Wednesday, 1 February 2012

MMA - There's nowhere to hide from gender equality.

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece called Fighting Gender Equality in which I pointed out the ways in which MMA tends to exclude, demean or undermine women as participants and spectators.  Today I would like to turn the article on its head, looking at how MMA has the potential and a lot of the building blocks already in place, to help move feminism forward within sports.

via mmacagedoor
via wordpress

I am a feminist and to be honest, I understand that feminism in sport is small fry compared to the fact that chauvinism clouds every aspect of society.  Sport and our attitudes towards athletes will not truly become fair and balanced until society as a whole falls in line with gender equality in a deep way.  I absolutely believe that the priority for feminism is to educate people and change perceptions and prejudices.

I do however, feel sports have a role to play.  Sporting organisations have the chance to create role models and these role models change perceptions.  MMA one of the sports with the best opportunities to change these perceptions.  MMA already has split divisions so that ability is given a chance to shine over sheer size and brute strength, so that MMA is already a sport that seems primed to bridge any physical gaps between genders.  A fight is also a situation where everything hangs out.  If there were any inherent character traits particular to a gender, the ring or cage would be the place to notice.  MMA is a sport surrounded by an atmosphere of machismo and bravado, yet at the same time the ideal endeavour to showcase the equality of men and women.  That juxtaposition emphasises the point.

Below I will talk through three ways in which I feel MMA in uniquely placed as a sport to promote feminism.

Seperated Divisions

In most sports and indeed, most endeavours, where chauvinism is a factor, one of the largest barriers to equality is the "Women are just physically inferior to men" line.  This is a line which tends to lead to some slippery slope of dubious consequences.  The most dubious is the fuzzy assertion that physical differences are proof that feminism itself is flawed.  "You can't say women are equal, they're not as strong as men".

Because women are inferior in some way, the gender cynics say, they cannot be considered the best athletes.  They would never be able to compete with men, they cannot compete for as long as men and they are therefore not as watchable as men and so should not be paid as much as men.  Now MMA is in a unique position to blow this argument out of the water.  The top three fighters in the world, as recognised by most fans and pundits are currently Anderson Silva (185lbs), Georges Saint-Pierre (170lbs) and Jose Aldo (145lbs).  The current heavyweight champion in the sports biggest organisation is Junior Dos Santos, he is well rounded, powerful and weighs around 240lbs.  Out of the four fighters mentioned so far, Dos Santos is clearly the one who would win in a fight.  But it would be patently absurd for him to fight an opponent two thirds of his size and it would be equally absurd to say that he is a better fighter, merely because his strength and size gives him advantage.  No, in mixed martial arts we have weight classes so that people are fighting against others of roughly the same size.

The champs: Clockwise from top left; Anderson Silva,
Georges Saint-Pierre,  Jose Aldo and Miesha Tate.
via mmatrainingworkoutsthebigleadmmamania
Now, there is no reason why women's divisions cannot be viewed in the same way as other weight classes.  It is irrelevant that Miesha Tate (current female bantamweight champion) could not defeat the current male bantamweight champion, they are in different divisions.  There is no reason not to rate Tate highly, provided she displays high levels of skill and defeats stiff competition.  In other sports, female athletes suffer from constant negative comparisons to men.  In MMA, we are accustomed to the fact that people in different divisions are tricky to compare, so women fight other women should not represent lesser competition, just another division.

MMA then, is in a unique position where athletes of both genders could well be considered elite and equatable, regardless of the fact that they won't fight each other.

The Simplicity of a Fight

In a fight there is nowhere that potential gender differences could hide.  Any stereotypes that could prove true would prove true here.  When you watch and compare top male and female MMA bouts, there is no more obvious environment for showing that men and women ought to be treated equally.

If you watch plenty of mixed martial arts bouts you will see that what a fighter is is clearly defined by both female and male fighters.  The problem at the moment is that the majority of fights that even hardcore fans watch are between men, so that men have come to define what a fighter is in their minds.  When (I am being quite optimistic here, yes) female MMA comes to prominence, that part of the definition of a fighter will disappear.  In fact, it is already starting.  At the gym where I train, there is no mention of gender.  Men and women train together and there is no holding back.  Nor is there any particular celebration of this or any patronising of the female fighters, equality is just a matter of fact.

Watch the clip below of Micheal Schiavello (my favourite MMA commentator) calling Sara McMann (my favourite fighter in her division) and you will see that when watching a fight, gender completely goes out the window.  It is hard to watch these athletes compete and think of them as anything other than fighters.

