Women in mixed martial arts have come a long way since the early 2000s. Men, who have always made up the vast majority of MMA's audience and fan base, have taken their sweet time in welcoming women to the sport and taking them seriously. While men were getting famous fighting for the Ultimate Fighting Championship and other promotions that broadcast their bouts on television, women were relegated mostly to small-time promotions, with measly pay and very little recognition.

The excuses? "I don't like seeing women get hurt." "Women can't fight." "I'll only watch if the girls are hot."

MMA, also popularly referred to as "cage fighting" (fights take place in a hexagon or octagon-shaped ring with cyclone-fenced walls), is definitely brutal. Fighters can attack using punches, kicks, knees, elbows and all sorts of grappling techniques to make the opponent "tap out" or give up. Bloody faces are not a rare occurrence.

But women have long been fearlessly getting in the cage. The fact that they've had to prove themselves to a skeptical male audience just made them train harder to fight harder.

kedzie vs carano weigh-insJulie Kedzie and Gina Carano

In her recently released biography, current UFC bantamweight (135 lbs.) champion Ronda Rousey recalled the day she and a group of male friends watched a fight between women's MMA pioneers Julie Kedzie and Gina Carano. That fight, in 2007, was the first women's bout to be televised. Ronda noted that her guy friends were actually impressed by the fight, talking about how Kedzie and Carano were amazing fighters and not even mentioning that they are both very attractive ladies. The live audience loved the fight as well – the women got a standing ovation and won "fight of the night" honors even though the rest of the card was filled with male fighters. Ronda was impressed by the guys' attitude toward the women fighters.

But it wasn't until the 2010s that women fighters began to get widespread recognition. Invicta Fighting Championships, an all-women's professional MMA promotion, was established in 2012, offering women, who were not yet allowed in the UFC, a bigger stage on which to compete.

Rousey herself has been essential to the rise of women in MMA. She and Liz Carmouche were the first female fighters to be featured in the UFC. Before that fight was set up in 2013, Dana White, the UFC's president, had vowed that he would never, ever have women fighting in the promotion. He changed his mind after he saw Ronda –who also happens to be a Judo Olympian– apparently break the arm of former champion Miesha Tate when Tate refused to tap out to an armbar during a bout under the now defunct Strikeforce promotion. (In subsequent interviews Tate said her arm was not broken, but it sure looked like it was).

White was drawn to women fighters not necessarily for their looks, but for their ability to deliver devastating violence.

Since then, women in MMA have become better known, turning many naysayers into hardcore fans through hard work and solid technique. But the egalitarian utopia where women get the same respect as men is far from being a reality. "I'll only watch if the chicks are hot" is still, sadly, a reality plaguing women in the sport, just as it was in the beginning.

"Eight years ago, I saw some modeling photos of Miesha Tate on the web, and I thought she was very attractive," said Eric Holden, who now writes about MMA for AXS.com. "Shortly after, I was looking at YouTube, and stumbled across a video of her fight against Kaitlin Young at the 2007 HOOKnSHOOT: BodogFIGHT tournament. I admit I only tuned in because I had previously seen some photos of her, and thought she was really pretty," he added.

Candidly, Eric said he "probably never would have given the video a chance had [Tate] not been an attractive woman that I had previously seen modeling photos of. I tuned in, expecting it to be nothing more than two 'hot chicks' rolling around with each other."

"To my surprise," Eric continued, "Young floored Tate with multiple head kicks to the face and finished with a brutal knockout strike. I was like 'Wow, these girls bring it just as hard as the guys.' The good looks drew me in, but it was the skill that got me hooked."

Despite that, his writing, at least initially, was only focused on how "hot" women fighters are, rightfully drawing the disdain of both fighters and fans of the sport. Still, he gained notoriety, and considering he was paid based on the number of clicks his articles got back then, he is not complaining about the backlash. After all, he does consider himself sort of a TMZ for MMA. (Most of his articles are still about the fighters' looks and he still is a click bait hound, but he has expanded his repertoire now that he no longer gets paid based on clicks.)

