Fighting isn’t pretty, and great fighters don’t have to be.
First let me start this article by making a few key disclosures:
1. I am not a feminist. Or rather, I don’t identify with much of what is being touted as feminism these days.
2. I am a heterosexual male.
I put up those disclosures because when I discuss this topic on the internet (which is one I happen to be passionate about) often people start asking if I am homosexual. If I am a woman, or a feminist, etc. And no, none of those things are true. Nor should they really be relevant to the topic but that will become clear as I go on.
I started watching the sport that we call MMA at UFC 1. I remember distinctly being excited when the VHS tapes of the current events would seem on the shelves of video stores. I have followed the sport of MMA, and Boxing for many years. I have had a love of the martial arts since childhood. I fell out of touch with MMA and Boxing as other interests took center stage including having a new family, and kids. Growing up my mother was a strong person, and she taught me to seek to uphold true equality on issues of race, gender, etc. So for most of my young life you could have called me in favor of “Women’s rights”. However, my mother also raised me to understand that real equality also means equal responsibility, and that equal opportunity should be directly connected with equal standards. Basically everyone, no matter what their gender or race is, should be given the same chances to excel. But the same chances means the same challenges, with no special treatment.
I remember when women’s Boxing had a bit of a surge with fighters like Laila Ali. She got a lot of attention initially because of who her father was. But she did prove to be a formidable fighter. It was kind of difficult to find women’s fights on television and I was still too busy in life to spend a lot of time watching any sport. As a result while I knew that Laila was fighting I never heard of the woman who many believe is the “GOAT” (Greatest of all time) in women’s boxing. Anne Wolfe. Why? There are many theories I suppose but the one that first sticks out in my mind is that Anne Wolfe is not as classically attractive as Laila. And not as charming so far as personality goes. In other words, not as “marketable”. Personally I have always been of the opinion that money and profit are the enemies of good sport. And money, profit, marketing etc are why I was cheated out of getting to know Anne Wolfe until recently. A champion in no less then four weight classes. 24 Wins, 1 Loss, 1 No contest. 16 wins by knockout.
So now this brings me to the first very critical point of this article.
A fighter does not have to be attractive or marketable to be an excellent fighter. And we as real fans should be activists towards seeing a fighter’s skills and ability be the primary reason they are appreciated as fighters.
Now to be clear, this goes for male fighters too. (You know, true equality?) Roy Nelson for example in the UFC arguably has a lot of problems with management and sponsors because his body image is not chiseled and perfect. I am certain there are many talented fighters out there of BOTH genders that we never hear about because some executive who has likely never even set foot in a gym working for one of the major MMA or Boxing promotions just didn’t see them as marketable. This kind of crap is what leads to champions who look better on paper or in photo shoots than they do in the ring or octagon. And it erodes the quality of competition in MMA and Boxing. I am not a fan of Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos because of her steroid use. But often in comments about her on the internet I see people who are not fans for the wrong reasons. She is not pleasing to the eye. So therefore the fact that she is arguably the most destructive force in Women’s MMA is simply lost in the noise of comments about whether men think she is attractive. If your goal is to compare participants based on their beauty, go become a beauty pageant judge. There are thousands of fighters of both genders who are training and fighting today who you will never hear of because of this, and it’s insulting to those who sweat and toil to seek as close to perfection as is humanly possible in the martial arts.
Just because a fighter is attractive or marketable doesn’t mean that they can’t fight!
Laila Ali had name recognition, and was considered to be beautiful. She was still a very talented and skilled boxer. Was she better than Anne Wolfe? Her accomplishments are not really comparable. But just because she had the advantage of a name and a pretty face doesn’t mean she couldn’t fight. And as sad as this is Laila’s contribution needs to be valued for bringing attention to women’s boxing as a whole. Because truth to be told many people would not of even of known women were boxing professionally if it was not for her. A beautiful and talented girl named Paige VanZant recently won a well deserved “Fight of the Night” award in the UFC. And has consistently shown that she is an excellent fighter with ferocity and clean technique. I rolled my eyes reading facebook comments that talked about her appearance. Not because I am a card-carrying feminist upset that men were objectifying her, but because her beauty is also a curse. Every time she steps into the octagon her true talent will be ignored in favor of her appearance. So this system of looking for fighters that are marketable hurts the marketable fighters as well when it comes to their real legacy never being fully appreciated. People won’t be talking about their hard work in the gym perfecting their technique anywhere near as much as they will be talking about how their bodies looked in their fight shorts. And to me this is just as much of a travesty as ignoring another fighter because they don’t look good in their fight shorts.
