Guest Post: Fighting for Equality

by Nate Curtis

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.

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9 Responses

  1. Nate Curtis says:

    Also important to note, that a friend sent an unsolicited email a few days ago informing me of her sister’s experience at an all-women’s MMA party where women were gathering with the main purpose being to watch professional MMA fights on pay-per-view.

    The friend is a regular blogger here, so I will let her elaborate if she so chooses.

  2. Diane says:

    I don’t consider MMA or Boxing for that matter to be a sport. I find it odd, if not ironic that inside a little square box and some red rope it legal to beat the living snot out of someone and call it sport, yet, outside of the square ring and red rope its’ called assault.

    • Nate Curtis says:

      Diane – Your comment goes to the age-old question of consent. If two intelligent, competent, and free adults agree to fight, or do anything that doesn’t harm others that are not participating, why should they be prevented from doing so?

      MMA fighters do not view their matches as “fights” but as competitions where strategy, technique, speed, and strength are all used to try and score points in order to win. The competitive mentality they enter the Octagon with is virtually identical to a professional gymnasts, skiers, or dancers who are also judged for their performance against others.

      Would you advocate for laws that prevent consensual adults from participating in any activity you don’t believe is constructive or beneficial to society at large?

      • Diane says:

        “The competitive mentality they enter the Octagon with is virtually identical to a professional gymnasts, skiers, or dancers who are also judged for their performance against others.”

        I have to seriously disagree with you on this point. While MMA/Boxer put in an extraordinary amount of time training, the same as a gymnast, the same as a skier the point system is vastly different. The scoring in MMA/Boxing directly linked to how many punches and kicks thrown at the opponent. The one who has the most kicks/ punches and,or TKO is considered the winner.

        By Contrast, gymnast train and are judged by the difficulty and the competency of of the routine(tricks) performed. So, while they are competing against someone, ultimately it is themselves that they are trying to beat. The same with skiers, the same with dancers. They are not going head to head to someone with the specific intent to beat them up and do physical harm to someone.

        That in a nutshell lies the difference between the two difference sporting arenas, and since you brought it up their are safety regulations in place for these sports as well, but, the difference lies within each individual competitor, not competitor vrs competitor which what MMA/Boxers do.

        There are lots of things in today’s society that people engage in that would appear to do no harm, but, in retrospect, someone almost always does get hurt. I would argue with you that Mohamed Ali family is hurting because of his debilitating disease that he currently suffering from. Now,you might say he did this as a consenting adult, yet his family is the one who has to pay for his decision. His grand children get to see a shell of the man he once was, his adult family members are ones forced to care for him 24 hours a day.

        Personally, (And I do know that this is a personal feeling) I don’t think there’s any difference between MMA /Boxing in a ring(octagon) its just that one is sanctions and has governing bodies and the other is not, but, it doesn’t make it any more right

  3. Emily U says:

    Very interesting questions. I’m quite surprised to hear that more women, percentage-wise watch MMA than football, etc. I don’t watch it so I can only guess at the reasons. Maybe because a well-toned upper body is sexy? Do lots of women watch boxing? If a lot more women watch MMA than boxing that throws out the sexy arms guess, so it must be something about the blood-sport nature of MMA. Which I really don’t get the appeal of.

    I would be extremely uncomfortable watching a woman and a man compete in a professional fight. I know it’s not the same thing as violence against women, but it would just look too similar for me to be able to tolerate watching it. But good for Ms. Rousey for being recognized as one of the best. Fortunately she doesn’t have to actually fight a man to get that recognition, the same way they wouldn’t make Cruz fight Santos to prove that Cruz is that good.

  4. April says:

    I don’t get excited about men or women participating in this sport because of its high risk for traumatic brain injury, but I do think it is great that men and women are able to compete based on size and weight, thus leveling the playing field.

  5. Gillian says:

    My husband was very into martial arts as a teenager and has been a long time fan of MMA and the UFC. When we were first married I felt like the sport was too violent and I didn’t want to watch it or want him to watch it. However – over the years my viewpoint has shifted and I would probably have to admit that I am a bit of a fan. The kind of fan that wants to watch the main event, especially if it is George St. Pierre !

    So what is the appeal?For one, it is downright interesting and exciting- way more interesting that boxing – where it seems to me you just have 2 guys standing up and punching each other. There is a lot more strategy in MMA – 2 combatants with different strengths and fighting backgrounds coming together. You get more of a back story on their training and family and that makes the fight so interesting. Also they train so hard – they definitally are elite athletes. And I will confess it is a turn on to watch 2 very muscular guys wrestling. Also – it is short – I don’t have the kind of time necessary to be a fan of other sports.

    The sport is violent – and the recent fight this past weekend was the bloodiest I had ever seen. And people do get hurt. The fighters are bruised and injured after. When I see that I think how different it is than in Hollywood movies where the characters fight and fight and fight and no one really gets hurt. MMA dispenses with that idea.

    I would love to see women fight women. Not sure if I could handle man vs woman though if it did happen, I know who I would be cheering for.

    • EmilyCC says:

      Gillian, thanks for your perspective. Your point of view makes me tempted to watch MMA again. I think the point about Hollywood is a really good one.

      Maybe I’ll try and watch another fight with you, Nate 🙂

  6. CG says:

    I used to study MMA. I never competed, but I trained. My husband was a professional fighter for about a decade before we met, fighting at a K-1 level, as well. It is a bloody sport. It is raw, brutal, and strenuous- even for the viewer. I see MMA fighting as one of the truest sports. There are no balls to throw or kick or shoot, no weapons, no instruments, no tools other than your very own body. That is true skill, true intensity, true sport. There are no teammates to pick up the slack, and you have no protection other than your own defensive abilities. I agree with Gillian that so many people are unaware of what happens in a real fight, thanks to Hollywood’s unrealistic depiction of human-on-human violence. As a society, we have become pretty desensitized to violence, but that doesn’t mean we should shy away from it- neither women nor men. I think it means that, as women especially, we should toughen up and learn to fight. Otherwise, we become victims. I applaud the tough women- the fighters- who step up into the ring. Whether for fun or for survival.

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