Latasha Marzolla is a former Playboy model. Gina Carano is starring in a Steven Soderbergh film. Three seconds on Google can point you to a link titled “Top 10 Sexiest Female MMA Fighters.”
There is an undeniable reason for MMA’s recent approval of female athletes: many of them are an easy fit for magazine covers and adolescent swooning. Acceptance of their gender in combat sports seems to come with the provision that they look good in a dress. (Men are objectified, too, but it’s rare that fans will outright reject one because his face is asymmetrical.) That preoccupation with model looks has more or less nominated Carano as both the “face” and the pioneer of women’s MMA.
Revisionist and wrong. Carano might be the most popular, and crater-sized dimples may make promotion easier, but it was Becky Levi who made the first strides for the division.
Levi, now in her 40s, was likely the first female to compete in an MMA bout on US soil during a March 1997 IFC event at the Akwesasane Indian reservation in New York.
“I was told that was the first [female] fight in the country,” Levi told me recently. “The crowd was supportive. I sold out all my shirts, all that kind of stuff. They loved having a female fight on the card. I think they were probably disappointed because my opponent was not very athletic.”
Levi fought Betty Fagan, finishing her with strikes in less than two minutes; she competed six more times before retiring in 2000 with a 7-1 record. Multiple surgeries followed. “I was just broken,” she said.
Levi now works as a strength and conditioning instructor at Spiece Fitness in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Submission grapplers and boxers occasionally require her help, but that’s as far as her interest goes: she’s largely unaware of Carano or others. “I’m not really into the sport. I’m not happy with the [promotional] direction taken.”