters in the WMMA are the best of the best. Now is the best time to tune in for women’s MMA in the UFC. They are skilled, and these fighters are burning to overturn the legacies of their predecessors, a good sign for any sport.
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