Ronda Rousey will likely break the gender barrier in the UFC in 2013. | Tommaso Boddi/WireImage
Michelle Waterson was an emerging female mixed martial artist in early 2009, training with Greg Jackson’s team in New Mexico and scrounging for fights in and around her weight class.
Despite a modeling career and an appearance on the Oxygen Network’s “Fight Girls” reality show, Waterson was not what anyone would define as a mainstream star. However, as the fighter known as “The Karate Hottie” prepared for a bout at a local event in Albuquerque, N.M., more than three years ago -- a card she shared with Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts teammate and current Strikeforce breakout star Julie Kedzie -- Waterson was confident that greater things were on the horizon. Not only were women deserving of the opportunity to compete on mixed martial arts’ grandest stage, she said, but their presence in the UFC would benefit both parties.
“[UFC President] Dana White has very strong opinions on female fighting, and I think female fighting is very entertaining,” Waterson told the Albuquerque Journal in 2009. “He should incorporate it. If he’s smart, he’s gonna draw in a lot more fan base that way.”
Waterson’s sentiments were hardly unique; you could have asked the same question of any number of women who were fighting for peanuts on various regional circuits and they would have answered the same. All they wanted was a chance.
The outspoken UFC boss was far from a believer. In one bizarre interview posted on YouTube, White was caught on camera buying flowers and bluntly stating that women would “never” call the Octagon home. That was 2011. Obviously, times have changed. These days, White is throwing bouquets in the direction of Strikeforce women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. He wears T-shirts bearing her likeness, attends her fights and has been seen with the Olympian at various UFC functions. With “Rowdy” potentially emerging as a crossover star in the vein of Georges St. Pierre, Jon Jones and Brock Lesnar, White has begun to warm to the idea of breaking gender boundaries in the Octagon.
“[A women’s division is] absolutely going to happen,” White said during an interview with Sports Illustrated, which included a profile on Rousey -- a rarity for mixed martial artists in the magazine -- in a recent issue. “[It] could happen tomorrow, it could happen a year from now. The point is, I’m committed to this.”
Suddenly, Waterson’s words seem downright prophetic. However, no one could have imagined how quickly the foundation would be laid to bring women into the UFC.
Last week, gossip website TMZ took a breather from covering celebrity mishaps to report that Strikeforce would be folding after its final event in January, clearing the way for its stable of fighters, including Rousey, to pursue the greener pastures of the UFC. While the MMA community has been speculating on the date of the California-based promotion’s demise for quite some time now, the accompanying news that Rousey and a women’s division would be welcomed into the fold was the real bombshell.
There has been no official confirmation of the rumor since the TMZ report, unless you consider White’s smiley face tweet to be official. While White played coy on Twitter, Rousey danced around the issue, literally, during an interview with ESPN.com.
“Seems totally cool,” Rousey said. “I would like it to be that way. I haven’t signed any bout agreements. I don’t know exactly what’s going on yet. I know just as much as everybody else knows right now.”
Others, meanwhile, are already rejoicing.
“So stoked to be fighting for the UFC,” tweeted Miesha Tate, who relinquished her Strikeforce bantamweight crown to Rousey in March. “It’s been a dream of mine for [a long] time. So happy it’s finally come true.”
Give credit to the UFC for recognizing a valuable commodity, but until a fully developed women’s roster shows up on UFC.com, it is difficult to believe the promotion is going all-in. For now, the UFC is strictly in the Ronda Rousey business. Anything beyond that is just wishful thinking.
When I first heard the news of Strikeforce’s long-rumored demise, I began outlining potential bouts between members of soon-to-be dissolved promotion and fighters employed by its more famous Zuffa counterpart: Daniel Cormier vs. Junior dos Santos, Luke Rockhold vs. Chris Weidman, Gilbert Melendez vs. Benson Henderson -- the possibilities were seemingly endless.
When it came to matchmaking for the women, I did not get nearly as far because it is already abundantly clear that the UFC’s idea of a female division amounts to little more than Ronda Rousey versus the world. The big-ticket matchup, of course, is a showdown between Rousey and former Strikeforce 145-pound champion Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos. A rematch with Tate could also prove lucrative, as could an Olympian vs. Olympian pairing of Rousey vs. Sara McMann.
As for the rest of the talented women who are looking to join the Armbar Queen in the mainstream? That is going to take significantly more time. Outside of Tate, Santos and possibly Kedzie, it is unlikely that White could name five prominent female fighters. While Rousey could serve as a featured attraction on a pay-per-view or Fox card, the Las Vegas-based organization will leave the development of the lesser-known weight classes to Invicta Fighting Championships.
If Rousey were to lose her first UFC appearance, do not expect White to push a fresh new face; be assured that “Rowdy” will receive every opportunity to get her belt back in a rematch. If Rousey’s star somehow fades, it is unclear what direction the UFC will take when it comes to promoting women’s bouts.
Those who have taken the time to observe an Invicta card in its entirety are aware that the quality of the women’s product extends far beyond Rousey. The key is getting the rest of the world -- those who do not seek out MMA streams on Saturdays, for example -- to realize it.
While the UFC is simply looking to ride the lighting with one major star, Invicta is the benchmark for thoughtful matchmaking and developing talent in women’s MMA. A close, working relationship between Shannon Knapp’s company and the UFC will only create more opportunities for female fighters down the road, especially in the absence of Strikeforce.
That includes someone like Waterson, who made her first appearance for Invicta last month and remains one of the more marketable attractions for women in weight classes below 135 pounds. She might not have the magazine covers and TV appearances of a Rousey, but Waterson -- and many like her -- are in a far better place than they were even a few years ago.
It has taken some time, but White has realized what Waterson hoped he would: women can be a marketable attraction for MMA’s largest organization. Even if White’s epiphany currently revolves around Rousey alone, a door that was once slammed shut is now open, if only just a crack. Considering White’s stance a year ago, that is a pretty good start.