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?