After bursting into the Octagon in February, the UFC women’s bantamweight division is showing no signs of cooling off. Anchored by the dominating presence of Ronda Rousey, this year’s fight calendar is packed with top-10 matchups, while a fresh crop of talent is set to emerge on the co-ed The Ultimate Fighter 18. Couple that with upstart female fight league Invicta FC, which is putting on its sixth show this month, and it’s a good time to be a bad girl…in the cage. Here are 10 female fighters who are bad to the core.
Hometown: Venice, CA
Two years ago, Rousey was a graveyard-shift receptionist at 24-Hour Fitness and a physical therapist to dogs, occasionally over-drafting her checking account for McDonald’s coffee. She was suffering from competitive burnout after winning the bronze medal in judo in the 2008 Olympics. In the last year, she’s quickly built a resume of gold: UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champ, pay-per-view headliner, The Ultimate Fighter coach, and cover girl for ESPN The Magazine: Body Issue.
Replacing Gina Carano as the face of women’s MMA, the undefeated Rousey has turned the armbar into a signature move and become a cash cow for the UFC. A top-five PPV draw after her UFC 157 main-event against Liz Carmouche, she next fights Miesha Tate following their stint as coaches on TUF 18.
Hometown: Broomfield, CO
A regional champ at 125-135 pounds, undefeated Cat Zingano was scheduled to make her big-show debut last year at Strikeforce: Melendez vs. Healy, but the event was canceled. Zuffa, however, kept her contract handy. Six months later, she awoke to a missed call from a Las Vegas-area number. It was UFC president Dana White, who told her she would win a title shot and coaching position opposite Rousey if she beat Miesha Tate at the TUF 17 Finale.
Although lesser-known than her ex-champion counterpart, Zingano grabbed the spotlight in April by smashing Tate with a flurry of knees in the second-ever women’s UFC bout. Unfortunately, a knee injury forced her to withdraw from TUF 18 and her title shot, but she is expected to face the winner of Rousey vs. Tate sometime next year.
Hometown: Yakima, WA
Miesha Tate wrestled on the boys’ team in high school and joined an MMA club in college. She became a fixture of the bantamweight class in Strikeforce, where she posted a 4-1 record before submitting Marloes Coenen to win the promotion’s title.
Her rivalry with Ronda Rousey helped push women’s MMA back to headliner status in March 2012, but unfortunately, the star-making opportunity would again go to her opponent, as Rousey brutally dislocated her elbow with an armbar. Zingano’s injury now gives her another chance at redemption, and she’s set to rematch Rousey in late December after coaching TUF 18.
Hometown: Amsterdam, Netherlands
One of the most experienced female fighters in active competition, Coenen came to national prominence in Strikeforce, where she faltered against the ferocious Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino but came back to armbar Sarah Kaufman to win the Strikeforce Women’s Bantamweight Title.
Coenen, who began training martial arts to guard against attackers during a daily bike ride through a forest in her hometown, had a short title reign, submitting future UFC contender Liz Carmouche but tapping out to Miesha Tate. One of four casualties in a business dispute between her MMA team Golden Glory and Zuffa, Coenen was cut from Strikeforce, but she found a home with Invicta FC, where she’ll get a chance at revenge against Cyborg this month.
Hometown: Curitiba, Brazil
Discovered playing handball by legendary Chute Boxe trainer Rudimar Fedrigo, Christiane Justino was as fierce in the gym as she was on the court. Making her big-show debut in the defunct EliteXC, “Cyborg,” who took her nickname from her now-ex-husband Evangelista Santos, quickly made it clear that opponents couldn’t hang with her relentless output of violence. With a flurry of fists, knees, and ground-and-pound, she obliterated the scant competition in the featherweight division, including the face of women’s MMA, Gina Carano.
After a positive test for steroids that led to her ouster from Strikeforce, Santos spent almost two years on the bench, during which she developed a heated rivalry with Rousey that stoked the fire of a potential blockbuster PPV. It wasn’t to be, as Justino passed on a new UFC contract in favor of a deal with Invicta FC. Cyborg will rematch Marloes Coenen in July, but many believe a showdown with Rousey is inevitable.
Hometown: Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Trading ballet slippers for MMA gloves as a teen, Kaufman proved to be as nimble inside the cage as on the dance floor, mowing down four straight top-tier opponents in Strikeforce—one by epic KO slam—and winning the Strikeforce Women’s Bantamweight Title. She lost the belt to Coenen and became victim No. 9 of Rousey’s armbar, but she was one of the first signed to the UFC when the promotion opened up to women.
Kaufman, who has been working closely with Greg Jackson in recent years, now awaits her Octagon debut.
Hometown: Gaffney, S.C.
A standout wrestler in high school, Sara McMann medaled in three World Championships before winning a spot in the 2004 Olympics, where she became the first American women to win silver as a freestyle competitor.
After a failed bid for the 2008 Olympic team, she switched to MMA in 2011 and won four fights that year. After a brief stint in Invicta, McMann was signed by the UFC and made her debut at UFC 159, where she earned a first-round TKO over Shiela Gaff. With her stellar mat credentials and improving striking game, she’s consistently mentioned as a future contender to Rousey’s crown.
Hometown: Port Colborne, Ontario, Canada
If you want to watch a display of grit and heart, pull up Davis’ fight against Sarah Kaufman at Strikeforce: Tate vs. Rousey. A non-stop flurry of fists, she took everything Kaufman doled out and kept coming forward, blood and all. She lost the fight, but impressed UFC matchmakers after a pair of wins in Invicta. In her UFC debut, Davis defeated Rosi Sexton via unanimous decision.
A black-belt in jiu-jitsu, her nimbleness on the mat and raw heart make her a tough challenge for anyone in the bantamweight class.
Hometown: San Diego, CA
Carmouche put fans on the edge of their seats at UFC 157 when she took Ronda Rousey’s back and cranked the champ’s face so hard she left the fight with bite marks on her forearm. Of course, her surge would be short-lived, as Rousey bucked and found her trademark armbar. But the impression she left wasn’t lost on the UFC.
Carmouche, who’s set to fight newcomer Jessica Andrade at UFC on FOX 8 on July 27, made headlines as a former Marine and openly gay fighter. But at 29 years old, her compelling backstory only complements what’s been a quick rise in the 135-pound division. So far, only champs and former champs have trumped her ground-and-pound skills.
Nickname: Karate Hottie
Hometown: Albuquerque, NM
The former Hooters girl, bikini model, and Wushu practitioner got her intro to MMA through UFC lightweight Donald Cerrone before eventually becoming a regular at Jackson-Winkeljohn’s MMA. After some initial struggles in her MMA transition, the 27-year-old earned her biggest win to date when she bested Jessica Penne to win the Invicta FC Atomweight Championship.
Although the 105-pound champ’s division is probably furthest from inclusion in the UFC’s ranks, Waterson could be a breakout star if Invicta is able to secure a TV deal this year.