"The first time I saw Julie Kedzie," Eric remembers, "I had no idea she knew who I was and I went up to her to shake her hand and ask for a pic. I was a big fan of hers from watching her Strikeforce and UFC fights. When I went up to her, she looked right at me and said 'I absolutely hate your articles.'" To this day, Julie, who has since retired from fighting but is the matchmaker and a commentator for Invicta FC, will not talk to Eric, he said.

rouseytateRonda Rousey armbars Miesha Tate

"Also, the first time I saw Tara LaRosa was at the Invicta FC 10 post-fight press conference. The only thing she said to me was 'Ew, who let you in here?'" Tara, one of the very first women in MMA, is a vocal opponent of using sex to market female fighters.

There are even men in the sport who don't particularly care for marketing women based on their looks.

"I believe how fighters market themselves is a personal choice," said Jay General, the mastermind behind Fresh Start MMA, which has been managing and promoting female fighters since 2013. "Some fighters are
comfortable using the sexy factor and some aren't. Personally, I don't think it's necessary because at the end of the day it's what you do in the cage that matters. Sexy doesn't win fights and should never dictate opportunity. Everything should be based on performance." Among Jay's all-female roster of clients are Invicta FC favorites Tonya Evinger, also one of the pioneers of the sport, Cindy Dandois and Maegan Goodwin, who recently signed a four-fight deal with the all-women's promotion.

Marq Piocos, a writer who has been following women fighters since 2006, said he has "always considered myself a feminist and feel that an athlete needs to be seen as an athlete first. Personally, I see a lot of sexism in the sport, promoting looks over talent. This isn't just in MMA either."

Marq, who runs the Wombat Sports online publication dedicated solely to women in combat sports, said that "sometimes, using looks is a bit of a cop out for some- an easy way to get exposure. I don't blame them because in the male dominated world of MMA (speaking of their back offices mainly) you need to stand out."

That said, there is no shortage of women using their looks to market themselves.

Felice Herrig, who is signed to the UFC's women strawweight (115 lbs.) division, is the poster child of selling sex appeal in MMA. For years, she has unabashedly posted pictures of herself in revealing outfits and sexy poses. The strategy has worked out very well for her. Despite a lackluster MMA record of nine wins and five losses, last year she was given a spot on the 20th season of the UFC's television show The Ultimate Fighter, which was supposed to feature only the very best female strawweights in the world (it didn't). Tellingly, in the last bout she had before filming, she was dominated by Tecia Torres, who had much less experience, with a record of only three wins and no losses. (Tecia also was on the show). The same happened in Felice's last fight, in April, when she was also dominated by Paige Van Zant, a much less experienced fighter. To be honest, though, Felice was not the only girl with a mediocre win-loss ratio to make it onto the show. Some other cast members were also selected for their looks and ability to stir drama rather than for their record. TUF is, after all, a reality television show.

As the UFC signs more women, it also increasingly focuses on marketing based on looks. With very few exceptions, putting on an awe inspiring attack to submit an opponent is no longer enough for a woman to get noticed and heavily promoted. They also have to be very attractive, and blonde, preferably, as many critics have noted.

"The UFC is still a bit backwards in terms of using looks over talent to promote events," Marq said. "A great example [is the] Felice Herrig vs. Paige Van Zant [bout]. Even though the underdog Van Zant won in what a lot of people considered a lopsided match, the match was booked for the most part on looks," he noted, referring to the aforementioned April fight.

Meanwhile, women who may not be "conventionally pretty" are slowly being left out. "I am reminded of Sarah Moras and how long it took for her to get another fight in the UFC. Dana White stated she would never be a star on [television show] TUF18," Marq noted. "Moras [...] is not getting pushed at all and is super talented. You can't blame the UFC completely - their goal is to put butts in seats and
the easiest way is to pander to the entertainment and looks factor." (Update: Moras finally gets to fight in July.)

To be fair, even a superstar like Ronda Rousey uses her good looks to promote herself. She has appeared in skimpy bathing suits in Sports Illustrated and practically naked in ESPN's annual "Body Issue." The thing is, she did not have to prance around in a bikini to get Dana White to sign her to the UFC. She almost broke an opponent's arm for that.

To paraphrase Julie Kedzie, "it's not that women shouldn't use their looks to market themselves, it's that they shouldn't HAVE TO."


T. Rosa

T. Rosa

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