After two nasty losses and more than a year out of the spotlight, Ronda Rousey has likely retired from UFC. Once upon a time, this would have been a death knell for women’s MMA in the UFC, but now the UFC’s got an amazing crop of talent ready to get on with the show. Unfortunately, the organization isn’t doing much to help them become stars.
This weekend, in the main event of UFC 213, women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes will attempt to defend her belt against Peruvian kickboxing dynamo Valentina Shevchenko. It’ll be her first defense of the year, after she battered Ronda Rousey into a distant memory at the end of 2016.
A few years ago, it was impossible to imagine what women’s MMA in the UFC would look like without Rousey. After all, she was the reason UFC president Dana White decided to open up a women’s division in 2012. She had everything: a captivating fighting style, a quick tongue, and an aura of take-no-shit invincibility. Rousey’s star rocketed to stratospheric heights, garnering her the sort of mainstream renown even the UFC’s biggest stars from previous generations, guys like Chuck Liddell, Georges St Pierre, and Brock Lesnar, couldn’t manage.
Then, at the end of 2015, Holly Holm knocked Rousey’s teeth loose with a head kick from Southern Hell. In a flash, Rousey’s lights went out, and her star began to fade. She spent most of 2016 out of the public eye, only for Amanda Nunes to spoil her triumphant return by revealing that, nope, Rousey still hadn’t filled in the holes in her striking game. After 48 seconds of flailing around the octagon like a baby deer somebody strapped roller skates to as a cruel prank, Rousey stormed out of the arena and, to hear Dana White tell it afterward, the UFC.
Fortunately, women’s MMA in the UFC isn’t just The Ronda Rousey Show anymore, and it hasn’t been for a while. As of now, there are three women’s divisions in the UFC, with the newest, featherweight (145 lbs), being added earlier this year. Each of those divisions—strawweight (115 lbs) and the original bantamweight (135 lbs) division being the other two—house some phenomenal talent. However, it’s been an astoundingly odd year for the UFC, and women’s divisions definitely haven’t proven immune to great “what the fuck is even happening anymore” plague of 2017.
It starts with star power, or a lack thereof. MMA is a sport focused on individuals, and when somebody like Ronda Rousey emerges from the pack and gets everybody from morning talk shows to the WWE to my dad gabbing, business booms. But even superstars get old, or they lose, or in Conor McGregor’s case, they decide to box Floyd Mayweather, because sure, why not. At the moment, the UFC is lacking stars in men’s and women’s divisions. It has an excellent crop of potential stars on its hands, but it fixates on past successes to a fault. Fighters have to fit molds, or the UFC tosses up its hands in mock frustration before even trying to promote them. Basically, you’ve gotta talk trash and start feuds like McGregor or combine Rousey’s looks, smarts, and dominance. Otherwise, you’re chopped liver.
So now we’ve got Amanda Nunes, the current women’s bantamweight champion. In theory, she’s in a good spot to receive a big promotional push from the UFC, after successfully holding onto a belt that spent the first part of 2016 changing hands like somebody slathered it in pork fat. And to be sure, a main event slot on a big pay-per-view UFC card is nothing to scoff at. At the same time, though, Nunes isn’t being given appearances on mainstream TV or showing up in commercials every 15 seconds. The UFC is not grooming her to be a star, despite the fact that she’s a dynamite knockout artist and the first openly gay champion in UFC history. The UFC paints in broad strokes with its marketing, and those are two very big bullet points.
The problem? Nunes doesn’t have the right look or attitude for the UFC’s marketing machine. Her build is bulky and less traditionally feminine than Rousey’s, and her English, while functional, doesn’t lend itself to quips or talk show banter. While she defends her title in relative mainstream obscurity, non-title holders like Paige VanZant and Michelle Waterson—neither of whom have accomplished as much as Nunes, but both of whom are conventionally attractive and capable on camera—are appearing on Dancing With The Stars and doing cover shoots for ESPN’s special “The Body” issue. Other fighters, like veteran Felice Herrig and ex-bantamweight champ Miesha Tate, have recently called attention to the UFC’s obvious skew toward traditionally feminine fighters.
All that in mind, it becomes less surprising, though no less disappointing, that women’s strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk—a rail-thin lightning bolt who’s one of the UFC’s most dominant fighters, male or female—isn’t a superstar either. She’s defended her belt five times, looking more and more masterful with each outing. She strikes with such speed that it’s mesmerizing, like watching a hummingbird’s wings reduce somebody’s face to paste. Oh, and she’s mad smart and funny, too. But she doesn’t have the UFC’s favorite “it” factor, so she remains popular only among hardcore UFC fans.
The UFC doesn’t love it when fighters self-promote outside the mold, either. Earlier today, for example, strawweight fighter Angela Hill tried to do a casual cosplay of comic book/movie hero Black Panther at the weigh-ins for her upcoming fight. UFC officials stopped her, despite the fact that she made a name for herself by cosplaying when she was in all-women’s league Invicta. They’ve yet to give Hill much of a push in general, even though she’s got an entertaining fighting style, a big personality, and is very good at Twitter.
It would, however, be shortsighted to say the UFC’s promotional double standard is the only thing that’s put women’s divisions in a weird spot. MMA is a sport where the winds of fate have a habit of blowing the best-laid plans off the table and into an active volcano.
For example, let’s quickly run through the recent history of the women’s featherweight division, which the UFC finally deigned to open in 2017 after years of giving perhaps the best female fighter on the planet, Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, the runaround. After christening the division with a title fight that didn’t even involve Cyborg due to regulations and politics, the UFC’s first-ever women’s featherweight champ, Germaine de Randamie, refused to fight Cyborg due to a past banned substance infraction.
This presented a problem, because women’s MMA is still a young and growing sport, and there aren’t many female 145 lb fighters in general—let alone ones capable of challenging Cyborg. Eventually, the UFC stripped de Randamie of her title and arranged a fight between Cyborg and the featherweight champion of all-women’s league Invicta, Megan Anderson. However, Anderson went on to pull out of the fight at the last second, citing “personal issues.”
The UFC then had to scramble to find yet another opponent for Cyborg. That ended up being the (thankfully) always-game Tonya Evinger, who is Invicta’s current 135 lb champ. When Cyborg and Evinger meet in the octagon later this month, it will probably be a solid scrap, but it won’t be the fight it could’ve been—especially given Cyborg’s habit of stampeding over opponents who can’t handle her monstrous athleticism.
While the other two women’s divisions aren’t as thin as featherweight, they’re also lacking in depth because while women’s MMA has existed for years, it only recently broke into the mainstream alongside Ronda Rousey. Compelling match-ups, then, are sometimes hard to come by. Strawweight champion Jedrzejczyk’s next challenger is a fighter who is, in all likelihood, still too green to be challenging for the belt, and Nunes’ title defense this weekend is a rematch of a fight from just one year ago. It’s hard to get novelty-hungry crowds excited about fights like that, despite how interesting this weekend’s rematch stands to be.
Still, I think the future of women’s MMA is bright, with potential stars working their way up the UFC’s ranks and exciting talents like Mackenzie Dern and Heather Hardy (as well as the entire Invicta roster) making noise outside it. Its present, however, is something of a muddle. The UFC wants another Ronda Rousey, but it’s not likely to find one any time soon. In the meantime, it’s failing to make the best of the fighters it does have, asking them to be people they’re not instead of emphasizing what makes them uniquely interesting. The UFC’s women’s divisions will eventually give rise to more popular fighters and become less susceptible to the downsides of MMA’s inherent unpredictability. For now, though, they’re contorted awkwardly, like a fighter trapped in an armbar, unsure of which way they should turn to escape.