In the 18th season of the organization's flagship series, The Ultimate Fighter, UFC executives resorted to TV's most tried-and-true formula to freshen tired storylines and bolster languishing ratings: Women + men + hot tub. For the first time in the history of the show -- which follows 16 novice fighters living, training and competing with one another for a coveted UFC contract -- women were added as contestants and head coaches.
Judging by the series' 30-second promos on FOX, The Ultimate Fighter handles the new gender politics of the show with all the subtlety and nuance of a roundhouse kick to the head. We're supposed to be lured to our couches every Wednesday night to laugh at black-eyed female fighters don red lipstick and heels, and to watch female coaches Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate engage in catfights that would put any plotline of Revenge to shame.
But what escapes notice, much less promotion, is a far more important moment in the timeline of gender and sports. Every week for one hour, viewers watch female coaches tell male athletes what to do. And even more significant? The men do what they're told. Without irony. Without any eye rolling.
Since the passage of Title IX in 1972, women's opportunities as athletes have exploded, even as their chances as coaches have contracted. In 1972, women served as head coaches for more than 90% of women's college teams. By 2012, that number had dropped to 42.9%, according to researchers Linda Carpenter and Vivian Acosta in their biannual report, Women in Intercollegiate Sport. Most glaringly, Carpenter and Acosta find the number of women coaching men -- fewer than 3.5% in college -- has remained virtually unchanged over the past five decades. Put another way, there are slightly more women running Fortune 500 companies than there are women heading men's college sports teams.
In women's coaching circles, the unwritten rule that men can coach women but women can't coach men is often referred to as The Glass Wall. It separates women from the job openings, larger TV deals, bigger recruiting budgets and heftier paydays often afforded to their male counterparts.
It only takes a few scans along the sports radio dial to understand the attitudes keeping women's leadership opportunities out of reach. Earlier this year, San Francisco sports radio host Damon Bruce morphed a discussion of the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal into a nine-minute tirade against women in sports. "This is guy's stuff," he said of sports. "This is men's stuff. And I don't expect women to understand men's stuff anymore than they should expect me to be able to relate to labor pains."
(Though Rousey, famous for ending her MMA bouts by pulling the tendons and ligaments off her opponent's elbows via her trademark armbar, might be more than happy to give Bruce a close approximation of the pain.)
Ultimate Fighter viewers see little of Bruce's attitude from any of the Ultimate Fighter contestants participating in a sport most directly descended from gladiator culture. As Rousey and Tate give instruction and analyze fights, the audience sees just why this next generation of female athletes is capable not only of spawning another female coaching legend, a la Pat Summit, but indeed a bevy of them.
"I'm more than happy with the training that's been going on. And Ronda's like a judo wizard. Or wizardess. Whatever you want to call it," said 24-year-old Michael Wootten, voted the No. 1 MMA prospect in his native United Kingdom in 2012. "She's got some great things to show us and I'm definitely going to incorporate them."
One episode featured Rousey, curled up on a wrestling mat in a near fetal position, talking about techniques to use when the fighters find themselves on their backs, opponents baring down.
"Now you guys are going to do scrunchies," she told the team. And she wasn't talking hair accessories. She thrust her hips and shoulders to scoot across the mat, leaving her arms and legs in the air. "That way if someone tries to hit me, I can move and defend myself at the same time. And you get really cool looking abs and s---."
Rousey moves on to show the group another ground shuffle. "Oh, my God, this one's hard," fighter David Grant yells out as he stalls on the mat. Rousey moves in next to him, demonstrating to him -- and perhaps all of us -- not only how to move across the mat, but also beneath and beyond The Glass Wall, too.