Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
It wasn’t long ago that the conversation about women’s divisions in the Octagon started and ended with one word: never. Of course, a lot has changed since then -- namely, Ronda Rousey happened -- and now with the successful expansion of the strawweight division and solid showcase bouts at 125 and 140 pounds, the arguments that women’s divisions are untenable or uninteresting are dumber and more transparently antiquated than ever.
The audience for female fighting is very real, and it’s continuing to grow as the quality of competition improves. That makes sense; mixed martial arts is now a legitimate option for female martial artists and athletes who otherwise had few avenues to pursue. The early days of the Ultimate Fighting Championship provided similar opportunities for non- and post-Olympic wrestlers, as well as fighters outside the pure boxing spectrum, so long as they were the appropriate gender. In all fairness, up until the last several years, there really wasn’t much of a place for female fights outside of niche audiences, but now that is demonstrably not the case.
There is a discernible relationship between the exposure of women fights and the demand for them, and as increased exposure creates more financially viable opportunities, the quality of fighter will improve, in turn catalyzing more invested and likely larger audiences. It’s as simple a growth opportunity as there is in modern MMA. Valentina Shevchenko took four out of five rounds on each scorecard against former boxing and UFC champion Holly Holm on Saturday in Chicago, continuing the trend that Holm herself started when she kicked the women’s bantamweight crown off Rousey’s head. Since then, Holm lost the belt to Miesha Tate, who then lost it to Amanda Nunes. With Holm’s second straight loss, as R.J. Clifford pointed out, UFC women’s bantamweight champions and former champions are now 0-4 since UFC 193.
At this point, it’s hard to call these upsets anymore, at least not in the sense that a lesser fighter beat a superior foe. Rather, each of the losses at the top happened in ways that, when considering the style matchups, were reasonable, if not expected. If anything, parity at the top is typically a sign of a healthy division. There is no question that the 135-pound division is better than ever with several bankable stars on deck; and with Joanna Jedrzejczyk putting together what looks like the beginning of a transcendent championship reign at 115 pounds, the state of women’s MMA is better off than it has ever been. Thus, it begs the question: When will the UFC absorb the Invicta Fighting Championships roster?
Invicta has been a marquee organization for women since its first event in 2012. At that time, Strikeforce -- which was the only major player with women’s divisions -- had been purchased by the UFC, which was still a year away from its first female fight at UFC 157. As a result, Invicta was the only legitimate place to go for high-level female fighters in the western hemisphere.
In the same way that World Extreme Cagefighting was able to build a stable of fighters in the lighter weight classes, Invicta has developed and maintained top-shelf talent for four female divisions ranging from 105 to 145 pounds. If the UFC were to merge with Invicta, the opportunities for good, meaningful fights would grow exponentially.
First off, it would only be fitting for the greatest women’s fighter ever, Cristiane Justino, to have her time as a UFC champion. It was a special moment to see her make her first walk to the Octagon at UFC 198 in Brazil, even if it was for a one-off bout at a 140-pound catchweight. Although the 145-pound division is still trying to catch up with “Cyborg,” her unmatched ferocity is very much an entertaining draw for fight fans, and the UFC would only benefit to call her one of its champions. Plus, divisional super fights with the bantamweight elite would most definitely move the needle.
Moving down 10 pounds, the Invicta bantamweight division has plenty of talent to bolster the UFC’s improving roster. The likes of Irene Aldana, Colleen Schneider and Raquel Pa’aluhi would add a solid middle-class to the UFC, but the real divisional ripples would come via Invicta champ Tonya Evinger, who is often overlooked when it comes to discussing the best bantamweights in the game. She would add an interesting dynamic to the division and could very well break out into greater stardom through the exposure of a bigger platform like the UFC.
Then there is the 125-pound division. At the moment, there is no women’s flyweight division in the UFC, and as such, Invicta has it on lock. With the title picture contested between Barb Honchak and interim champ Jennifer Maia, there is a ready-to-serve tension to get the division started. Beyond that, there are plenty of oversized strawweights and undersized bantamweights who could help fill in the division in the meantime, not to mention the possibility of Jedrzejczyk competing for a second belt, which is always an intriguing storyline.
Speaking of the strawweights, Invicta has several names to add to the stronger of the two UFC female divisions. Specifically, 28 year-old champion Angela Hill and 25 year-old former champ Livia Renata Souza. While neither would likely jump into immediate title contention, both have the skill to compete with the top of the division as well as the potential to feasibly put themselves in the title picture in the next few years. Should Jedrzejczyk jump ship for a UFC flyweight title at some point in the future, they would be of particular import to the 115-pound class.
Finally, the addition of the atomweight division seems risky on the face, but there is a great deal of growth opportunity. There are a handful of current UFC strawweights who could easily move down to 105 pounds, including fan favorite Seo Hee Ham and former Invicta atomweight champs Jessica Penne and Michelle Waterson. Of course, there is current Invicta champ Ayaka Hamasaki and contenders like Jinh Yu Frey who would be vital in filling out the division, as well. The real potential breadwinner, though, would be for the UFC to make a move for One Championship titleholder Angela Lee, the 20-year-old phenom who put on a spectacular performance against Mei Yamaguchi in May. Although Lee’s belt is for the 115-pound division, she weighed in at 105 pounds for the fight, making her a person of high interest should the UFC ever open its doors for atomweights.
There are obviously problems to be worked out with this kind of proposition, not the least of which being the amount of cards necessary to accommodate three additional divisions; and there will certainly be talk of how both female fights and lower weight classes are inherently less marketable for wider audiences. Yet these are not new. The UFC has been consistently putting on more fight cards every year, and with global expansion, it is likely that this trend will continue. Furthermore, people also said the lightweight division wouldn’t hold casual fan interest, and now it’s considered the gold standard of quality. Then they said that anything lighter than lightweight was too small to have mass appeal, but the emergence of Conor McGregor -- and to a lesser but still noteworthy extent Dominick Cruz -- flipped that notion on its head. By now we shouldn’t even have to address how Rousey and company shattered the idea that women wouldn’t sell in combat sports.
The point is that the time is now to make this kind of move. The UFC women’s divisions are sturdy, and the talent pool that Invicta has cultivated is certainly good enough to buoy the shaky early stages of growing weight classes. It has worked in the past for the UFC, and there’s no reason to think it won’t continue to work. People will complain, because that’s what people do best in the face of change. For those whining types, they’ll always have their anonymous comment sections to compensate for their diminishing voices.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.