By Cathryn Lucas
I usually venture out to my favorite ethnographic research site – the local sports bar – to watch UFC fights since I don’t have the televisual or internet streaming capabilities (or the money, let’s be honest) to pay-per-view the fights. However, I moved this weekend and was knee deep in towels and books for my dissertation, which for some reason seemed like a good idea to pack together.
You might be wondering what all this have to do with Ronda Rousey (or if perhaps I’ve fried my brain trying to re-re-re-organize my office/workout room/bike storage). It took just over half a minute for Rousey to dispatch her latest challenger, Bethe Correia in Correia’s home country on Saturday. Those brilliant 34 seconds were the main event of UFC 190 in Rio de Janeiro. In typical Rousey fashion, a flurry of fists and knees rained down as soon as the referee said “fight” — no time for settling into a rhythm, just flying fists and knees.
Rousey has successfully, and easily, defended her title against a series of challengers over the past several years. Her dominance of the UFC’s women’s bantamweight division has spurred debates about her place on the list of MMA’s all-time greats. She has successfully, and easily, defended her title against a series of challengers over the past several years. Predictably, the debates devolve into dismissal of Rousey’s talent and fighting abilities based on perceived sex differences: “she’s good for a girl, but would never make it in the octagon with _______ (enter men’s bantamweight fighter here, usually a lower ranked fighter).”
Women who fight and the promotion companies who stage their fights, then, are in a challenging position. Hegemonic masculinity and dominant modes of understanding gender hold that women are weaker than men and should, therefore, be protected, not beaten up. Thus, the image of bloodied and bruised women has been critiqued for reinforcing the kinds of violence against women which pervade our culture. Generally, when I go down to the local sports bar to watch UFC fights, the rag-tag group of regulars are crowded out by large framed, well-muscled, white dudes donning Ed Hardy t-shirts and shiny black dress shoes (who seem to appear in Iowa City only for UFC fights). When women are on the fight card, the topics of discussion are often their “ass & tits” or “whether she could take a punch from me.”
As a white, non-binary, queer person, the terror threat level surges past red on these days, but I usually risk it in order to watch the fights live. We must consistently make these negotiations between the dominant meanings of fighting for sport and the very real uneven power relationships between men and women (and people of other or no genders) in our culture. As scholars of boxing have argued, fighting for sport reinforces (hetero)sexist cultures through the promotion of violence as the primary way of dealing with conflict. Several UFC fighters have been arrested for domestic violence and others have used social media to joke about sexual assault. Rousey has consistently refused fight men for these very reasons, creating a media maelstrom she remarked that she wouldn’t fight Floyd Mayweather Jr. “unless [they] were dating.”
These negotiations do not merely exist on an individual level. The UFC has taken MMA from marginal, back alley contests to mainstream sport media contender. As MMA solidified its spot at what Mike Messner calls “the center of sport,” women’s participation has been a site of contestation. Dana White, president of the UFC, famously (for years) insisted that women would never fight under the banner of the UFC. However, when InvictaFC, a woman-led fight promotion company, began successfully staging women’s fights in 2012, the UFC was fairly quick to add women to their events. At that time, the UFC added a women’s bantamweight division while Invicta had 5 weight divisions. Since then, the UFC has added a strawweight division and has featured women on two seasons of The Ultimate Fighter. Like other tales of small-time independents vs. large corporate juggernauts, Invicta has struggled to stay afloat while the UFC poaches fighters – promising larger pay checks and wider notoriety.
Rousey has been the poster child for success in the UFC. Like many other MMA fighters, Rousey did not grow up competing in MMA. She was a champion Judoka and represented the US in the Olympics, but became frustrated with the USOC, USA Judo, and the inability to make a living off of the sport. In her book My Fight/Your Fight, she criticizes USA judo officials and recounts life on the margins of elite sport.
Financial success has certainly come to fruition in the UFC; however, doubts about her greatness echo with whispers that there simply is no competition in the women’s bantamweight division. Here, we encounter the classic chicken and egg problem facing women’s sport. If women’s sports are not provided resources, then women athletes will not reach their full potential (and people will not watch), but until women’s sports become popular and can become a source of revenue, they will not be given adequate resources.
And yet, women’s divisions are growing in popularity. Rousey, more so than anyone else, has been responsible for this growth. She has been clever about her involvement with the UFC, playing the role of the heel to perfection. Her ability to translate the “bad boy” into the “bad bitch” is quite remarkable. Playing the bad bitch is both a refusal to play by the rules of femininity writ large AND a form of leaning in. She can fill this role only because she is white, conventionally attractive, and has climbed the social mobility ladder from a working class background. Further, the spaces within fighting, and especially the UFC, for a heel type character already exist.
This is both a blessing and a curse, as Rousey (like other women athletes) will never be truly considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, unless perhaps, she fights a man. But, that assumes that winning and rankings are what sport is all about. And, Rousey seems to be a bit ambivalent about that. Sure, she is brash and expects to win, but at the heart of her approach to MMA is to do a job that she is good at. And, playing the heel meets all of those expectations. Ultimately, the question for me is, what do we (I) expect from professional athletes?
Cathryn Lucas will be wrestling with boxes and awkwardly shaped furniture for the next few days but would be happy to continue the conversation via twitter @cathryn_lucas or via email email@example.com
 UFC fights are held in an octagonal cage, a hold-over from former marketing of MMA as a “cage fighting” free-for-all. Today, the cage holds symbolic power. It both carries the markers of hegemonic masculinity and separates the UFC semiotically from other promotion companies who use a standard boxing ring.
 The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) is a reality television show which features up and coming fighters. The show includes all the hallmarks of reality TV – the fighters live together for the duration, they are split into two teams and participate in periodic team challenges, and the season ends with a tournament to crown “the ultimate fighter.”