Women’s MMA, or WMMA, is a topic of much discussion in the MMA world. In fact, it has been a rather hot topic in recent weeks since Zuffa, LLC., the parent company of the UFC, purchased the undisputed number one promotion in terms of WMMA: Strikeforce. Zuffa and the UFC also happen to be run by one of the most anti-WMMA figures in the sport, Dana White, and while the UFC President has assured fans that Strikeforce will operate independently and that it will be “business as usual” for the California-based promotion little has happened to allay the fears of hardcore WMMA fans. By design or simply by the driving force of public misconception, it appears that things in Strikeforce are moving in a manner that screams “merger”. Furthermore, even the concept of adopting the UFC’s business model suggests that any division, regardless of gender, that lacks an extensively deep talent pool may find itself on the cutting room floor.
While one could write entire pieces on the difference between Zuffa buying Strikeforce and the UFC and Strikeforce merging, that does little to change the idea that, and tendency to behave as if, Strikeforce and the UFC are now the same entity both in terms of business operations and roster. Despite Dana White being very clear that there will be no co-promotion or crossover matchmaking, and that the two organizations maintain completely separate rosters and contracts, everyone from fans to fighters still behave as if the two have merged. Some media outlets have even gone so far as to post blogs and articles to the effect of “matches that should be made now that the UFC and Strikeforce have merged” to Strikeforce champions calling for UFC title fights in interviews to rumors that Strikeforce will simply let all female fighters’ contracts expire then abolish their WMMA divisions. Of all of these, the only one that holds any relevance in the near future of MMA is the last and it is also the only one that is likely to occur. The questions many ask involve why Strikeforce, the organization that in many ways brought WMMA into legitimacy much as Zuffa did for MMA as a whole, would so readily abandon WMMA or why the UFC is so anti-WMMA. Why give up the market potential? Is it Dana White pressuring change? Are they preparing for a huge Strikeforce/UFC merger that will leave no place for a WMMA division? The answers are not the ones that WMMA fans want to hear, because there truly is no place in the UFC business model for WMMA and if Strikeforce adapts a similar promotional structure, through Zuffa design or the forces of public perception beyond Strikeforce or Zuffa’s control, WMMA will find itself cast back into obscurity.
The first issue one must address is how a UFC/Strikeforce merger or, more likely, a change in the Strikeforce promotional model will leave no place for WMMA. The answer lies in the fundamental design of the two promotions. While the UFC has always focused its efforts on creating a monolithic presence as an organization that brings the absolute best fighters in the world wherever it goes, Strikeforce has taken a more humble route to success. The UFC takes the top 1-3% of fighters worldwide and forms a deep roster of top fighters across core weight classes. This means that the UFC uses fighters from the same pool of talent on every show and that every one of those fighters with few exceptions is a top caliber fighter. Strikeforce, by contrast, uses a local feature fight structure in which they build their card with two or three fights from their permanent roster and fill the rest of the card with local area fighters from towns near the venue. This allows Strikeforce to maintain a very small roster of named fighters and still keep headlining bouts that are interesting for the fans at large. The trade off is that Strikeforce only builds a handful of fighters into any recognizable status. This is where the problem arises for WMMA. With the classic Strikeforce model a promotionally healthy division can be maintained with two or three reasonably talented and well promoted fighters.
The UFC model on the other hand requires that a division have not only a strong core of four or five top ten ranked fighters, but also a solid roster of 10-15 fighters who are at least top 25 caliber. Even when issues of skill deficit or other negligible concerns such as WMMA being a niche market are ignored, the current state of WMMA simply cannot support a UFC division. Take as an example the UFC’s current bantamweight class. The 135lbs. division of the UFC (the smallest weight class in terms of number of fighters) currently maintains a roster of 22 competitors, all of which have substantial winning records. The equivalent (and largest by numbers) WMMA division, the 125lbs. weight class, has only 96 active fighters according to the Unified WMMA Rankings. Assuming that the UFC will accept the top 10% of fighters at a given weight, WMMA’s most populated division would allow for only nine fighters. Considering that there are hundreds of male bantamweights active worldwide and the UFC has only seen fit to contract 22 of them, the chances of them taking nine from the 96 class-equivalent females seems highly unlikely. This becomes even more obvious when one realizes that the UFC has more fighters on its own middleweight roster than there are active fighters in WMMA’s most prestigious weight class, the 145lbs. middleweight division. To have a talent pool deep enough to sustain a UFC-level division at this point Women’s MMA would likely have to abandon weight classes entirely.
The argument has been made that the UFC promotional machine along with the higher pay associated with fighting for the organization would provide a substantial boost both to the number and quality of WMMA fighters around the world. This is true but the UFC can only do so much. Given an almost miraculous boost of 150%, the largest division in WMMA would only number at around 240 active fighters for the year where it would be difficult to find a men’s weight class that doesn’t boast 240 professional males fighting each weekend.
There is also a social dogma to consider in this matter. Where males are raised in contact sports with a great deal of pride and admiration showered upon the victors and constant deification of those who “make it big in the (UFC, NFL, NHL, etc.)” female athletes, especially those in combat sports, are more often dismissed as tomboyish or even ridiculed in more derogatory terms. Added to the social stigma is the fact that a woman’s physical appearance is far more valuable than a man’s, and many females simply wouldn’t risk the damage caused by a career in combat sports. These factors have inverse effects on WMMA and MMA divisions. Men are raised on it and socially glorified for it even if they are less than successful, meaning that even men who have absolutely no business in any professional sport let alone a combat sport turn out in large numbers to compete. The women are rarely even praised for it outside the very small circle of women’s combat sports fans and even those who don’t mind the potential social stigma have many other reasons why they would choose not to compete, thus the lack of return for a much higher risk leads to many of the women who have the ability to compete at a high level never even making it to a training hall. The math simply doesn’t favor WMMA as a sustainable promotional avenue on the UFC level, much as women’s basketball draws a fair amount of attention at the collegiate level and almost none at the WNBA level.
WMMA is a wonderful part of our sport, but it simply isn’t promotionally sustainable at the UFC level and no amount of pleading, boycotting, protesting, petitioning, or arguing can change that. To close this argument, allow simple mathematics with numbers considerably favorable to WMMA to be the guide. A typical fight card has 13 fights and it will be assumed for this formula that every card has a WMMA bout. This means there is a ratio of 12:1 males to females. It will be assumed that 50% of the men will be eliminated as “weekend warriors” or those who are “one and done” where only 25% of the females will fit this category. This is to account for the fact that a WMMA fighter rarely enters the cage for any reason other than truly wanting to be there whereas there are many males who step up simply to say they did it. From that pool it will be given that 5% of the fighters are UFC caliber and suffer no serious injuries or other career ending issues. Out of 10,000 males there will be 250 who are UFC caliber and active to get the chance to fight there. Out of that same sample there will be 833 women, and only 31 will have UFC potential, less than 20% of the male talent pool in the given sample. It isn’t sexism or even that there aren’t women worthy of the UFC or that there is no interest in WMMA, it’s numbers and it’s business and unfortunately for WMMA fans, it will be a long time before WMMA reaches the point where it will even belong in the picture at the UFC level. If Strikeforce does trend toward the UFC’s business model, WMMA will likely be the first thing on the chopping block.