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 411mania » MMA » Columns

The Round Horn 02.27.14: The Growing Popularity of Female Fighting
Posted by Koeddy Laemmle on 02.27.2014

When the UFC was created in 1993 the goal was to figure out which form of martial arts was the strongest, pitting different fighting styles against each other in a tournament to find out which one was superior. We reached the pinnacle of the old inquiry last Saturday at UFC 170 when Olympic judo bronze medalist, Ronda Rousey went one-on-one with Olympic wrestling silver medalist, Sara McMann. This fight epitomizes the evolution of MMA in every aspect, long gone are the days of "human cockfighting" and now we have reached the point where respected professional athletes, with worldwide credentials, prove themselves in the ultimate sporting event. This is further evidenced by fellow Olympian, Daniel Cormier's crushing win during the same pay-per-view on Saturday. A decade ago all three of these fighters were preparing themselves for competition in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.

Only the second female fight to main event a UFC event, the fight between Rousey and McMann may have ended in controversy but overall it furthered the credibility of the UFC Women's Bantamweight division to the point were it has already become one of, if not the most, intriguing weight classes in the UFC. Never before had two Olympic medalists squared off in the octagon. Ironically, Saturday's main event also exemplified how far two women have come since winning Olympic medals for the United States. Nothing was ever handed to either of these ladies, both putting in pain staking hours, days, weeks, months and years to get to were they are today. They will continue to push their limits and train towards an inevitable future rematch between the alpha females of the UFC Women's Bantamweight division.

credit: USA Wrestling

In 2004 both women were participating in the Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. For Sara McMann, the media attention was overwhelming due to it being the first time the Olympics was holding female wrestling competitions. She put forth a strong showing and was successful in capturing the silver medal. However, this was a bitter pill to swallow for McMann who had trained with aspirations of winning gold. Sadly for her real disaster would soon follow. Just a few months after her devastating loss in the finals of the inaugural women's Olympic wrestling event, McMann was involved in traumatic car accident that took the life of her fiancé and fellow wrestler, Steven Blackford.

For Ronda Rousey there was no media frenzy, a role reversal by the time both women reached the UFC. Rousey's childhood was all about perseverance including a rough birth that rendered her with brain damage and unable to speak fluently until she was 6. Two year later her father would tragically pass away. Rousey would get into judo as a way to release some frustration and by age 17 she was the youngest competitor in judo at the 2004 Olympic Games. Ronda Rousey continued to train and developed the tenacious "never say die" mentality she still sports to this day. All her hard work and determination paid off and she again qualified for the 2008 Olympics, this time with greater fortunes as she became the first American female to win a medal in women's judo, when she took home a bronze.

credit: Judovision.org

Rousey's next lesson in life was learning the hard way there was no money to be made as an Olympian in the United States, including a rough spell where she had to live out of her car. Soon after she retired from judo. Rousey was quoted when speaking about this time in her life with mmafighting.com: "The Olympians in our country are pretty much useless. You spend your whole life trying to get this medal and you don't do it to make money, you do it for your country, for pride, for your family, and there's nothing set in place for what happens afterwards… I'd work at Home Depot 20 hours a week and they'd pay me full-time, that was the only Olympic job program I have. There's nothing afterwards. There's no scholarship programs… you've spent $100,000. You get 10K for a bronze, 15K for silver, 25K for gold, which you get taxed on, and a handshake."

credit: ESNEWS

Sara McMann also learned an Olympic sized lesson when she failed to qualify for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China despite winning a silver in 2004 and entering the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials ranked #2 in her weight class. McMann lost her qualifying match at the 2008 trials to eventual bronze medal winner Randi Miller. Even though she would not be chasing the dream she had been chasing for most of her life any longer, the stars lined up for McMann in a different way and she gave birth to her daughter Bella in 2009. Around this time McMann also got into Brazillian jiu-jitsu, and with some friendly suggestions she soon began to train all around mixed martial arts.

Due to financial distress, Rousey began training in MMA around the same time. This move was rightfully questioned by her mother since the leader in mixed martial arts, the UFC had yet to adopt any female weight classes, and seemingly had no plans to in the near future. Despite this Ronda Rousey's exploded in popularity while dominating the competition in Strikeforce with a string of first round armbars becoming their Women's Batamweight champion in just her fifth professional fight. Rousey's overwhelming popularity encouraged UFC President Dana White to reconsider his stance on women fighting in the octagon and he set in motion to create a Women's 135 lb. weight class with Rousey be awarded their first champion. By the end of 2013, with just two UFC fights under her belt, Ronda Rousey had become the biggest name in MMA.

credit: TMZ

Sara McMann's road to the UFC was slightly altered after contract negotiations fell through with Strikeforce prior to her professional debut, McMann built up an undefeated streak through a variety of smaller mixed martial arts promotions, including the female fighting organization Invicta, establishing her as one of the top contenders for their Bantamweight title. This caught the eye of the UFC who at this point had decided to create a women's division of their own. She would explode onto the UFC scene with a first round TKO of fellow title contender Sheila Gaff earning her an eventual shot at the champion. Sadly, for McMann she would be the one on the receiving end of a TKO in her highly anticipated fight with Ronda Rousey after the champion implemented a brilliant game plan and focused on McMann's body, an area she wasn't expecting to be attacked. It will be interesting to watch how she rebounds from her first professional loss but if she continues to make some noise she could end up one of the top stars in the UFC with credentials outside the sport not before seen in the octagon.

Before the UFC created their first women's weight class there was a ton of concern that it would be background noise to the rest of the weight classes (WWE) or it wouldn't be as popular with fans (WNBA). Instead we have seen more female stars created than the male's Flyweight division, which was instituted a year before. Excitement for women's fight continues to grow with the recent announcement of an all women's edition of the Ultimate Fighter where they will crown a champion for their new 115 lb. Women's Strawweight division. This will add even more of the pound-for-pound best female fighters to the UFC roster including: Invicta champion Carla Esparza, Claudia Gadelha, Tecia Torres, Felice Herrig, Rose Namajunas, Joanne Calderwood, and Bec Hyatt.

credit: Peter Holmes

None of this may have been possible without the meteoric rise of Ronda Rousey, who has quickly become arguably the most popular and polarizing figure in mixed martial arts. People either love or hate Rousey, there really isn't much middle ground. Regardless of whether people like her or hate her, she has not only revolutionized women's MMA but women's sports as a whole. With movie roles coming in high profile movie franchises such as "Fast & Furious" and "The Expendables" there is much intrigue in where her future goes from here. There still remains plenty of match ups fans are waiting to see as well, including a possible future fight with longtime rival, and #2 pound-for-pound female fighter, Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino that fans have been demanding for years. Whatever happens, MMA fans all around the world will be watching and waiting with intrigue.


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