Forget Miley Cyrus, its the women involved in mixed martial arts who young girls should be looking up to

Rose Namajunas

“That’s deep.” My twelve-year old nieces WhatsApp message read, in response to a UFC 193 promo that I had sent, featuring now former Bantamweight Champions Holly Holm and Rondy Rousey.

In a world in which young girls are subscribed to the channels of immature insensitive You Tube presenters like Logan Paul, and merely making up the numbers on the followers list of scantily clad popstars, I felt that watching a depiction of two women, who through hard work and determination had reached the pinnacle of their sport, could inspire a confidence and belief from within that the Miley Cyrus’s of this world had failed to do.

Despite the reservations that some parents may have about the sport of MMA, it is my view that women who fight in mixed martial arts are excellent role models for both their daughters and sons alike.

And here are some of the reasons why…

Body Image and Independence

Ronda Rousey

“You know what? I would beat the crap out of Kim Kardashian actually. Any girl who is famous and idolized because she made a sex video with some guy…girls like Kim Kardashian are being pushed in my little sister’s face, and it’s just not healthy. She shouldn’t need to have role models like this…”

Ronda Rousey, former UFC Bantamweight Champion, speaking at the unveiling of ESPN’s body issue back in 2012.

Five years on, many continue to criticise the way in which she dealt with back to back losses against Holm and Nunes, yet the part that the Olympic bronze medalist played in promoting a healthy body image for young women across the globe can’t be denied.

“People like to say that my body looks masculine…” She told the UFC Embedded team in the days preceding what would be a blistering first round defeat over Bethe Correia. “I’m just like listen. Just because my body was developed for a purpose other than f*cking millionaires, doesn’t mean it’s masculine…I think it’s femininely badass as f*ck because there’s not a single muscle in my body that isn’t for a purpose because I’m not a Do-Nothing Bitch.”

In fact, her use of the latter term (meaning a woman who’s main goal in life is to look good and be taken care of by a man) evolved into a campaign known as “No DNB’S”, the portion of the proceeds going to Didi Hirsch for their work with women who have body image and mental health issues.

Mental Health Awareness and the Humbling of Bullies

Rose Namajunas

“Joanna can say I’m mentally unstable…and she might be right. I think that’s what makes me so great of a fighter. I’m crazy as hell and fighting helps me with that…I think if more people would hit a bag and more people would train martial arts the right way I think there would be less tragedies in the world.”

Current Strawweight Champion, ‘Thug’ Rose Namajunas, speaking to Ariel Helwani on the MMA hour in the run up to UFC 217 and her decisive victory over Joanna Jedrzejczyk.

On foot of her opponent’s hurtful remarks, Namajunas refused to shy away from her past, being nothing but open with the media regarding her struggle with mental health.

“I grew up with lots of anger, frustration and violence in my heart.” Said Namajunas, “In my childhood I was (sexually) abused. There were a lot of drugs and violence around me. I come from a place of lots of turmoil…”

“I have overcome some demons in my path,” She continued. “…I’m so much stronger from it and I’m going to continue to be stronger.”

With an estimated 17.1 million children having been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder in the United States, such open dialogue from women like Namajunas who have not only survived trauma, but harnessed their pain as a source of motivation to succeed, are essential when it comes to destigmatising mental health issues, thereby encouraging children to speak out rather than bottle up their emotions.

Under the psychological pressure of incessant verbal abuse from an opponent whose tactics verged on bullying, the Milwaukee native’s ability to not only remain calm and respectful, but ultimately emerge victorious, also serves as an important lesson to the young on humbling a bully.

“All the negativity that I felt coming from her, it just reminded me where I came from. I wasn’t going to let that shut me down…. I’ve dealt with a lot worse in my life.”

Accepting who you are

Amanda Nunes, the first openly gay Champion in the UFC, along with her partner, Strawweight title contender Nina Ansaroff, has never shied away from publicly discussing her relationship and in turn, her sexuality.

Nunes was in fact recently honoured with the Equality Visibility Award from Equality California, a prominent LGBTQ non for profit organisation.

Her relationship with Ansaroff has undoubtedly helped many young people who are struggling to accept their own sexuality, and this is something that Nunes welcomes.

“Now I know how much weight I carry for being gay, for being a champion, and for being a mirror for many young girls.” She told Fernanda Prates from USA Today sports. “Since childhood, I was already in love with girls. It’s how I’m born…with me talking about this, maybe its easier for kids who are going through the same things to be more open with their parents and siblings…I want to help with the things that were hard for me…I accomplished my dreams, and I’m gay.”

With 92% of LGBT youth expressing that they hear negative messages about being LGBT, the visibility of positive LGBT role models in sport like Nunes and Ansaroff is now more vital than ever.

Overcoming adversity

From my hometown city, Dublin Ireland, multiple world kickboxing Champion and Irish Open title holder Caradh O’ Donovan is on track to represent Ireland in the 2020 Olympics in the martial art discipline of Karate.

Yet O’ Donovan’s involvement in mixed martial arts has not been without it’s setbacks.

Having suffered debilitating symptoms such as diarrhoea, abdominal pain, fatigue and weight loss throughout her fight career, in 2014, Caradh was diagnosed with Crohns disease, a form of inflammatory bowel disease that effects the intestines.

“When I look back and think of the pain I was in, I don’t know how I did it,” she confesses to The42.ie, “I was literally spending hours vomiting and five minutes later, I’d have to go and compete.”

“I never really spoke about it,” She continues, “I hated having that excuse for why you lose: ‘Oh I was sick.’ It sounds like you’re being a bad loser, but really, that was what was going on.”

“You want to be a little bit humble or gracious in defeat so you just say, ‘well done.””

Now, with the clarity of a diagnosis and under the supervision of the medical team at St Vincent’s hospital, O’ Donovan manages her condition to the best of her ability, and now, in her 30’s, feels stronger than ever.

“I feel fitter and healthier now than I was ten years ago. At the minute, I feel like I can go for another ten years. And I still think I’ve yet to get to my best in sport, so I’m excited.”

And so, with the purpose of writing this piece, I requested that O’ Donovan take time out from her busy training schedule to give her take on the benefits that martial arts can bring to young women.

“There’s definitely a lot of obvious benefits from fitness to good physical health.” She advised, “I think martial arts goes far beyond that and is really positive for mental health, confidence building, building social networks and also for self-defence. Luckily it’s no longer as heavily male dominated so lots of young girls are getting involved at both participation and performance levels within mixed martial arts.”

Addressing the apprehension that some young women can feel at entering a martial arts gym, O’ Donovan spoke about her own anxiety around signing up.

“I started kickboxing when I was twelve and I was really self-conscious and insecure at that age. I made sure I started along with other beginners which helped me at the start. But after a while of training I realised that there’s no need to be insecure at all: the people your training with are so supportive and I realised that everyone is so focused on their own training to even notice that you’re new or a beginner…so just go for it and join!”

On whether martial arts can be an empowering tool for young girls, Caradh has no doubt.

“Yes absolutely…martial arts shows that displaying certain levels of aggression, competitiveness and confidence are a positive thing, and that it’s ok for women to display these qualities.”

Taking all of the above into account, you can imagine my delight when I received a message from my niece asking for more information on the martial art of Jiu Jitsu.

Having sent on all the information that I could gather, it was a while before her response came, posed with a cheeky grin.

“No pink belt?”

Hey look… it’s a start