Women's MMA is currently enjoying an explosion in popularity and growth. Largely thanks to the dominant reign of Ronda Rousey, we've come a long way since Dana White declared women would never have a place in the UFC.
Now, women are some of the biggest draws for the promotion. With the long-awaited debut of Cris Cyborg at UFC 198 in Curitiba, Brazil, women's MMA has finally stepped confidently into the spotlight of a sport formally dominated by men.
For a while, Rousey has dominated the discussion about women's MMA. Whether you love or hate her, "Rowdy" and her contribution to the explosion of the sport can never be overlooked. Tirelessly working her ass off for the company, not just inside the Octagon, but also within the media, Rousey opened both women's MMA and the entire sport itself to a wider audience. While the female competitors within the UFC were largely unknown, bar the likes of Miesha Tate, that was soon to change as the divisions started to flesh out and produce fan favorites.
Holly Holm was the first to trigger this effect, stepping into the world of MMA from largely a boxing background. Seemingly fast tracked to a title shot, many hadn't heard of the "Preacher's Daughter" and simply wrote her off due to the reputation of the ferocious Rousey. When Holm dismantled Rousey in a dominant two-round display, the world stopped and paid attention to the UFC and in particular women's MMA. It was now time for the UFC to give the women fighters their shot to show the world just how incredible these athletes truly are, and boy did they.
Tate, a fan favorite, was granted the first title shot against the new queen in Holm. Committing to the decision to bolster the reputation of the women in the promotion, White decided to put Holm vs. Tate on the same card as the company's biggest star, Conor McGregor, at UFC 196. Even better, the ladies weren't just on the card, they were the co-main event. In an incredible five-round battle, the guts and raw determination of these two fighters were put on display for the world to see, which was best emulated in Holm's refusal to tap for a submission and instead being put to sleep. The women had repaid the UFC for their faith, and the fans loved them for it.
Then came the introduction of arguably the biggest name to ever take part in women's MMA, Cris Cyborg. Making her debut at UFC 198, the most feared woman on the planet put on one hell of a show. Roughly 45,000 Brazilian fans packed into the Arena da Baixada and although the main event was a tantalizing championship heavyweight clash between native Werdum and Miocic, most of the pre-event talk was about Cyborg. Dismantling Leslie Smith inside the first round, Cyborg further confirmed that women's MMA was not to be taken lightly and could stage devastating bouts just as well as the best of the men.
Of course, the only problem the UFC had was opening the world of women's mixed martial arts to the wider public. Rousey had already done a stellar job through her work with the media and cameos in films such as the Fast & Furious franchise, but there was still work to be done.
Step up the beautiful and insanely talented Paige VanZant.
At the tender age of 21, VanZant lost her last fight against Rose Namajunas in a grueling bout that finished just shy of the fifth and final round via a rear-naked choke. Although VanZant took a hell of a beating from Namajunas, her perseverance, determination and sheer will to compete led to a win-win for the UFC. A superstar had been born, even in her loss. Already commanding an exclusive deal with Reebok, VanZant proved that not only could the women of the UFC dish out some serious punishment in the cage, but they could also withstand it.
Following her loss, VanZant was approached by ABC's Dancing With The Stars, an opportunity that would allow her to become a household name in America and open up the world of the UFC and MMA to millions. As she always seems to do, VanZant took the opportunity in stride, scoring multiple perfect rounds and now looking set to be the favorite to the competition. What's even better is that VanZant hasn't shied away from her background as a fighter. Instead she has embraced and is now inspiring millions of young girls to follow in her footsteps, much like the entire roster now is.
Of course, it's not just the UFC that have put women's MMA on the map. Angela Lee became the inaugural ONE Championship atomweight champion in a fight against Mei “V.V” Yamaguchi which is being hailed as one of the best MMA fights of all time, and rightly so.
If the idea that women's mixed martial arts needed an advert to persuade a pundit, then this was and is the fight to watch. From devastating stand-up game, to deep submission attempts, and even more impressive submission escapes, Lee and Yamaguchi put on a fight that surely will be seen as fight of the year.
The world of women's MMA is currently enjoying an incredible time in the limelight. Above is only a sample of the divisions and fighters. A mere highlight reel, if you will.
The UFC currently has numerous rising stars, as do all the promotions. If you're a fan of mixed martial arts or just sports entertainment and haven't checked out any female MMA fights yet, I strongly suggest you do.