COMMENTARY | Mixed martial arts has been dominated by men for much of the sport's existence, and it's easy to see why. Boxing, wrestling, Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu are all combat sports that have long appealed to men. It's not surprising that when those four sports were combined into MMA, men became its core participants.
However, things have changed in the past few years. It began when women such as Tara LaRosa and Miesha Tate went overseas and started competing for organizations like Bodog to make a living. It wasn't easy, but it was a start.
"My first fight was in early 2006, and women's MMA was pretty much nonexistent at that point," Tate said. "Bodog was the first organization, at the time, that embraced women's MMA, but I don't feel like we were given the same treatment as their professional guy fighters were. Nonetheless, it was an opportunity."
Other organizations have stepped up since the days of Bodog. In the United States, Strikeforce and Elite XC led the way by providing opportunities for rising fighters such Cris Cyborg and Gina Carano. Both companies did their best to promote women's MMA, especially when Carano's career took off.
Soon Bellator got into the act with its first women's tournament, which was won by Zoila Gurgel in 2010. The tournament featured several high-level female athletes who produced some outstanding fights.
As women like Carano, Cyborg, and Gurgel produced in the cage, MMA fans across the country began to take notice. It didn't take long before Invicta FC was created in 2012 to give even more women a chance to showcase their talents. The promotion is now planning its sixth show for this July after putting together five outstanding cards in its first year in business.
Finally, the UFC announced that it was creating a women's division last December. It brought over Strikeforce women's champion Ronda Rousey and multiple other bantamweights from both Strikeforce and Invicta. In February 2013, Rousey defended her title against Liz Carmouche in the first women's bout in UFC history. It has since been announced that Rousey and Tate will compete as coaches on "The Ultimate Fighter 18" and fight for the bantamweight title later in the year.
The steady progression towards the UFC has meant everything for women in MMA. They are no longer an afterthought on cards, nor are they treated as poorly as they once were.
The problem is that there are some people out there who are still mistreating women in MMA. For example, multiple fighters, including LaRosa and Jessamyn Duke, recently accused veteran manager Brett Atchley of misconduct. His transgressions range from allegedly pushing Duke's mother to stating that he would have fighters blackballed from Invicta. While Atchley remains innocent until proven guilty, there are plenty of signs that there was misconduct between him and some female fighters. Invicta president Shannon Knapp has since responded to the allegations against Atchley by banning him from all of the promotion's events.
Atchley isn't the only person receiving attention for his alleged poor treatment of women. An Examiner MMA writer was recently accused of misconduct by female fighters Cassie Robb and Stephanie Skinner in an interview with women's MMA writer Jason Adams. The writer denied any wrongdoing, but more women later stepped forward with similar accusations of unprofessional conduct.
It's important to note that both male and female fighters deal with shady promoters, managers and journalists on an everyday basis. Yet the recent accusations made against both men show that there are still differences in the way that women are treated in MMA. Even if they are innocent, I've personally seen improper treatment of women athletes while covering this sport, and it needs to stop.
Fortunately, there are some people out there who are working to make a difference in the lives of women mixed martial artists. Knapp is one example of this. She and her business partner, Janet Martin, put Invicta together to give women a place to compete and make a living. The promotion has gone out of its way to treat fighters well.
"Invicta is the best promotion that I've ever fought for," atomweight Stephanie Frausto said. "They think of everything a fighter needs, and they have it. They get there a week early and make sure everything runs smoothly. They know what they are doing. Like even the hair-braiding, that's the most stressful a girl who's fighting for other promotions has to do. Other promotions don't provide that, and Invicta does."
Invicta isn't alone in its treatment of women fighters. There are managers out there who do more than maintain their professionalism; they work hard for their athletes. One such manager is Hector Castro. His company, Empire Sports Marketing, focuses on building its athletes' careers outside the cage. Castro's work with his female fighters is becoming well-known. One of his current fighters, UFC bantameweight Sarah McMann praised Castro's efforts:
"Hector works on my sponsorship deals," McMann said. "He's an extremely hard-worker; he has great honesty and integrity. He tries to tell you what he thinks he can do, and what he's working on. He communicates with you on what you can expect, and he follows through with it. That's such an asset in the MMA world where people will take money from you, mistreat you, hang you out to dry, or make a bunch of promises and not follow through with them. It's nice to be able to take someone at their word and know that they are working as hard as they can for every person they are working for."
Castro is one of many managers who has stepped up to help his clients in MMA. It doesn't matter what a fighter's gender or background is. Castro's company does its job to promote its fighters.
There are other groups involved with furthering women's MMA as well. One example is Apocalypse MMA, which is a clothing company that was started to fund a petition for women to be allowed to compete in the UFC. Now that the UFC has started its own bantamweight division, Apocalpyse MMA has turned its attention towards helping women fighters promote themselves.
"We decided to do free website design because we were looking for a way we could give back to the women's MMA community," Apocalypse MMA president Roger O'Brian said. "Not everyone has access or can afford to hire a web design company. We have the talent, knowhow and resources, so why not use it in a way that can help further someone's career?
"Our free web design program helps the female athlete market themselves better, build up their fan base on social media and helps keep their fans informed on their career, training, etc," O'Brian continued. "It also allows the athlete to monetize their own website by having an extra place where they can sell their own apparel and ad space."
Apocalypse MMA has created over 100 websites for female athletes, including Tate, McMann and Gurgel, and the company hopes to one day sign up over 1,000 fighters. O'Brian's clients have been impressed with the work done thus far.
"Not only did they re-design it (her website), they re-created a whole new website for me that is better than anything that I've ever had before, and I love it," Tate said.
Fellow female fighter Tecia Torres also had kind words for Apocalypse MMA.
"They helped me set up and run a website for me," Torres said. "They are very professional and down-to-earth. Easily accessible and there to help step-by-step."
Invicta, Apocalypse MMA, and Hector Castro are just three of the many groups and individuals who are making a difference. They are the ones who working to help women earn the same opportunities that men have earned in this sport.
Hopefully, their efforts will pay off, and one day we'll stop talking about the people who mistreat female athletes. The time has come for both women and men to be recognized for their accomplishments in the cage regardless of their gender.
- Mixed Martial Arts
- Sports & Recreation