When the UFC first decided to add women’s MMA to the Octagon, there were plenty of questions and concerns from fans who didn’t think the world was ready for women fighting at the highest level. Some thought there wasn’t enough talent. Others worried that the quality of fights on the average UFC card would drop considerably. But, more than anything, the thing that everyone wondered most is whether fans would care about the new division at all. The UFC had a bona fide superstar in Ronda Rousey, and she alone was enough to convince the people in charge to pull the trigger and give women a chance in the Octagon. But it was a very real concern that the novelty in Rousey could wear off and, if the rest of the women didn’t do enough to pull their weight in the interim, the idea of women’s MMA at the highest level would be dead in the water.
Knowing what we know now, this all seems ridiculous. Rousey might be the most popular female athlete in the world at this moment, but she could walk away from the sport tomorrow and we wouldn’t see women leaving the Octagon anytime soon. Over the past few years, we’ve seen women in high-profile spots on pay-per-view and network television, and the UFC just aired a season of The Ultimate Fighter that featured a female cast fighting for a title in a brand new women’s division. Obviously the women’s MMA scene is alive and well. But adding these divisions seemed far from a slam dunk when the UFC made that initial decision, and when you look at the state of most female professional sports, it’s not hard to see why.
Outside of maybe tennis, no other sport makes female athletes feel like they’re competing on the same level as the men. The WNBA Finals aren’t getting half of the publicity of their male NBA counterpart, and the LPGA isn’t getting 24-hour Masters coverage in the same way that Tiger Woods and company do on ESPN. Meanwhile, the UFC doesn’t hesitate to put names like Miesha Tate and Carla Esparza on its event posters right next to guys like Anderson Silva and Jon Jones, and that show of support, more than anything, has legitimized the women’s divisions as more than just the Ronda Rousey Show.
However, for all that the UFC’s done to help promote the ladies, the fighters themselves are the ones that have made sure things have stayed interesting as of late. While the biggest men’s fights the UFC has to offer are often accompanied by contrived rivalries and groan-inducing trash talk, the women in the UFC have tended to pull fewer punches in the media and have created a lot of bad blood that feels like anything but an act.
There are a number of big female fights on the horizon between fighters with legitimate beef. And, as with almost everything in women’s MMA at the moment, the spotlight on trash-talking between women has been at its brightest when involving Rousey. After taking a break from verbally sparring with recent opponents since her war of words with Miesha Tate over a year ago (although that didn’t spare Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino and Arianny Celeste from Rousey’s wrath), “Rowdy” is back in the saddle and going after current No. 1 contender Bethe Correia with a vengeance prior to their match-up this summer.
The rivalry between Rousey and Correia is one of the more interesting the UFC has had in quite some time, if only for the sort of pro-wrestling/action movie vibes that have been brought to the table. Correia took out Shayna Baszler and Jessamyn Duke, two of Rousey’s friends and fellow “Four Horsewomen,” in her most recent fights, all while taunting and calling out the champion at every opportunity. Rousey took the losses suffered by her friends to heart and is now seemingly hell-bent on making the young Brazilian pay, promising to embarrass the title challenger in front of her home country this summer. As dominant as Rousey has been throughout her UFC career, especially since she’s now coming off a 14-second victory, the anticipation for a fight between Rousey and the seventh-ranked fighter in her division should be nearly nonexistent, but somehow the champ has made us care anyway.
And while Rousey has been keeping things interesting at 135 pounds, the entire strawweight division seems to be ready to rip each other apart at a moment’s notice. New champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk already has a built-in feud with No. 2-ranked Claudia Gadelha, whom she defeated by close decision last year. Things seemed to get a little heated when the two faced off at the weigh-in the day before a grueling fight. With a punch thrown way after the bell by Gadelha and some biting comments from both women after the bout, it’s safe to say this heated rivalry could spark back up at any time, and it more than likely will, considering their positions in the division right now.
Even outside of the immediate title picture, the rivalries are running deep between fighters in the women’s divisions right now. Paige VanZant and Felice Herrig have been trading shots for months now and had to be separated by UFC President Dana White at a press conference prior to this weekend’s UFC on Fox event. Tate and former opponent Sarah Kaufman have been going at it on Twitter since Tate’s win over Sara McMann last year, and they seem destined to end up fighting again at some point in the near future. And, most impressively, the entire cast of The Ultimate Fighter 20 seemingly found a way to make an enemy or two inside the house, and we’ve watched the drama stretch way beyond the timeframe of the show at this point.
When you look at the other side of the coin and consider the amount of intrigue surrounding major fights involving the men of the UFC, there aren’t many fights that have anything that gets fans excited other than the match-up itself. While the UFC does a great job when the opportunity presents itself and can take a rivalry to new heights, as we saw in last year’s build to Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier and as we’re seeing now as anticipation grows for Jose Aldo vs. Conor McGregor this summer, the company hasn’t had many opportunities to get things going on the promotional side of things as far as rivalries are concerned, and that’s a bit of a problem in combat sports.
There’s a reason Jones and Cormier were featured on ESPN almost daily in the weeks leading up to their fight early this year, just like there’s a reason the UFC is pushing the UFC 189 pay-per-view featuring Aldo and McGregor to the moon even though the promotion has two of its most recognizable champions fighting on the same UFC 187 card two months earlier. A war of words between fighters on a big stage is always going to get the needle moving, and whether it’s completely intentional or if their trash talk just naturally gravitates towards real bad blood, it doesn’t matter. Being able to sell a fight is a skill that every fighter at the highest level needs to have, and if you can’t sell the fight with your skills alone, then it’s not a bad idea to start to do it with your mouth. The women in the UFC seem to get that.