Ronda Rousey, Holly Holm and Miesha Tate the game changers as Asia-bound UFC puts women at the forefront
It’s debatable whether any other modern professional sport showcases women like mixed martial arts and it’s not by accident
Miesha Tate was front and centre when the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) came to Singapore to announce its return to Asia, and her role spoke volumes about the importance the female side of the fight game has when it comes to mixed martial arts.
It’s debatable whether any other modern professional sport showcases women – and treats them – on a level pegging with its male stars and there’s no debate that no other combat sport does.
Thanks to the likes of Ronda Rousey, to Tate and Holly Holm, the UFC have successfully put women at the forefront of their spread around the globe and regional MMA promoters such as ONE Championship have followed suit in recent years, with fighters such as its world atomweight champion Angela Lee leading the way.
For Tate the surprise was not that this has taken hold over the past five years in the sport, but that it took so long for it to do so.
“It’s not that the talent wasn’t there, we just needed the opportunity,” says Tate, the one-time UFC women’s bantamweight champion.
“When the UFC gave us that, we made the most of it. The UFC put a lot of time, money and effort into marketing the females as equals. That’s the difference between say UFC and boxing. In boxing the women have always been an afterthought.”
The UFC can hardly believe the way the cards have fallen in their favour. While smaller promoters had showcased female fighters – some even exclusively – it wasn’t until the UFC signed Rousey on in 2012 that things really started to kick off.
Rousey’s rise to international stardom included the UFC bantamweight title and Hollywood films and, more importantly, she was the sport’s first legitimate crossover star, drawing in mainstream attention, and a mainstream audience.
Whereas headlining women’s bouts might have once raised eyebrows, nowadays it’s a norm – and MMA organisations (and fight cards) are all the better for it.
Joe Carr, UFC senior vice-president, head of international and content, says the rise of female fighters has altered the course of the sport’s development.
“In hindsight you could probably say that was the most significant decision we ever did as a business – at least in the last five years,” says Carr, who was also in Singapore for the UFC’s launch of their card set down there for June 17.
“It’s amazing what it’s done for the popularity of the sport, the growth of the sport and, obviously, the women’s fan base.
“There was a hesitancy to open up UFC to women but what we decided at the time was, hey, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this the right way then it’s same rules, same pay scale, same treatment.
“These girls are fighters. They train just as hard and compete just as hard. There’s not a men’s and a women’s division.
“It’s not the NBA and WNBA. You’re a UFC fighter and some of the biggest events we’ve ever had have been headlined by women and some of our highest paid athletes are women, like Ronda, Amanda [Nunes], Holly [Holm], Meisha.”
Vitally, he says, these fighters have helped alter perceptions of the sport.
“It completely changed the dynamic and if you think of it from a brand standpoint it completely softened it as well,” says Carr.
“For all the naysayers who were saying ‘Oh, it’s barbaric’ , then you see an interview with Miesha Tate and you say ‘Really? She’s the barbaric cage fighter?’ It’s just been a complete game changer for our business.”
“Conor McGregor is obviously now our biggest star but it was Ronda who took the sport to the next level and became the first mainstream crossover star on a global basis. It has been incredible what she has done.
“Now you’ll see groups of girls in the audience. You’d never see that in boxing. It’s incredible what it has done for us.”
The 30-year-old Tate retired from the sport after a loss to Raquel Pennington last November, a decision she said was made easy by the very nature of the sport to which she had dedicated a huge slab of her life. Tate turned to MMA after wrestling in high school and she finished with a record of 18-7.
“I’m surprised how seamless it has been, which is what I had hoped for,” she says. “I was pretty burned out by the end.
“I’d fought three times in nine months and two of them were world title fights. At that point – after almost 11 years of fighting – it was just a hard push.
“I just knew my heart wasn’t 100 per cent in it and at that point I knew it was time. It’s not a sport you can do with half a heart. It has to be 100 per cent.”
Away from the cage, Tate has been able to chart the effect the high-profile of female fighters – and fights – has had on the next generation of MMA stars, thanks to a role she has taken up mentoring an all-women team.
“My inspirations were male,” she says. “I like that we’re getting to a time and place where women can have male role models and males can have female role models and you get that in MMA.
“I’ve been told many times by young males that I have inspired them to get into fighting. That’s pretty incredible. It’s sort of like a Joan of Arc situation where it transcends and that’s just like ‘Wow’.”