Dylan Stolte

As Bruce Buffer, the voice of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), would say, “It’s time!” Time to discuss the long-running battle being waged outside the octagon: equal treatment for female fighters. Behind female UFC superstars like Ronda Rousey, there are dozens of women dedicating their lives to mixed martial arts (MMA) who are left in the shadows. They are normally unheard of, frequently unseen, routinely unappreciated, and consistently underpaid.

Rousey was the definitive champion — undefeated and dominating every woman who stood across from her. She was the armbar star, the “it” girl for combat sports. Forbes writer Andrew Brennan reported, “UFC star fighter Ronda Rousey earned more than $6 million in 2015 (though half of that was in endorsements).” Even though Rousey made more than the rest of the women’s roster, she was still earning less than the men in the UFC. 

Chris Weidman was the male middleweight champion at the same time Rousey was champion. Both were undefeated champions, and yet, Rousey got paid approximately one-third of Weidman’s purse. Brennan also pointed out that after Weidman’s successful title defense he made $500,000, but after Rousey’s successful title defense, she was only paid $140,000. On top of this, Weidman’s pay increases came in $50,000 increments, while Rousey’s came in increments of $10,000. This was the woman who headlined pay-per-views and was a “media darling” and a superstar.

Following Rousey’s shocking loss to Amanda Nunes, the women’s division showed that there was more there than just the blonde-haired beast.  However, once the women’s division showed less of Rousey and more of her competition, there were less shows being sold. Data released by tapology.com revealed that in the one and only PPV headlined by women since Rousey, there were only 200,000 sales, compared to the 1.1 million tickets sold for Rousey’s last main event. Holly Holm’s and Germaine de Randamie’s headlining bout could only manage to sell one-fifth of Rousey’s latest main event. 

This discrepancy in sales reflects a similar gap in pay. While the poster girl for the UFC made $140,000 for her title defense, the woman who won the next headlining bout, de Randamie, only received $30,000. Brennan’s article brings attention to the wage gap between men and women in the UFC. He states, “The average salary for women in the UFC [is] hovering around $25,487 ... against $61,691 for men.”

Outside of salaries and sales, there are also societal constructions that are furthering this divide between men and women in the UFC and the mixed martial arts community as a whole. The most significant of these is the cultural expectation for women to meet traditional standards of beauty while being sexualized in the spotlight.

When “female UFC fighters” is typed into Google, the first article available is one by Men’s Fitness titled “The Hottest (and Deadliest) Female UFC Fighters.” Not only does the existence of this piece show how fans expect female fighters to care about their sex appeal as much as their skill, its popularity shows how important a female fighter’s looks are to their success in the sport. 

On the other hand, when “male UFC fighters” is typed into Google, the first article discussing their sexuality is at the very bottom of the first page of results. The web pages before it focus on their rankings and debates on who the greatest is. For women, their sex appeal is a large contributor to their success inside the UFC, but for men, their looks are second to the skills they show inside the octagon.

In addition to the sexualization and emphasis on looks for female fighters, the debate still rages over whether or not women should even be allowed to fight. Even though the name of the sport is gender-neutral, some still insist on referring to it as “Women’s Mixed Martial Arts” when women are competing, as if their competing is atypical and outside the realms of the original sport. 

Some people find it hard to support women competing in MMA, especially when popular male fighters publicly condemn it. In an interview with WHOATV, an online media outlet that covers Mixed Martial Arts, MMA fighter Fedor Emelianenko said, “MMA is for men. It’s a man’s sport.”

An opinion stated by a prominent figure can give courage to others to admit that they feel the same. That is the danger within MMA: if enough people support this “masculine view” of the sport, women will never receive the credit they deserve both in and out of the cage.

The UFC has evolved from an underground fighting organization that was sold for $1 million by its initial founder to a worldwide sporting giant that was sold for $4 billion to the conglomerate William Morris Endeavor (WME). Being such a global powerhouse gives the company the chance not only to support women competing on the grandest stage in the sport, but also to support gender equality. Instead, the female fighters are paid smaller salaries, seen less, and when seen, are sexualized. With that said, the divide is more than just an institutional problem. It is an issue exacerbated by the people watching the sport. 

To lessen the gender inequality between men and women in the UFC, the millions of fans of the sport need to support the women dedicating their lives and livelihoods to the competition they love. The fight for equality in the UFC is one that can only be won by the fans and fighters alike, both men and women.