Women Excelling in the Most "Macho" of Endeavours

This is not about women performing well in a male dominated arena or about women proving that they are as good men.  It is the fact that men and women have clearly got equal potential in mixed martial arts and, since it is a sport surrounded by macho bravado, there is an obvious dichotomy that would surely be quickly righted should female MMA become prominent.

Let's be clear.  The truly brilliant mixed martial artist does not exhibit typical macho behaviour.  The macho meat heads are the fighters who get beaten by the hard working, considered and thoughtful artists.  The sport of MMA though, basically boils down to a fight, the most basic and elemental physical competition between two human beings possible.  This is one of those environments that has traditionally been reserved for men.  For one thing, it would be satisfying as a feminist and fight fan for MMA to get its act together.  But I also think that when it is clear that gender is not a relevant factor in whether or not you can be a great fighter of all things, it will be easy argue to gender is not a relevant factor in other endeavours.

Strikeforce, home of the most eagerly anticipated female MMA
bout for some time between Miesha Tate (left) and Ronda
Rousey (right) could be the driving force of equality in MMA
Photos via ultimateapocolypse andSherdog
Now, I do not believe a major MMA organisation is ready to come and call itself feminist, or openly push a 'feminist' agenda.  That is a scary word that might well be a bridge too far for a sport that still has a largely conservative fan base (but they should use it).  However, two organisations in America are already making baby steps in bringing there organisations up to speed.  Bellator and Strikeforce (owned by the UFC parent company Zuffa), the number 2 and number 3 MMA organisations in the US a;ready have some of the best female fighters on their rosters.  Strikeforce will have two women headlining a main card this March and earning some pretty big money while they are at it.  If you are a part of the MMA world you may have some inkling as to why I am not too enthusiastic about Tate vs Rousey as a march towards feminism (expect an article about that later).

The point of this article though, is that it feels inevitable at the moment that as MMA experiences a bit of a push for female fighters and with an organisation in Strikeforce that may well become more and more devoted to housing them, a more equal approach to gender will be unavoidable.  For the reasons outlined in the body of this article, in MMA there is nowhere to hide from gender equality.

So what do you think?  Is women's MMA destined to grow and equality between men and women in the sport inevitable?  Could MMA eventually become a beacon of equality or will it continue to be one of the more divided sports?  Let us know, leave a comment.

Here is a link to a related article: Fighting Gender Inequality


  1. The only way to truly show who is stronger is to have both men and women of similar weight classes fight one another.

  2. Well my point is that whether or not someone is stronger is kind of irrelevant in our sport, we have weight classes to prevent opponents who are unfairly matched physically from fighting each other.

  3. Have you simply ignored science ? Women are simply not made like men-of course they can compete in MMA in a womans division but they will never have a chance at competing against men because science and obvious observation tells you that they do not have the same natural physical strength as men. This is an evolutionary truth and ignorance of it or wish for it o be something else because of feminist insecurity will not change it.

    1. You are the only one who is right over here. These people are obsessing with weight categories without addressing WHY women are in general lighter than men. Men have 40 times the testosterone of women, therefore men carry higher muscle mass and lower body fat. This is plainly obvious in the real world and in any anatomical textbook. Somehow I doubt a woman with 18% bodyfat weighing 135 is the same strength as an 8% bodyfat 135 lbs male.I'm all for women in every kind of sport, but let's not ignore bilogy/reality/facts.

  4. Haha, did you read the blog? I feel like women deserve to be rated highly for fighting well within their division. Just like 125lb men are not physically as strong as 165lb men, but can be considered equally skilled and admirable in fighting, women are just as comparable.

  5. Is there equality between men and women in any other sport (there may be some but I can't think of them)? Even in pool they have to separate into different divisions! As you mention, fighting has great simplicity to it, but it is the last sport I would look for equality in since it's arguably the closest to using all the physical advantages men have over women. Also note that when people argue that Silva or xxx is the best, there is always a caveat--pound for pound best--not straight up best. How would you compare a woman and a man then? It wouldn't be even pound for pound. They have totally different talent pools, too. I don't see how you can make an honest comparison between the two if they can never fight each other.

    Who is to say Silva couldn't beat dos Santos? I agree he would be at a big disadvantage, but it's possible (Fedor beat some monsters over a hundred lbs heavier than him...yes I know this isn't exactly apples to apples comparison). Or, they could drop/gain weight to meet each other in between their current weight classes. But this would never be allowed for women vs man? Seems fundamentally different and I don't think you could ever call it equal.

  6. I thought feminist are against violence. MMA is very violent. If you watch UFC you are promoting violence. Not very smart blog post at all. You don't have to big to win in MMA. The Gracies have dominated the UFC for a while.