Women in Mixed Martial Arts: Fighting for Equality Part I

Revisiting my Favorite Posts

A conversation about the state of women in the sport of mixed martial arts should begin with a glance back at two combative sports with a long history: boxing and wrestling.  Although women's boxing first appeared in the Olympic games as a demonstration in 1904, it really took the entire 20th Century for it to gain acceptance within the athletic community.    Despite strong social stereotypes and traditional points of views on the role women should have within our society, female fighters have been given several venues to showcase their skills, but lacked a fan base.   Although organizations like The Swedish Amateur Boxing Association and The National Wrestling Alliance provided opportunities to see women part-take in the combative sports,  a couple of women are worth mentioning that served as pioneers.


Barbara Buttrick in 1948

Boxer Barbara Buttrick, "The Mighty Atom of the Ring" and wrestler, Mary Lillian Ellison, 'The Fabulous Moolah' made their combative ambitions known in 1950s.  Buttrick, an English born fighter that stood 4'11 and 98 pounds, had a left jab with knock-out power.  She received notoriety in several European publications and was considered quite formidable.  Buttrick eventually landed herself in Miami's famous 5th Street Gym where she finished out her career, but saw so many of her desires suppressed.  Ellison, an American born wrestler, stood 5'6, and met her opponent with her signature move  'the Backbreaker. '  She appeared in any type of venue she could, mostly entertainment in purpose and remained as the reigning women's wrestling champion for 27 years..


Barbara Buttrick in a boxing match.

It wIt wasn't until 1972, that women were given a little help to emancipate their athletic ambitions. Title IX, the Educational Amendment Act, stated "federal money could not be given to public schools that discriminated against girls."  This forced schools to have equal sports for women as men, along with scholarship funds and equipment.  Many believe that it was Title IX that marked the beginning of the era of women in modern sports.  Although the fighting sports were not financially supported by this piece of legislation, they were impacted by its liberating purpose.  Title IX helped to level out the playing field for all women that aspired to participate in sports or have athletic careers.

The birth of women in mixed martial arts in many ways came from the increased opportunity for women to just simply play.  Mainstream sports like basketball, soccer, track and field and hockey initiated women's interest level in sports and cultivated their aspirations to take on the combative and martial sports.

The number of women expanding their ambition to do more than just punch and kick the pads, has increased the number of women's bouts on smaller fight cards each month.  In fact, organizations like Bogodog, Elite XC and Femme Fatal are specifically devoted events to women's MMA.  There are over 1000 women in the Fightergirls.com database which featured female MMA players, but Gina Carano has been thrusted into the forefront as the face for Women's MMA.  Carano, who has about 2 years in MMA and a record of 5 and 0, is a highly skilled and accomplished Muay Thai fighter (12-1-1).  Carano seems to be the perfect face for women in MMA, she portrays the perfect combination of legitimate skill, camera savvy and an audible presence.  Recently, Carano made an appearance on HDNets's Inside MMA, along side Mr. and Mrs. Randy Couture.  Hosts Bas Rutten and Kenny Rice briefly breached the subject of women in the sport.  Karo Parisyan  (18-4, 'The Heat' ) expressed that, "the cage is not for women...Please, Gina Carano is a very beautiful girl, I don t know why she wants to mess that face up.  For me personally, I don't want to see any girl get in the cage and fight.  Can't there just be one thing that guys do and they don't... Not MMA please!... It is too brutal for women... I love women so much I don't want to see them get hurt."  Carano observed Parisyan's comments with a graceful smile and rebutted with a smirk and some wit, "You guys can pee standing up, so you can have that one thing, but you can not have fighting all to yourselves."  Host Rice then threw the subject on none other than Captain American, Randy Couture himself who eloquently said,  "I know plenty of female wrestlers that are pursuing their Olympic aspirations and I think the combative sports is a great outlet and I don't care what their sex is, it doesn't matter."

Although many of the smaller shows have been giving women an opportunity to showcase their skills, organizations like the UFC prefer to keep their fight cards all men.  Dana White, President of the UFC has gone on record on several occasions, explaining that he isn't a fan of women's fighting at all and does not see them as part of the UFC  any time soon.  On the other hand, the IFL's new V.P. Bas Rutten feels the opposite, "Women should absolutely be able to fight in MMA, they are in every other sport, why not MMA.  Gina Carano's fight at the Elite XC stole the show, it was one of the best, if not the best fight of the night."  Despite her recent loss against Cyborg, a Brazilian MMA fighter, Cyborg admits that she doesn't mind that Carano is the face of women's MMA.

