For every step along the path towards women's equality, there's been a paragon associated with each milestone. What Susan B. Anthony is to women's suffrage, Lily Ledbetter to equal pay, Ronda Rousey will be to sports, when, on Saturday night, she takes on Liz Carmouche in the first women's bout in UFC history.
That the UFC -- arguably the most hypermasculine, hypersexualized professional sports outfit -- headlines its UFC 157 fight card with a female fight marks perhaps the most important development for women's athletic equality since Title IX. Seriously.
But don't mistake UFC president Dana White for a modern-day Elizabeth Cady Stanton. He is less a women's activist as he is an unapologetic capitalist who recognized in Rousey unquestionable talent, unparalleled marketability, and an unprecedented opportunity to hitch his sport to her rising star and let her yank MMA further into the mainstream. "People can say whatever they want about her, people can say she shouldn't be headlining or whatever. I don't give a s--- if you're Royce Gracie, if you're Dan Henderson or [Lyoto] Machida, Tito [Ortiz], Chuck [Liddell], go through the laundry list of people who have been stars in this company, nobody in the history of this company will have more new media following them than Ronda Rousey will," White said last month, citing Rousey's interviews with Time, Forbes, and on HBO Real Sports. "If you would have told me a year ago that a female athlete would get that kind of coverage, I would have said you're out of your mind. And if they did, it would be a freak-show story. And it's far from a freak-show."
Rousey's career, however, has been nothing short of freakish. In six professional fights in the now-defunct Strikeforce circuit, the 26-year-old bronze medal Olympic judoka submitted each of her opponents in the first round via her trademark armbar, a technique in which she hyperextends her opponents shoulder or elbow past parallel. Executing the move, with the sound of tendons and ligaments snapping audible to the fighters, Rousey says, is like "When you're trying to get a turkey thing off and you feel all the cartilage and the tendons and the bones coming off, when you're pulling it, it really is that exact feeling. It's gross. But that's the way it is."
The gruesomeness of her submissions -- and the UFC's bet that audiences will be willing to watch them on the sport's biggest stage -- signals an evolution in the female athlete paradigm. Rousey's foray into the mainstream suggests we've morphed from fans who initially welcomed only the likes of figure skater Dorothy Hamill, who charmed our hearts without threatening our ideas about how women should behave as she twirled around the ice in sparkly leotards; to a fan base supporting Florence Griffith Joyner, whose long, painted fingernails received more television airtime than her races; to tennis' Williams sisters, who play in carefully selected skirts; and now, finally, to spectators willing to pay $54.95 to watch women in sports bras and bike shorts bloody and bruise each other on pay-per-view.
It's fitting the UFC's inaugural female fight occurs less than one month after the Pentagon lifted its ban on women in combat -- a ban that blocked challenger Carmouche from pursuing multiple jobs during her career as a Marine. Lifting the ban suggests the perception of what women can do is catching up with this harsh reality of what they already do: fight, whether it be in arenas as athletes, in warzones as soldiers, or in offices where women now outnumber men for the first time in American history.
One of the richest ironies in this shift is that it plays out in front of the UFC crowd, a constituency best known for its boorishness and bloodlust. Yet despite its history of leering at the ample-breasted ring girls or assailing the cadre of female writers who cover the sport, the UFC fan base is in the best position to mainline women into its sport (more than any other league) for one simple reason: It's younger. Most UFC fans fall into the 18-to-34-year-old age range, a sweet spot for advertisers and social progressives alike. Research shows younger audiences are more likely to have been raised by single mothers and support issues like gay marriage. Perhaps that explains the collective response to Carmouche, an openly lesbian fighter, whose homosexuality fans treat as a plot point in her narrative, not the thesis of it. Plus, the UFC, celebrating its 20th anniversary in November, is too new of a league to have hidebound fans, like baseball, where many still rail against the designated hitter rule 30 years after its adoption.
But the most radical, equality-grabbing, earth-shaking element of the UFC's new women's division is that it isn't an addendum to its men's league like the WNBA (when does its season start?) or run by a separate governing body, playing its championships on separate days like women's pro tennis or golf. MMA fans wanting to watch, say, the highly anticipated match between Lyoto Machida and Dan Henderson will have to buy the Rousey fight, too. The UFC purposely wove the women into the fabric of its main events. There is no opt-out for fight fans.
Nor is there any indication the UFC plans to back off its female integration. Last week the UFC announced the signing of four new female fighters, two of whom, Miesha Tate and Cat Zingano, will fight in April during The Ultimate Fighter 17 reality series finale, another fight card stacked with marquee male fighters and publicized weekly via the television show.
Yet the viability of female fighting in the UFC depends largely on Rousey and her ability to open pocketbooks and eyes at the same time. And she couldn't care less. When asked last week about how her performance will dictate the future of women's fighting, she said, "I really don't care so much -- I don't like anybody that much, so I care more about winning for myself than I care about winning for everybody else." Ah. A me-first approach from a budding superstar? Equality in sports, warts and all, is closer than we think.
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