Ronda Rousey could be the new face of MMA.
As an old-school fighter who came up in Japan, I started fighting in an era when females weren’t allowed in the gym. That meant girlfriends, friends, and even wives were not allowed in the dojo or in the locker room during fights or training. That was a rule that crossed many cultures. The message was clear: combat was a man’s sport.
At 22 years old, when I began martial arts training, my mentor said something like, “Girls make the legs weak and the heart falsely strong with pride.” It didn’t make a lot of sense at the time, but when in Rome, you just roll with the punches, and that’s what I did. Many years later as a coach and team captain, I didn’t allow women to train with the team or men, fearing that they would lead us astray. It was hardly a ringing endorsement for Women’s MMA at the time, but in 1994, there were only a handful of females in the entire world even competing in mixed martial arts.
There were female athletes who came on the radar—ladies like Lucia Riker and Kathy Brother—but no woman had really cracked into MMA, that is, until Gina Carano came along. Gina brought an exiting fighting style that, when matched with her demur persona and good looks, brought immediate attention to female MMA. She was the girl next door, and fans took notice. Her star power was essential to the growth and success of Strikeforce, and her bouts on Showtime were some of the highest rated in the network’s MMA history. Rightfully so, Gina organically became the face of female MMA, winning many key fights that exposed her to a Hollywood audience.
Now, fast forward to the new female star of MMA, Ronda Rousey. Her credentials as an Olympic bronze medalist in judo and her touching lifestyle and personality are a PR dream…and she can fight.
The whooping she put on Meisha Tate while bending her arm backward was amazing, and she has quickly climbed to the top of the female division. There is no doubt in my mind that Rousey will become a huge star, and holding the 135-pound Strikeforce Women’s Championship Title after only four fights is unbelievable— much like her being the first American female to win a medal in Olympic judo.
I also firmly believe that female MMA is hugely important to the sport of MMA, and it could be the key for this sport to truly be accepted into mainstream communities. While this is not a belief that is shared by the upper brass in the UFC at this time, fortunately for Rousey and other female fighters, Showtime and Strikeforce have made a commitment to the ladies.
In my work as a commentator, it’s been impossible not to notice the difference in the audience when the girls fight. There is something scary, sexy, and dangerous when the females throw down. They seem to tap into a survival instinct that is both raw and vicious. You can feel it in the air. Perhaps it’s something from our distant ancestors’ DNA that screams, “It’s time to fight for your life.”
Whatever that something is, I think it’s the key to the success of this sport. When it becomes okay for young women to compete, you have the kind of acceptance that is part of the American culture. Our martial arts culture in the U.S. is a very young one, and the MMA culture is even younger—its roots having spread in 1993 when the UFC was born. At this time, it’s women like Rousey who can take this sport farther than any man can.
Female warriors are something that stops the mind and makes you think: Why would she do that? What is her story? That’s what we need in MMA right now—someone that connects with every mom in America, every man, boy, and young girl, someone of Olympic standards…someone like Rousey. Only time will tell for this champion. She has a lot of work to do to continue to stay atop the female division, and soon she will face the toughest competitor of all—the call of Hollywood.
As a fan, I sure hope she doesn’t trade in her judo gi for a formal dress anytime soon…she could do a lot for the sport.
Uncaged: The Story of Frank “The Legend” Shamrock by Frank Shamrock and Charles Fleming is the story of a lost boy with a violent past and an uncertain future, who through the study of martial arts was reborn. Frank Shamrock, in jail at 12, in prison at 17, was by age 25 on his way to becoming the most celebrated mixed martial artist of his generation. The book contains a powerful message about survival, enlightenment, and personal triumph.