The Mixed Martial Arts community is no more unified on their thoughts about women in the sport, as the mainstream athletic community is on their overall views of mixed martial arts and full contact fighting . This sentiment however does not seem to concern women who have devoted their career to the combat sports.  "I do not expect men to embrace women in MMA right away, there has always been apprehension in accepting women in any of the male dominated sports,"  expresses Erin Webb, the News Editor of Fightergirls.com and kickboxer (6-3).and met her opponent with her signature move  'the Backbreaker. '  She appeared in any type of venue she could, mostly entertainment in purpose and remained as the reigning women's wrestling champion for 27 years.


Erin Webb 

Lightweight MMA fighter Jeff Curran (29-9-1) and co-owner  of the X-treme
Fighting Championship (XFO) admits that he doesn't enjoy seeing a woman's face
get bloodied, "but fighting isn't good for anyone to do...But I don't like to see
any pretty face bleeding.   I am pretty myself and I do not want my face
to bleed either."  Although Curran gives a valid, yet witty point of view
on this topic, he believes that, " women fight their butt off...I do love
watching it the same as other fights.  I love Carano, LaRosa and
Howe.  I have even had a woman's bouts on my card, it was great! ... I would
have more, but there are not enough women's bouts to go around and I am a
smaller show.  I welcome more women's bouts on the XFO shows... Women should
have a place in MMA."

Despite the ping pong
discussion surrounding this subject, women like Erin Webb (News Editor www.fightergirls.com
and stand-up fighter, 6-3) does not seem to be too bothered by those who do not
support women in the sport.  Like so many women in the combat sports, Webb
found her way into the ring through Title IX's legislation that added team
varsity sports at her high school.  After transitioning from softball and
soccer to Muay Thai, Webb started to learn the skill of shaking off sexist
comments.  "It is going to be a slow change - getting the non-supporters
to be behind women in MMA .  My feelings don't really get hurt by the
initial reaction of a lot of men.  I want them to be open-minded and
accept us in the sport.  But as women fighters, it is our responsibility
to be technical.  We are also more marketable...  Women have always had
to take extra steps to be accepted in many professions and sports... that's
okay," explains Webb.   Debi Purcell, Coach of the IFL's Condors and
MMA fighter (4-1-0), has a simpler outlook on the issue, "
some men, it [Women in MMA] threatens their manhood." 


Debi Purcell throwing power,low round.


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  • Trying to find a boxing class (with bags and gloves) for fitness but not fighting. Know of anything like that in Chicago - preferably where it's not all men? I used to do it when I lived in Connecticut but am not sure where to look out here. Still have my gloves but had to give away the bag.

  • In reply to JulieWernau:

    Check out POW if you're in the city of Chicago. In the northern burbs, I'd recommend Wrecking Ball in Volo. There is some sparring at WB, but it is light contact.

  • In reply to JulieWernau:

    GO TIME in the south loop is a great gym for mma, with free group boxing classes when you become a member. Check it out with a free week of membership, 312.433.2333!

  • In reply to JulieWernau:

    Title IX WAS huge for girl's sports, and it is finally starting to make its' impact felt in the more "manly" sports. Our junior (6-14 year old) wrestling club has several girls now, and they are forces to be reckoned with. Having them in the room brings up the level of competition amongst all the kids!

    4 of our girls went on to be state champs (1st-3rd place in state at their respective weights) this season, and two are on their way to the Nationals next weekend. The finals was full of girls from high schools and colleges with some serious skills and 110% determination.

    These girls are the future of Women's MMA, and we owe it to them to support their efforts by supporting the efforts of their predecessors, the women who currently fight in amateur and pro MMA bouts. If we can make womens bouts mainstream, there will be somewhere for these future champions to go after college.

    There is a catch-22 situation in place right now in MMA, where the girls fights don't get televised, which deprives women of the exposure to role models that would guide them into MMA, either as fans or as fighters.

    We need to make some noise to the big MMA promotions (UFC, Bellator) to include womens fights, and, more importantly, we need to support our local fight promotions that feature women on the fight card.

    In fact, there is a great match coming up on May 13, 2011 at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, which features both men's and women's bouts at a very affordable price. More information can be found on Twitter by searching #EqualFights or #WomensMMA.

    We also need to encourage girls to get involved in wrestling at an early age. They will build a ton of self-confidence, get in great shape and learn skills that will keep them safe through the difficult transition to adulthood.

    If we succeed in adding "confident" and "assertive" to the definition of "girly", we will have done our society a great service, and set the course for the future of women's MMA at the same time.

    More at http://open.salon.com/blog/sprawl_n_brawl


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