2017 wasn’t a great year for women’s MMA in America, a continent whose biggest promotion stills struggles to fill a PPV pool up to the watermark of the dominant Rousey era of 2014 to 2015.
Amanda Nunes was excessively elocuting excrement until her bizarre late-notice fight withdrawal and hair-splitting decision win over Valentina Shevchenko, while Germaine de Randamie squandered all respect by cheating her way to a belt she then weaselled repeatedly out of defending. The Netherlander refused to defend a featherweight title against Cris Cyborg, after sucker-punching it from Holly Holm, who famously took Rousey’s burnished Bantam buckle in 2015, the same Holm who lost to Cyborg by unanimous decision this past weekend at 219 in Vegas.
Furthermore, the UFC will struggle to find anyone else willing to give away such a massive 5kg difference moving up from bantam to feather to face the Curitiban who is now the organisations biggest female star. A naturally gifted fighter despite her past performance-enhancing-drug (PED) antics, she is so unique that no one else really populates her weight division – there are never any non-title fights at UFC feather so the promotion doesn’t even create rankings for it. Hardly presaging a post-Rousey rosy future that Cyborg was meant to inhabit.
Conversely, MMA on other parts of the planet remains in rude health. Angela Lee continues to headline blockbuster ONE Championship cards where the women often retain top-billing above the blokes, while stand-out stars like Rika Ishige from Thailand and Miao Jie from China continue to put on cracking performances with guts and technique. Here in Africa, I had the honour of calling Amanda Lino’s fight when she made history in Durban by becoming the first female champion on this continent by submitting Jacqui Trosee. The talent here in Africa is pouring in, Rizlen Zouak from Morocco, Katharyna Araujo from Angola and Bunmi Ojewole from Nigeria are all incredibly exciting athletes who debuted spectacularly in 2017 and promise truly delicious violence in ‘18, so much so that the EFC has 52kg, 57kg and 61kg divisions, with the Bantamweight title in particular bound to be hotly contested this year, while Lino is expected to return to defend her Flyweight strap, possibly against the only fighter ever to defeat her, France’s Isabelle Paré.
That’s all well and good, but there is an elephant in the room about to crack the ceiling and, for the life of me, I can’t understand why more people aren’t confused by it.
In 2015 I wrote a piece about Rousey and the double standard of misogynist fight fans, vociferously critical of female fighters who talk smack or pop hot for WADA while giving their favourite male fighters stupendous leeway for serial infractions. Khabib Nurmagamedov is being hailed as the future of the lightweight division following last weekend's total dismantling of Edson Barboza, so quickly forgotten is his last fight in March from which he withdrew at the last minute due to a botched weight cut. Some would say a pretty similar situation to Amanda Nunes at UFC 213 yet the heaps of scorn and abuse piled on Nunes by male fight "fans" left me truly aghast.
Two days ago, the UFC announced that it has permanently withdrawn the accreditation of a photographer who cast social-media aspersions on the gender of Cris Cyborg, a common shit-fling against female athletes whose physiques may not replicate the Barbie mould of small minds. In its statement, the UFC claimed to be "aware and troubled with the recent statements made by a social-media representative…the UFC does not tolerate the remarks…the individual in question will not be granted access for future events”. Aside from the fact the promotion was distinctly unaware and untroubled until Cyborg herself demanded action, the glaring howler is that UFC president Dana White and star commentator Joe Rogan have ridiculed Cyborg's gender designation in the past, the former saying that Cyborg resembled Wanderlei Silva in a dress while the latter joked she was in possession of a penis (and apologised profusely thereafter). So was the UFC troubled by these horrifically demeaning comments made by men who represent the company at the highest level and therefore banned them too for life? Well not long after his comments White received $360-million following the sale of the UFC to WME-IMG, so I would guess not. More like rewarded. Horrified? Stay with me.
