In November 2015 at (the then) Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, Holly Holm knocked out Ronda Rousey in front of over 56,000 fans to become the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) women’s bantamweight champion.
The moment was significant because it was (and still is) the largest crowd to attend a UFC event, with Holly Holm able to defy the odds of her heavy underdog tag. It was most significant however, because two women were the undisputed sporting draw-cards at a large international sporting event.
Standing Alone, Proudly
The UFC had its first-ever women’s fight in 2013, which was 21 years after its first men’s UFC fight. This is far too long a period of time – however, such a time frame compares favourably to other sporting codes. For example, VFLW did not commence until 1981, some 104 years since the introduction of the VFA.
What makes the UFC an unlikely leader for gender equality in the sporting arena is that since 2013, men’s and women’s competitions occur on the same fight cards for televised events. This means that men and women both have the opportunity for top-billing and the same platform for viewership. When Holly Holm and Ronda Rousey met in the octagon, there was no doubt as to who the fans were there to see.
This refreshing willingness of a sporting promotion to promote female athletes as draw-cards in their own right, and not a warm-up act or an afterthought, is a significant step in the right direction to achieving greater exposure and growing participation of women in the sport.
The UFC is not without its issues however and much work needs to be done to improve the proportion of women’s fights on fight cards, as well as other serious gender inequality issues including domestic violence, lower salaries and sponsorship deals, and the use of ‘octagon girls’.
Equality in the Octagon and Out of It
Looking forward, the growth of female athlete representation and exposure in the UFC will hopefully lead to an increased prevalence of female coaches, commentators, referees, judges and doctors in the wider-Mixed Martial Arts community. Ultimately, this will also hopefully lead to an increase in the organisational gender diversity within the UFC, including greater representation at the top-end. If female athletes in the UFC continue to be afforded the opportunities they deserve, so too should females across all positions throughout the organisation.
This July 2019, Holly Holm will once again (and once again as underdog) try to become the UFC women’s bantamweight champion by beating raging favourite Amanda Nunes in Las Vegas. The fight is a co-main event on a fight card stacked with male fights, and is once again, the fight to watch. The sport continues to grow and one day in the near future we should be aspiring to tune in to see a female president of the UFC wrapping the championship belt around the newly-crowned women’s champion.