Women’s MMA has been a home run for the UFC. There’s no overstating it.
In July, the promotion put on an historic six events. Half of those were headlined by important women’s fights.
The biggest mainstream star in UFC history — Ronda Rousey — is a woman. Two of the most dominant, exciting athletes in the company are women: Cris Cyborg and Joanna Jedrzejczyk. And there are plenty of marketable, bankable female stars all over the roster, from Holly Holm and Miesha Tate to Paige VanZant and Claudia Gadelha.
It has gotten to the point where men’s and women’s fights are just about interchangeable. The vast majority of the fanbase gets just as pumped for a heavily hyped, high-level women’s bout as it does a fight between two males.
That is an absolute credit to the UFC, which has had the foresight to put women on the same platform, going back to UFC 157 in 2013 when Rousey ushered in women’s MMA against Liz Carmouche. Perhaps only in tennis can it be said that there is as much interest in the women’s side of things as the men’s side.
Now, nearly four years after women began fighting in the UFC, its time to usher in a new era. It’s time for expansion.
The UFC needs to add female weight classes at 145 and 125 pounds. It can be slowly at first. There doesn’t need to be a champion right away. But the women on the roster, and those coming from other promotions, should have the option to compete at a natural weight class. That’s what divisions have always been meant for.
Cyborg is, of course, the prime example. There’s just no reason for the UFC to keep asking her to cut to 140 pounds to take essentially meaningless fights. Not only is she maybe the best women’s fighter to ever grace the cage, she is a draw. A headliner. Maybe she’ll never sell as many pay-per-views or get any big Hollywood movie roles like Ronda Rousey. But fans want to see her fight.
Bring her 145-pound division into the UFC and a 125-pound division along with it. Hey, you can even debut them using The Ultimate Fighter, like the way the UFC did with the 135 and 115 divisions. Those shows — TUF 18 and TUF 20 — featured top fighters from new women’s divisions and did some of the best TUF ratings since the move over to Fox Sports 1.
Critics will say that there isn’t enough talent to sustain those divisions, especially at 145. And a 125-pound division could thin out 135 and 115. Those critics are not necessarily wrong. Cyborg’s featherweight division is not particularly strong and most of the good fighters there she has already decimated. It’s hard to find opponents for her, period.
These are legitimate concerns. The UFC has built all of their divisions very well. It’s a painstaking process done by matchmakers Joe Silva and Sean Shelby. They have a plan and they execute it. The 115-pound women’s division, in particular, has been matched beautifully by Shelby, funneling legitimate, marketable contenders toward champion Jedrzejczyk.
Maybe women’s divisions at 145 and 125 don’t have to be full divisions right away. There’s another real issue about more divisions and more fighters being added to a finite amount of spots and fights. But shouldn’t Cyborg have the option to fight some opponents at her natural weight class, without nearly killing herself to get down to an arbitrary 140-pound limit? Shouldn’t a solid veteran like Valerie Letourneau not have to choose between completely depleting herself to make 115 or being completely undersized at 135?
Letourneau vs. Joanne Calderwood was one of the best women’s fights of the year in the UFC. It just so happened to be the only 125-pound fight in promotion history. Calderwood, who has a huge fan base and is exceedingly likable, is just a different, better fighter at 125 compared to what she is at 115. There should be a place for her and others like her — Letourneau, Justine Kish, Nina Ansaroff, Liz Carmouche, etc. — to be at their best.
Plus, there’s a host of potential stars at 125 pounds in other organizations. Barb Honchak is the best in the world in the flyweight division and she was just relieved of her title by Invicta. Current Invicta champ Jennifer Maia always puts on exciting fights and Andrea Lee, Racheel Ostovich and Vanessa Porto are just a few other interesting names to add into the mix. Plus, 125 pounds is probably a more natural weight for top fighters like Jedrzejczyk and Valentina Shevchenko.
“A lot of these girls at 115 have a hard time making that weight, so it would be better if they could just fight at a more natural weight class,” bantamweight Julianna Pena told me during UFC 200 week. “Same with girls at 135 pounds. They can come down in weight to 125 as opposed to fighting bigger girls who walk around [much heavier].”
Featherweight would be far more challenging, because the talent at heavier weights in women’s divisions tends to thin out. There are a few intriguing names in Invicta, like Megan Anderson, but maybe 145 pounds becomes something like a see-who-can-beat-Cyborg sweepstakes. That’s kind of like what’s going on now at 140, only this would be at a much healthier weight for Cyborg. Those from the 135-pound division who want to try their luck against someone the stature of Cyborg can. Same as those who fight at 145 elsewhere.
Maybe it wouldn’t be a full division, but people would watch. I think this year has proven more than ever that weight classes, in the sporting sense, don’t matter that much to fans. Conor McGregor was the UFC featherweight champion when he fought Nate Diaz, a lightweight contender, twice at welterweight. And those just happened to be perhaps the biggest fights in UFC history. Nobody seemed to care that the fight was at 170 pounds.
On top of all that, the UFC adding new divisions will draw people to those divisions from outside organizations. The UFC is the big leagues. It’s where the money is. There are already fighters at 125 and 105 in Invicta talking about changing divisions to fight in the UFC. If you build it, they will come.
Talking to nutrition coach George Lockhart about Cyborg’s inhumane, unnecessary weight cut this week got me thinking more and more about new women’s divisions. The one thing Lockhart said over and over was how much tougher it was for women to cut weight than men, because their hormones change throughout the month.
“Certain times of the month, your body burns carbohydrates as a means of fuel,” Lockhart said. “Certain times of the month, your body burns fat. … It changes throughout the month. Whereas a dude, we’re the same all month long. We eat right, we work out, the [weight] goes down. That’s just the way it is. With women, hell no.”
The UFC is not a charity, of course. And the organization can do what it wants with its weight class. Keeping only two women’s divisions is well within its rights. From a business standpoint, maybe that’s the right call and it’s understandable. The UFC is a business, after all, and it has done OK for itself — to the tune of a $ 4 billion purchase in July to talent agency giant WME-IMG.
But it’s hard to imagine something like this hurting the UFC’s bottomline. Adding another champion at 125, one that can headline shows, isn’t the worst thing in the world. Having a healthy, devastating Cyborg as a headliner, in Brazil or wherever else, is a very nice thing.
On top of that, weight classes in general were never supposed to be marketing tools. Their addition to MMA was for regulatory reasons. It’s a safety issue. This applies here, too.
Maybe the health of the current women’s divisions would be negatively affected by adding 145 and 125. But shouldn’t the health of the actual human beings competing take top priority?
Fighters take enough punishment in the Octagon and the training room. That should not extend to weight cuts, too.
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