Ronda Rousey hits Liz Carmouche during their 2013 title fight. Photo: Jeff Gross/Getty Images
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Why the UFC is treating its female fighters better than (almost) any other sport

It’s not just the money – Ultimate Fighting Championship has appreciated that women aren’t good fighters considering their gender. They’re simply good fighters.

Ronda Rousey, Olympic bronze medallist, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) bantamweight women’s champion and Pokémon fan, is probably one of the greatest fighters who has ever lived. By way of an example, she finished her last fight in 16 seconds – 16 seconds in which she managed to stun her opponent with a right cross, catch her in a Thai clinch, hit her with a knee, throw her with a flawless harai goshi, and rain down a dozen unanswered punches from a kesa-gatame scarf hold before the referee could step in. Previous title defences have been similar – only one of Rousey’s ten fights has lasted longer than a single five-minute round, and even that outlier ended with her trademark armbar. It’s a string of performances that have led UFC president Dana White to compare her to a prime Mike Tyson, and to CEO Lorenzo Fertitta calling her the “most impressive athlete” in the organisation’s history.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship, the world’s most successful mixed martial arts organisation, is probably not the first place you’d look for gender equality in sport. They still have ring – sorry, *Octagon* – girls, for instance, two of whom have appeared in Playboy. An ad campaign for the twentieth series of the Ultimate Fighter reality series, designed to crown the first strawweight women’s champion, attracted fire for dressing its stars in heels and lipstick, calling them “easy on the eyes and hard on the face” – not an approach that the show has ever taken to male athletes. And, as recently as 2011, UFC president Dana White said that women would “never” fight in the organisation.

But that last part has changed, and fast. A large part of this is down to Rousey, who is a marketing team’s dream – she trains with an intensity that’s rarely seen in the male champs’ behind-the-scenes reels, but happily goofs off with her younger sister between sparring and bagwork. She’s ferocious when she feels slighted – on Twitter and in person – but she’ll happily chat about her love for World of Warcraft and her time as a moderator on a Pokémon forum. She comes out to Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation”. She popped up in The Expendables 3. She asked pro-wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper for permission to use his nickname, and she calls judo legend Gene LeBell – who supposedly once choked Steven Seagal unconscious – her “uncle”.

But more importantly, at least for the UFC’s core fanbase, she, and the women she fights, are every bit the equal of the men, bringing skills and moves to the Octagon that have never been seen before in the rapidly-evolving sport. Rousey, for instance, uses pure judo more successfully than any other fighter ever has, combining throws in sequences that fans delight in breaking down. When she fought Olympic silver-medal wrestler Sarah McMann (in, incidentally, the sport’s first double-Olympian matchup), it wasn’t enough, and so her style evolved to include some of the most painful-looking body shots ever to feature on a highlight reel. Other matches since the women’s division’s inception have featured roughly the same ratio of terrifying high-amplitude slams, clinical knockouts, dramatic submission holds and technical grinders as those seen elsewhere on the card, to much the same crowd reaction. These women aren’t good fighters considering their gender, the majority of fans understand – they’re simply good fighters.

And so, the UFC have responded – fairly admirably, in fact. Unlike, say, Premier League football, they’ve been using female referees in main events since 2009, and somehow managed to avoid any pundits suggesting that paid professionals might not understand the rules. Unlike in tennis, there’s never been any suggestion that women should fight fewer rounds, or for less time, or with more stringent rules in any other sense. And unlike almost every other sport (apart from possibly athletics) the women get respect, pay and visibility on essentially the same terms as the men. Rousey’s first bout – she was awarded the belt before the fight, after winning a title in another organisation – she headlined the card, above former champions Lyoto Machida and Dan Henderson, and she’s been the main or co-main event ever since. She’s reluctant to discuss her final payouts (which include undisclosed locker-room bonuses and pay-per-view (PPV) points), but her last fight made her at least $120,000, putting her ahead of all but a handful of the organisation’s most PPV-friendly men. The UFC even managed to handle a main event with their first openly gay fighter – former marine Liz Carmouche – more respectfully than virtually any other sport has done to date, interviewing Carmouche’s girlfriend in the pre-fight video after president Dana White praised her courage in coming out and voiced his support for gay marriage.

Yes, a lot of this is down to capitalism. And yes, a lot of it is down to Rousey. But it’s a heartening series of events. Because it suggests that, left to their own devices, the XBone-and-Snapchat generation, despite their worst excesses, can appreciate female athletes for the same reasons as their male counterparts. That sports fans, all over the world, will pay the same money to see them. And that, for a huge amount of people, what really counts is an exciting fight, conducted with breathtaking levels of skill and creative violence. So the only real question is: why aren’t any other sports paying attention?

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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