Review of Fighting Visibility

McClearen, Jennifer. Fighting Visibility: Sports Media and Female Athletes in the UFC. Urbana: The University of Illinois Press. 2021. Pp. 232. Acknowledgements, appendices, notes, references, index, introduction, photographs. $110 cloth, 24.95 paper, $14.95 ebook.

Reviewed by Russ Crawford

A common challenge that women’s sports faces is a lack of visibility. Numerous academic and popular books and articles have argued that women’s sports are less popular because they are played in relative obscurity since media outlets feature them much less frequently than men’s sports. In Fighting Visibility: Sports Media and Female Athletes in the UFC, Jennifer McClearen argues that visibility is not a panacea. Even though women athletes in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) are often very visible, the luminosity, or spotlight on their accomplishments, that they receive often conceals the precarious nature of their profession (19).

McClearen is an assistant professor in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas-Austin, but also a practitioner of Brazilian jiu jitsu, and a fan of mixed martial arts (MMA) (31). Therefore, she brings an academic interest coupled with practical experience in the sport to her work. For the most part, her love for MMA shines most brightly, and often overshadows her critiques of the UFC’s labor practices. In addition to her archival work, the author also interviewed sixteen current or former athletes, which adds personal perspectives to the book.

University of Illinois Press, 2021.

Throughout Fighting Visibility, McClearen surveyed how the UFC went from a fringe sport to a major brand by using social media to publicize both their events and their fighters. After initial refusal to include women fighters, Dana White, the public face of UFC, reversed course and began promoting women such as Ronda Rousey. McClearen acknowledged that the UFC promoted women and that in 2015, at the height of her career, Rousey was the highest paid athlete in the UFC (84). So the “promotion,” which is McClearen’s shorthand label for the UFC, not only eventually publicized female athletes but they also compensated them according to how well they drew fans into the sport. They also began embracing the diversity of their performers, publicizing Black and white, gay and straight, and promoting their stories to the fan base as a way of reaching niche markets. The author labeled this “branded difference,” (15) and she argued that it was a part of the larger UFC publicity model that she coined as a “millennial sports media brand,”(35) which depended on social media channels such as TwitterInstagramYouTube, and other similar platforms to make up for not initially being able to garner attention from traditional media channels.

I knew very little about the UFC before reading Fighting Visibility, and the book is a fascinating read that explores how the promotion went from fringe sport to global brand. McClearen provides the titles of various UFC video productions, including Breaking Ground, which explored Rousey’s rise to the top, and Making of the Mom Champ that depicted Michelle Watterson both as a fighter, and also a mother. Curious, I watched part of these, along with others, and found them interesting. For someone who is also working on a project about women playing American football, I was also impressed by how the UFC consciously began to promote women engaged in a traditionally male sport. 

The author organized her work into five chapters. Chapter One accounts how the UFC began and how it eventually decided to include female fighters. Chapter Two interrogates the Rousey Affect — how that fighter influenced a new generation of women fighters, while also perhaps offering an aspirational example that would be difficult to replicate. Chapter Three explores how the promotion has harnessed the narrative of the American Dream to induce female athletes to pay the heavy price to attempt to gain fame and fortune, and how a relative few can attain that. Chapter Four describes the individual labor required by fighters on social media to build a brand for themselves, as well as the promotion, meaning the UFC-sanctioned social media that athletes are pressured to conduct. Chapter Five examines how fighters have struggled for the right to collectively organize, and the enormous obstacles they have faced. In her “Coda,” McClearen writes about the love that women fighters feel for their sport and how that should be a focus, rather than seeing the action in the octagon merely as mindless violence.

McClearen’s exploration of the rise of the UFC, its early financial struggles, and its embrace of the diversity of its female fighters paints a picture of a fairly inclusionary and progressive organization. When she wrote about Rousey’s 2015 fight against Bethe Correia in Brazil, it was clear that she was moved by seeing two women fighters greeted with uproarious enthusiasm. She acknowledged that it was a positive for women athletes, particularly those women who practice sports not typically viewed as being appropriate for them. Her enthusiasm for the strides that women have made in the UFC takes away some of the force from her argument that making women and diversity part of their brand concealed several of the promotion’s business practices which were exploitative.

The author laid out her case that the promotion exploited its athletes in a concise fashion. Among those are:

  • UFC fighters are classified as “independent contractors,” meaning that they are only paid when they perform and are only covered by health insurance while under contract to fight in a match and for a short period after, in case of injury. 
  • Despite the branded difference promotion of a diverse pool of athletes, female fighters who are white and conventionally attractive are more widely promoted by the UFC. 
  • The promotion’s reliance on utilizing social media channels to garner publicity places pressure on fighters to perform unpaid labor to build their personal, as well as the UFC, brand. For women, who suffer disproportionately from online harassment, this requirement also can impact their mental health.
  • The luminous examples of highly paid athletes such as Rousey acts as an inducement to bring in athletes who have little chance of replicating her success. Since the promotion is not unionized, those down-card fighters often put their bodies at risk for very little return. 

Indeed, fighters who have attempted to unionize have been dropped from the UFC. Leslie “The Peacemaker” Smith was ranked in her weight class as highly as ninth, but after she started pushing for unionization, in 2018, the promotion dropped her (141). In her Appendix B, McClearen included a table on gross average fighter pay. For all fighters (1,281 total), the gross average pay was $97,869. 1,120 male athletes averaged $99,493, while 161 female athletes averaged $86,571. White female fighters averaged $88,922, and Black females averaged $21,167. The highest paid female fighters were Latina athletes, who averaged $112,975 (174).

At the conclusion of her introduction, McClearen states that “I cannot foresee a viable future for women in combat sports without better working conditions and greater fighter agency in their careers” (34). However, much of the content of Fighting Visibility seems to argue that many women have indeed found a lucrative present in the UFC. Her critiques of the promotion are valid, or so it seems, but in the world of women’s sport, the UFC has done more to create an inclusive opportunity for female athletes from around the world to earn fame and fortune than many leagues. The use of branded difference has also opened up space for a diverse group of fighters who differ in race, sexual orientation, and background to be celebrated for their athletic accomplishments. In this, it appears that McClearen the MMA aficionado somewhat obscured the points that McClearen the critical scholar wanted to make.

Despite those seeming contradictions, McClearen has written a compelling history of women in the UFC, along with the trials they have faced. The author does discuss various theories, and for general readers that can signal that the work will be less than captivating. McClearen, however, handles her inclusion of theory in such a way to craft a readable and enjoyable narrative. She may have done too good a job in her rather long introduction to encourage readers to continue, but they would be missing out on fascinating stories of the intriguing athletes that are included in the following chapters.

Fighting Visibility should interest those who teach sport and women’s history courses, as well as those teaching business courses. Her description of the creation of a “millennial sports media brand” (Chapter 1) – how the UFC used social media channels and other non-traditional means to create buzz in the absence of interest from the traditional media would be a good primer for anyone interested in starting a different sort of endeavor. The general reader interested in the UFC or the female athletes who fight in the promotion might also find this an interesting read.

Russ Crawford is Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. He is currently seeking a publisher for his project on the history of women playing tackle football in the U.S. and around the world. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published two books. Le Football: The History of American Football in France was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2016. His first book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963 was published by the Edwin Mellen Press in 2008.

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