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?

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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