For those of you who don’t know, March 3rd marked an important date for Mixed Martial Arts, and women’s Mixed Martial Arts in particular. When Miesha Tate and Rhonda Rousey stepped into the cage to fight for the women’s Strikeforce bantam-weight title, it was as the main event of one of the biggest MMA promotions today, generating global hype.
Unlike the UFC, Strikeforce doesn’t air on Main Event, so for my training partners and I in Adelaide, 10pm Eastern Time in the US sparked a scramble to see who could find the fight on-line first. (It’s all over Youtube now, of course. The link is on my Facebook page. I strongly encourage everyone to watch this, even if you’re not normally a fight fan.)
All of this got me thinking though about how much the world has changed since I first started training, and how this is reflected in combat sports.
When I first started Muay Thai in 2001, it was generally accepted that no combat sport would ever overtake professional boxing for a monopoly on mainstream audiences. It was believed that Westerners would never be able to accept an esoteric Eastern art such as Muay Thai with its alien traditions and dishonourable kicks, knees and elbow strikes. Michael Schiavello wrote an editorial in International Kickboxer telling us we would “never see a kick-boxer on a box of cereal” the way we do with cricket players or footballers, because the sport was just too bloody.
It was also accepted back then that women’s fights would never garner the same interest – or the same purses – as men’s fights. Combat sports were still regarded as a man’s arena, whose evolution was largely dictated by men’s preferences, and female fighting drew derision from male fans. As the only woman in the fighter’s class in my old gym in 2004, I was ostracised, harassed, objectified and generally not welcome.
Today when I see a women’s world title fight billed as main event, and my training partners from my new gym (I’m still the only woman) getting excited about the fight, breaking it down afterwards, and anticipating the new title-holder’s future challengers, I realise how much the world has changed. Mixed Martial Arts, thanks to the UFC, is now mainstream, with merchandise available at Big W and fights shown regularly on free-to-air TV. Women finally seem to have broken through that internal barrier of thinking, “I’m good enough… for a girl” and are bringing genuine skills, athleticism and aggression to women’s combat sports. Finally, men are not so threatened now by the idea of powerful, straight-talking women. If the hype around Rhonda Rousey is anything to go by, it’s actually become something of a turn-on.
As a Mixed Martial Artist, there are a lot of things one can learn from this fight. Judo may have been under-rated all this time. If you get someone’s back, don’t just stall, go for that rear naked choke as if the lives of your presumably unborn children depend on it. And if you’re going to fight Rhonda Rousey, for God’s sake learn how to keep the fight standing, develop some knock-out power and use those angles.
From a more mainstream perspective, here are some other things we can take from this bout.
As talented as she is, the less experienced Rousey would not even have been given this title shot if not for her persistent self-promotion. Like the great Ali, she wasn’t afraid to get in front of anyone who would listen and tell them she was better, stronger, prettier and more charismatic than any other challenger. Whether it’s in sport, business or job-hunting, the squeaky wheel gets the oil.
We all suspected this, but Rhonda Rousey, following Gina Corano and starkly contrasting Cris Cyborg, confirms this. It’s not all about winning the favours of men, although Rousey certainly has won a lot of male fans. There’s something aspirational to women in a post-feminist world about being able to reconcile the conflict between being successful, assertive and fulfilled, while still being considered attractive. Perhaps because, to many of us, it still only represents a fantasy in our own lives, we find women who are lusted after by heterosexual men while remaining uncompromisingly driven and competitive so fascinating.
Heterosexuality Has Evolved
Not so long ago, a woman as athletic, capable and out-spoken as Rousey would have been considered unattractive by virtue, ironically, of her virtues. Not today.
Mixed Martial Arts are Here to Stay
To the kill-joys who would rather see us all engaging in safe activities like driving our cars to work, maintaining a sedentary lifestyle, drinking and smoking, MMA is on the verge of becoming one of the biggest sports in the world, and a new World Game. There’s nothing you can do about it, so you might as well jump on the band-wagon.
Limitations Don’t Exist
It may be hard to believe, but there was a time when women were considered physically incapable of performing tasks such as piloting an aircraft, let alone pulling off arm bars and judo throws. Whoever you are, whatever you’ve been told you can’t do, remember that today’s limitation is tomorrow’s accomplishment and the day-after-tomorrow’s social norm.