Key to Success for Women’s MMA is Beauty, Not Brawn

Lack of depth plays a part, but perceived attractiveness at the heart of the matter

There has been a lot of talk about the fate of women’s MMA following the acquisition of Strikeforce by UFC parent company Zuffa back in March. Fans, pundits and personalities have lined up on both sides of the fence, arguing about whether or not the female divisions are capable of surviving on the big stage.

The most common point of argument is the depth of talent within the women’s ranks.

UFC President Dana White has routinely expressed concerns that the shallow state of the female divisions makes them difficult to operate. He’s admitted that there are a few fights per year capable of capturing fan attention, but on the whole, the fact that only three or four fighters are at the level to challenge for championships has him against bringing female fighters into the UFC at this time.

Staunch supporters of women’s MMA see this as bias and sexist, among other things. They feel White is being unfair to the elite female fighters and oblivious to the talent that exists across the women’s ranks.

I don’t particularly understand this argument since fighters with fewer than ten professional fights are commonly in the top ten of most women’s rankings, which would seem to validate White’s point. So does the fact that the best female fighter on the planet — Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos — hasn’t been able to find an opponent in over a year.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a future for women’s MMA, however.

Over recent months, Strikeforce has continued filling their female ranks with experienced fighters and up-and-coming talents. Each of the last two Challengers events featured quality female match-ups and the August 12 installment of the series will as well, when former US Olympian Ronda Rousey makes her promotional debut against Sarah D’Alelio.

These are encouraging steps for those who want to see women’s MMA continue to grow. Given time to develop and regular opportunities, the depth of the female ranks should swell in the coming years and reach a point where there are more than three or four top-end options.

For whatever reason, however, both sides of the debate seem to be staying away from one of the key components that can help bring women’s MMA further attention.

Let me say this: I don’t make the rules. I don’t agree with the reality I’m about to present, but this is the world we live in. What you see is what you get, and this is the picture I’ve seen over the last two years.

Women’s MMA is lacking a highly marketable star.

If the world was fair, fighters like Cyborg, Marloes Coenen and Sarah Kaufman would be household names and held up as the faces of women’s MMA. They are not, they never have been, and they might not ever be. That’s a shame, but it’s also the truth. While each is tremendously talented, none of the three fit the criteria most male fight fans hold up as the important characteristic required of female fighters.

It doesn’t matter that Cyborg has smashed ten straight opponents, six of them on North American soil and North American television. Kaufman’s precision boxing and splendid takedown defense displayed Friday night in her victory over Liz Carmouche doesn’t carry much weight. Coenen’s decade in the sport and standing as champion isn’t what matters to most fans.

They’re fighters through-and-through, but that’s not what a predominantly male audience wants from female fighters. To put it bluntly, they’re not sexy enough for most male fans to pay attention.

Like I said — I don’t agree with the reality. But it is what it is.

When female fighters got a big push a couple years ago, Gina Carano was at the forefront. The former American Gladiator was billed as “The Face of Women’s MMA” and still is today, despite the fact that her face was bruised and battered by Cyborg when they met two years ago.

Since that time, Carano has departed the cage in favor of Hollywood sound stages. She makes her Hollywood debut as a female Jason Bourne in Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. The film is due in January.

Despite a two-year hiatus, her appearance at a Strikeforce broadcast to announce her pending return to the cage and a move from Xtreme Couture to Greg Jackson’s gym got more attention than any of the in-cage action that has happened in the sport while she was away. That speaks volumes about what motivates males to pay attention to women’s MMA.

Magazines routinely run features on females involved in the sport, but they’re always more about the pictures than the prose. A three-page write-up on Kaufman’s transition from dancer to dominant force in the cage doesn’t move as many issues as an elementary Q&A paired with a collection of “here’s me in my lingerie in the middle of the desert” photos.

Sex sells — always has, always will — and it applies to MMA as well.

I understand that, but it never seems to be put forth as one of the reasons why WMMA has faded into the background after being in the spotlight two years ago. It’s the giant pink elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge, and it makes no sense to me.

Our society is rife with distinctions based on attractiveness, so why would MMA be any different? It’s the reason Steve Buscemi and Anna Kendrick are critically acclaimed actors and Ryan Reynolds and Megan Fox are movie stars who grace the covers of countless magazines.

Miesha Tate

What’s even more interesting is that while people have asked if Tate will step into the shoes vacated by Carano this weekend with a win over Coenen, no one seems to be asking why Cyborg, Kaufman or Coenen herself haven’t already been given the same kind of push.

All three are more accomplished in the cage than Tate — and Carano as well, for that matter — and yet no one has lobbied for any of the three to ascend to the mantle Carano abandoned.

It’s frustrating but it’s true: the pretty people get more attention, even when looks aren’t a legitimate part of the equation. But since we all know this — and begrudgingly accept it — shouldn’t we acknowledge it?

A win for Tate on Saturday night will help bolster the attention women’s MMA receives. So would a return by Carano. For better or worse, the reason women’s MMA has slipped from the spotlight in recent years is because there hasn’t been an athlete marketing execs and male audiences have drooled over.

It’s not fair. It’s not right. But it’s the truth.

Someone had to say it. It might as well be me.