Now that said, there is nothing wrong with finding a fighter attractive. And this issue is not solely a male issue either. I have read plenty of comments from female MMA fans who talked about how handsome they feel Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone is. And I am certain there are plenty of female fans who have probably overlooked fighters like Roy Nelson for similar reasons that there are male fans who overlook the contributions of women like Cyborg. Neither is really good for the overall health of the sports in question. Finding someone attractive is natural. Deciding if they are a good fighter based on if they are attractive is stupid. Would you choose a swimsuit model over a doctor to perform your heart surgery?
You likely don’t find most of your favorite fighters attractive anyway…
I think one of my most “eureka” moments in debating this issue was pointing out to a group of male MMA fans that there are entire divisions in the UFC full of people they don’t find attractive, yet they eagerly await the chance to watch their fights. If you are a heterosexual male, that means all but two of the divisions in the UFC. That’s right guys. You already don’t find most of the fighters you watch attractive anyway. Because they are men. Why have you let the media dupe you into missing out on great fighters and great fights because you have allowed yourself to be manipulated into thinking that female fighters have to be attractive? You don’t tune in to GSP, Silva, Weidman, etc because you are looking forward to seeing their butts in those fight shorts. So why is it suddenly a requirement for women? Now seriously, hear me out. I challenge you to look for some of the greatest female MMA fights and look at what is going on in that cage. To be blunt, the girls are bringing it. Not because men can’t bring it, but because they don’t anymore. Women tend to spend far less time leaning on the cage. They spend far less time laying and praying and all the other frustrating crap that has polluted Men’s MMA. I can think of about two fights with female participants in the UFC I have been disappointed or bored by. I can think of dozens of main event or high-profile fights with male participants that absolutely made me want to gouge my eyes out. Jones vs. DC comes to mind as a fight that got so much hype and attention and looking back on it I hated that fight. Going back to Paige VanZant, her “Fight of the Night” bout was on the Fight Pass PRELIMS for Fight Night 57. It wasn’t even on the main card and it was more exciting than any of the fights on the card, including the main event. So do a little homework guys. Off the top of my head I would start with Paige’s fight I just mentioned. Go watch Jessamyn Duke vs. Racquel Pennington on TUF 18, which many people have compared to Stephan Bonnar vs. Forest Griffin. Or -gasp- give some attention to some fights from smaller promotions. Jessica Penne vs. Lisa Ellis from Invicta. (Hell, spend a lot of time watching Invicta while you are at it.)
Final relevant point to this article. The phenomena that is Joanna Jędrzejczyk!
When Joanna got her shot at the UFC Women’s Straw Weight title against Carla Esparza I didn’t know much about the woman who would become my favorite currently active fighter. And as per typical it didn’t take long for people to start trolling on her appearance. The various photo shop images taking her face and comparing it to Gollum from “Lord of the Rings” made their rounds. People hammered on her mercilessly on the internet. Well, then she stepped into the octagon and just as mercilessly hammered on Carla Esparza. I was absolutely blown away by the woman who now even many pro fighters are suggesting might have the best striking not only in women’s MMA, but the best striking in MMA, period. After the absolute crushing of Carla Esparza, and then the brutal destruction of Jessica Penne, who is no slouch herself, I watched as suddenly people started becoming fans of Joanna. Joanna’s is not in my opinion ugly. Playboy wouldn’t be calling her agent to be a centerfold as fast as say Miesha Tate or Paige VanZant. And to be honest that’s probably part of why I like her more than either of those fighters. And every interview of hers I watch I find myself more and more enamored with her. (You know, got to know her as a person?) And I was thrilled when my soon to be 10-year-old daughter who has trained for three years with a dream to fight in the UFC also chose her to be one of her role models. Joanna’s victory was not just a victory on her UFC record. It’s a victory for future women’s MMA stars. The automatically marketable athletes like Ronda Rousey, Gina Carano, Miesha Tate who all contributed to Women’s MMA getting noticed in the same way Laila Ali did for Women’s Boxing did contribute something that is a necessary evil. The fans wouldn’t have even noticed if the first women’s athletes were not also attractive. But the girls are here. And they are bringing it. And I hope the MMA world that my daughter steps into a decade or so from now will be able to recognize her as a fighter first, and a woman second.