This Saturday a seismic shift will take place in the hitherto male-dominated world of mixed martial arts (MMA) when, in front of a global audience of millions, Ronda Rousey will fight Liz Carmouche as the main card at the next UFC event in Anaheim, California.
The UFC (or Ultimate Fighting Championship to give it its full name) is the premier league of MMA. Just over 400 elite fighters have contracts to fight in the division. They are drawn from every continent on earth and, up until now, every one of those fighters has been a man.
Saturday night will not only see the first event headlined by two women fighters, but the first time two women have ever competed in the UFC. Those two facts have just made the World’s most controversial sport, a hell of a lot more controversial.
You probably don’t watch a lot of MMA, but you’d have to have been living in another star system not to have noticed the explosion in interest the sport has generated in recent years. Often called cage fighting, it’s best known in the UK for the bizarre antics of Alex Reid (who’s never competed in the UFC, incidentally), and to the uninitiated it looks like nothing more than two meatheads pulverising each other for the delectation of a bloodthirsty mob.
While there’s an element of truth in that, to people like myself, who not only watch but train in mixed martial arts, it is a complex, highly tactical sport that requires courage, intelligence and athleticism in equal measure. It is after all, in layman’s terms, a hybrid of boxing, kick boxing and wrestling.
The fights may be short (usually no more than three five-minute rounds if they go the distance) but to get to the point where a fighter can effectively compete, requires hundreds and hundreds of hours of preparation, and an accompanying lifestyle that’d test the behaviour of a Buddhist monk.
Naturally, the greater the competition, the higher the level of dedication required because full-contact mixed martial arts is, to put not too fine a point on it, bloody dangerous.
Even at the relatively low level I train at, it leads to broken joints and black eyes, and although nobody has yet been killed in a UFC Octagon (or cage) many fans of the sport will simply shrug and say it’s only a matter of time before somebody does. And therein lies much of the sports’ appeal.
MMA – with the exception perhaps of bullfighting – is the closest activity there is to legalised gladiatorial combat. Indeed the UFC, which in 20 years has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry, happily uses ancient Roman warrior-style imagery in its marketing to bludgeon this point home.
Yes, there may be honour and heroics, yes there may be courage and drama, but like the men who slaughtered one another in the Coliseum 2,000 years ago, there is also blood. Often a lot of it. Comedian Joe Rogan, who enthusiastically and informatively commentates on most televised UFC fights, has criticised novice fans who boo fighters for grappling (the most difficult aspect of MMA to master yet the least obviously violent) claiming they literally don’t know what they looking at.
Which begs the question, what then have these (mostly young male) spectators come looking for? I may be one of those fans who will wax on about the finer technical aspects of a fight, but I’m not deluded. I know many fans turn up or tune in, do so champions because they want to see someone hurt, or knocked out, or disfigured or maybe even (whisper it) killed. Such is the enduring male fascination with violence.
Now extend that theory to the idea of two women fighting. Unsettling isn’t it?
There is no doubt that both the women fighting on Saturday are incredible athletes, who are dedicated to their chosen sport, and who have as much right to compete in MMA as their male counterparts. There is no doubt either that they’re the real deal. Carmouche is a former US Marine who served three tours of duty in Iraq, while Rousey is a former Olympic bronze medal-winning judoka who’s won all six of her MMA fights – notoriously breaking a couple of opponent’s arms along the way.
But why are they are headlining the event on Saturday? Why are they top of the bill above established fighters and former world? Is it because of merit? No matter how much it might be claimed that that’s the case, neither athletes’ fight record supports that argument. No, they top the bill because they are women.
This isn’t equality in action, far from it, Rousey and Carmouche are there because the controversy created by two women fighting is good for business. It gets people talking, it makes the news – hey even schmucks like me write about it! – and consequently bums end up on seats.
But there’s something else going on here too. Something more odious to me is the curious sexual undercurrent that seems to pervade the pre-fight hype. Ronda Rousey in particular, is being sold as much on her sex appeal as her fighting prowess.
The 26-year-old Californian hardly looks like someone who busts skulls for a living. She has rock star good looks, the kind of chiselled physique you’d expect someone who spends half their life in a gym to have, and a public persona that plays with the idea that she more than knows her way around the bedroom. “I have a bad-girl thing going on,” she recently claimed. “I’m that type who could get caught at a brothel with a bottle of Jack.”
In fact, UFC figurehead and president Dana White admits Rousey’s looks were instrumental in him opening up the competition to women fighters in the first place. “What changed me about women’s MMA,” he said last year, “was when Ronda Rousey fought Meisha Tate. That was a fight worthy of a man’s fight. Two incredibly talented women, who were very well rounded. And, of course, it didn’t hurt that both of them were so beautiful too.” Or to put it another way, that was some hot girl-on-girl action guys!
OK, Rousey’s opponent on Saturday Liz Carmouche is less obviously attractive, and while she’s largely being shoved out of the spotlight by Rousey, much is still being made of her sexuality. Carmouche is the first openly gay fighter to appear on a UFC card, and White, who has had to battle accusations of homophobia in the past, has been loudly supportive of her openness about this.
Again, is this about equality or about business? One can only speculate, but I truly wonder whether an openly gay male fighter might be as profitable (or even acceptable) in this mostly male, mostly straight market.
So will I be watching on Saturday night? The answer is a resounding no. Not in protest against the UFC’s cynical marketing or manipulation of gender politics, but because – when it comes down to it – the idea of two women fighting each other in an Octagon actually fills me with revulsion.
Not because I think women should stick to the kitchen/nursery, far from it, but because somewhere deep inside of me I think it’s wholly uncivilised. Huh? So I’ll happily watch men tear lumps out of each other, but not women? Christ, what the hell is wrong with me?
While having this very discussion with a (male) friend of mine recently I concluded that it was basically because I found the idea of a male crowd baying for the blood of two women (as opposed to two men) deeply distressing. His response to this was to brand me as a sexist.
Logically, I suppose, he has a point and yet I’m well enough versed in feminist theory (I have a philosophy degree) and have spent enough of my life surrounded by strong, admirable women to know that he’s actually talking out of his hole.
What I am, however, is unashamedly a man who was brought up to respect women, and fundamental to that respect is the idea that violence against women – and by extension violence involving women – is anathema. Actually scratch that. It is an absolute taboo. That’s how deep it runs in me.
And for all my belief that women should absolutely be allowed to do anything that men do – including fight in a cage in front of a crowd of men – I can’t help feeling that, ultimately, the female of the species is so much better than that.