Combat sports are violent, unfettered competitions that are often the shortest athletic competitions in professional sports because the physical exertion of both beating another human being into submission while at the same time enduring a similar beating is exhausting. Many people dislike combat sports because they prefer to ignore the competitive and violent side of human nature that is just as critical to our evolutionary success as our collective compassion and civility. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have one without the other?
Among combat sports, mixed martial arts (MMA) is the most aggressive and violent of widely watched competitions. MMA has few rules. You can’t kick an opponent in the groin or the back of the head. You can’t stomp or kick an opponent that is already on the ground. You can’t stick your fingers in any orifices, you can’t headbutt or bite and a few other more obvious forbidden attacks. More notably, fighters are expected and instructed to continue attacking until the referee ends the fight, even if their opponent is defenseless, unconscious, or has otherwise submitted (although most professional fighters are more honorable than this rule allows). As a result, MMA fights are horrifically violent almost always include bloodshed, and often involve one of the combatants losing consciousness either from strikes to the head or strangulation.
Earlier this year, the owner and president of the UFC (the MMA professional league) admitted that approximately 45 percent of MMA fans/viewers are women.
With that introduction, I stumbled upon an interesting footnote today that read, “Ronda Rousey, 2 votes”. This will become significant in a moment.
All professional sports place males and females in different leagues and the two never meet. This is why the Billie Jean King v. Riggs tennis match was such a big deal. It was the first time a professional male and female athlete would compete against one another on an even playing field. And if any of you hadn’t heard, Ms. King beat Mr. Riggs in straight sets.
Sports is an institutional male bastion that has stood apart and unbreached in the feminist war. However, there is significant evidence that the gender gap is quickly closing in professional sports. In 2008, a teenage girl was drafted on a professional baseball team in Japan (where baseball is almost as big as in the U.S.). In 2011, a 16-year old girl won a professional golf tourney by beating 76 male competitors.
The above cited examples are of personal accomplishments by women, what I saw today was much more significant. MMA is a brand new sport without decades or even centuries of institutional gender discrimination. Five years ago MMA was a “bloodsport” too violent for mainstream (despite the fact that time-lost injuries in MMA are less common than in football or boxing). The curious question for me is that if you throw out the 50-100 years of institutional gender discrimination that most professional sports have, how do women get treated?
Answer: The rankings in MMA fighting are done by 20 sports writers who are instructed to rank fighters based on a per-pound ability. For example, there is no question that a 6’4’’ 260 pound monster like Junior Dos Santos would destroy a 135 pound man-boy Dominick Cruz. But judges are asked to assume that if Cruz and Dos Santos were the same weight, who would win the fight? In that scenario, Cruz is ranked higher by some voters than Dos Santos.
This week, and for the first time in history, a woman, Ronda Rousey, received 2 votes among the 20 judges to be ranked in the top 10 MMA fighters in the world. There is no requirement or motivation to do this, she is just so good that the all-male voting block felt she deserves to be named among the best pound-per-pound fighters in the world. Judges voluntarily gave her votes over hundreds of professional male athletes. This is also significant because the undefeated Ronda Rousey has only ever competed against women, suggesting that the entire female MMA sport is reaching professional parity to their male counterparts in the judges’ eyes.
This is not to suggest that MMA should be viewed as a symbol of gender equality. MMA still has pretty girls dancing around in next-to-nothing outfits. Several MMA fighters have made comments on par with Republican politicians concerning rape and women’s rights (although those comments have all been met with severe punishments from the UFC).
Despite this milestone of equality, UFC President, Dana White, still adamantly asserts that there is not enough interest or depth among female fighters to create a woman’s division in the UFC. However, even by his own admission, women are already watching at rates higher than any other professional sport, and the judges are suggesting that there may not be a need to create a woman’s division, but that at least some women should be in the octagon fighting men. And if that happens, then the men should probably be worried.
Should women and men be allowed/encouraged to compete against each other in professional MMA?
Why do more women (percentage-wise) watch MMA than football, basketball, baseball, or Hockey?
Are you, or would you consider becoming an MMA fan?
Update: Shortly after writing this post, the UFC announced an all women’s division for professional fighters. Ms. Rousey is still undefeated, and still receiving votes that rank her among the best hand-to-hand combatants in the world irrespective of gender. In the latest rankings, Ms. Rousey received 9 votes (up from 2) making her the 14th on the list of best professional MMA fighters in the world.