Perceptions of women in sport have come on leaps and bounds over the past few decades. Nowadays, some of the sports industry’s most well-known names are female athletes. The likes of Alex Morgan, Maria Sharapova, Nikki Bella, and Serena Williams have put women’s sport on the map.
While each of the above names’ contributions to their respective sports deserve appreciation and recognition, it’s impossible to overlook Ronda Rousey’s role in developing women’s sport in the 21st century. Rowdy is a pioneer of female MMA, and that’s a title that she should accept with pride. So, let’s take a look at her role in expanding the sport.
White Couldn’t Have Been More Wrong in Saying “Women Will Never Fight in the UFC”
Prior to the Rousey era, women’s MMA was becoming increasingly popular. Promotions like Strikeforce embraced female combat during the mid-2000s, and Chris Cyborg won the company’s first-ever featherweight title after defeating Gina Carino via TKO back in 2006. In 2011, Rowdy debuted for Strikeforce, and expectations were high following her medal-winning success at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The 34-year-old made light work of Sarah D’Alelio, finishing her opponent with a first-round armbar, which later became her signature move.
In the same year that Rousey made her MMA debut, Dana White, the UFC’s president, stated that women would “never” compete in the Nevada-based promotion. In hindsight, the 51-year-old couldn’t have been more wrong concerning his perceptions of female MMA. With Rousey’s emergence coinciding with question marks over female participation in the UFC, White eventually gave into demand, and Rowdy became the first woman to sign with the company in November 2012.
At the time, the organization’s president admitted that Rousey was the only reason that he’d opted to embrace women’s MMA. Had she not been on the scene, or her time in the company been a disappointment, female fights in the UFC may not have lasted. Thankfully, Rowdy made the most of her opportunity. She won her first six fights with the promotion and defended the bantamweight championship on five occasions. Despite suffering two losses at the end of her UFC career, the 34-year-old broke the glass ceiling in becoming the company’s first female champion, and the UFC hasn’t looked back since.
Laying the Foundations for future Women’s MMA Success
Following her in-cage success, Rousey signed with World Wrestling Entertainment in 2014. Although Rowdy was already a well-known name, her stint as a professional wrestler made her a superstar. Now, she’s one of the most-followed female athletes on social media, with a combined Facebook and Twitter following of 15.6 million. Even though the 34-year-old isn’t an MMA champion at the time of writing, her efforts paved the way for Amanda Nunes, Valentina Shevchenko, Zhang Weili, and many others to thrive in the sport.
Rousey, the most-followed female athlete on Instagram with 9.7 million followers, lost to Nunes in her comeback fight in December 2016. After defending the belt, the Brazilian became the first female double champion in the UFC’s history following her knockout victory over Cyborg at UFC 232. Thus far, only four fighters have simultaneously held titles in four divisions. Following UFC 232, Nunes matched Conor McGregor’s, Daniel Cormier’s, and Henry Cejudo’s triumph.
Rowdy laid the foundations for Nunes to achieve history-making success, but her impact on the sport doesn’t stop there. At the time of writing, Weili holds the women’s strawweight title and won the belt following a 42-second stoppage of Jessica Andrade at UFC Fight Night 157. In capturing gold, the 31-year-old became the first Chinese champion in the UFC, which launched her to superstar status. In her first defense, the Hebei-born fighter took part in arguably the best women’s fight of all time, defending her belt in a five-round war with Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Weili will fight Rose Namajunas at UFC 261, and, as of April 1st, she is –188 in MMA betting to retain the strawweight title.
Where Would Women’s MMA Be Without Rousey?
If White is true to his word, women’s MMA wouldn’t have started in 2012 had it not been for Rousey. While female combat sports were beginning to grow, the judoka spearheaded the rise of women’s MMA and made it a mainstream part of televised martial arts. Although her career ended in consecutive defeats, Rowdy’s legacy revolves around being a pioneer for women’s MMA.