White’s Cyborg/Silva comment is ironic considering how idolised fan favourite "The Axe Murderer" is in the sport of MMA, despite multiple PED infractions. If there’s a fighter more adored around the world than him it would be his namesake and compatriot Anderson Silva, regarded by White as the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, who also boasts multiple litmus lines on his record for repeatedly failed tests. In fact, glance at a roster of the "greatest of all time" in the history of the UFC and you will be hard pushed to find a passed test, lest we forget Brock Lesnar, Stephan Bonner, Donald Cerrone, Vitor Belfort, Royce Gracie, Jon Jones, Cung Le, Lyoto Machida, Frank Mir, Alistair Overeem, BJ Penn, Yoel Romero, Junior Dos Santos, Ken Shamrock, Chael Sonnen and I’d be here all day if I carry on.
And yet. Cris Cyborg tests positive just once, ONCE, for stanozolol more than six years ago fighting for a defunct promotion in San Diego, and she has yet to be forgiven by the majority of men who claim to love the sport around this world. It’s brought up in every social media post, by commentators and journalists, in press conferences, in bout agreements, at weigh-ins, and in a plethora of podcasts, promos and press releases. A career vilified in extremis aeternum. And yet male athletes guilty of far more are idolised and gain entrance to the UFC Hall of Fame. Anyone care to guess why, or is the answer so blindingly obvious it begets further questions regarding the role of women in MMA.
It still trips my mind when copious displays of female flesh parade around the outside of a cage for the predilection of a predominantly male audience. Even the Cyborg and Holms encounter last week was greeted by the ubiquitous gentlemen's club floor show that is de rigueur in combat sports. I’m no prude, but if one seeks arousal by staring at scantily clad bodies please expect it no more between rounds of a professional sporting occasion. There are places to go for that, just not at a televised event seeking sponsorship revenue and global audience figures in the hope of competing with the major sporting codes currently enjoying varying degrees of broadcasting monopolies. Certain levels of violence and sex have never been good flavours in a sport desperately seeking mainstream legitimacy and it boggles the mind that cheap strip shows are expected at other competitive pastimes. Chippendales at dressage anyone? Bouncing boobs and bums at Wimbledon? Blokes in Speedos at the golf? Where would it stop because the concept, once removed from the pathetic catch-all excuse of "tradition", is truly, truly backward.
A couple of times people have asked if I ever bring my child to MMA events, the same daughter who worked damn hard for her Kyokushin green belt. Well no. What parent would, considering the wolf whistles and catcalls female fighters and ring girls are subjected to on a weekly basis while the world is adjudicating their spot-lit shapes and skins draped in minimal attire? I’m bringing her up to aspire to be more than that, and my mother brought me up as a man who expects it's time to stop. My wife and sisters agree with me and I hope you do too. There’ve been a few things in the past that have irked me in this sport, weight-cutting, PED forgiveness, the inclusion of cannabinoids in substance tests, the judging system, smack-talking and a few others. But nothing has lit a fire within me more than this and I’ll admit it’s been a slow burn. Sometimes we don’t question things when they’ve always been that way. Pretty much like many other insidious and entrenched codes of patriarchy.
I understand why a lot of promotions may baulk at my suggestions, I honestly do, because I’m sure the majority of a paying audiences quite likes the female flesh-flash and the financial considerations in the current sports broadcasting environment are crucial. But is your business acumen and quality of fight product so poor that your venture will fail without accompanying tits and ass? I suggest you find a different gig. Neither do commercial pressures unmake moral decency in comfortable public environments for women, nor negate the possiblilty of applying more creative minds to alternative showbiz glam in live events, coupled with empowered employment alternatives for the women employees no longer under a million sexual gazes.
So can I humbly advocate the following: the eradication of the concept of ring girls; zero tolerance of negative and hurtful pronouncements on gender, sexuality and physiques of women in MMA; more women in sports journalism as a whole; and more females in management positions of combat promotions. That’ll do for a start.
Because I’ve often heard it said that MMA is like looking in a mirror of society, an undiluted competition as old as prehistory yet imbued with notions of honour and respect.
Well, martial arts have existed within those virtuous paradigms for over a thousand years and that honour and respect to women is now long overdue. It’s 2018 for crying out loud, let’s get started.