Do the UFC and it’s fanbase give too much weight to the appearance of female fighters?

December 26, 2017 2:20 pm by Christine Allen
Amanda Nunes

“I don’t really fit the profile of a UFC Champion, but they have to do (business) with me, even though they’re never going to promote me to a level like they did Ronda Rousey or Holly Holm.”

Current female bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes ruffled feathers earlier this year when she declared to FloCombat.com that the UFC machine had failed to push her like it has other more aesthetically pleasing female fighters.

“They want blondies, cute little girls who fight and take pictures,” She stated. “I have to face the girls who sell best. It’s all about the marketing…they want to get someone to beat me… someone that they can really promote and make money with.”

Matters between the ‘Lioness’ and the UFC soured further when her decision to pull out of UFC 213 due to a reported bad bout of Sinusitis was publicly questioned by President Dana White, who controversially reiterated to the press that she had been medically cleared to face the ‘Bullet’ Shevchenko, undoubtedly casting a shadow on her character.

Another female fighter who has expressed similar concerns in terms of the part her physical appearance plays in the lack of a push she receives from the organisation is Felice Herrig.

Following her third straight victory at UFC fight night 112, Herrig, who is currently ranked #9 in the strawweight division and a self-proclaimed ‘veteran’ of the sport of mixed martial arts, appeared visibly upset upon declaring that she was “not young and beautiful enough” for the UFC to promote her.

“I’ve seen how hard I’ve worked to get here, and it just doesn’t matter because I just feel I’m not pretty enough, and I’m not getting any younger,” She said at the post fight press conference.

So, do these women have a point? Are the UFC and it’s fanbase more concerned with the physical appearance of female fighters as opposed to their fighting capabilities?

Take the Paige Van Zant and Rose Namajunas hairstyle controversy.

In preparation for UFC fight night 80 against opponent Paige VanZant, current flyweight champion ‘Thug’ Rose took a blade to her golden locks, announcing her new look with a striking picture on social media, along with the bold statement of “It’s a fight not a beauty pageant. Sh*ts in my way at practice…cut it off!”

VanZant on the other hand renegaded on her promise to shave her head for charity, citing negative feedback on her announcement as the cause.  It was also speculated that pressure behind the scenes from the UFC and Reebok played a significant role in her change of heart – reports that have not yet been confirmed.

While Namjunas success in the Octagon has since drowned out much of the discussion around her buzz cut, the initial reaction to the change could be seen to reaffirm VanZant and her concerns.

With fans and writers on multiple forums and MMA blogs mourning the loss of Namajunas golden locks, along with the media’s obsession with her lack of hair throughout the build up to the fight against VanZant, her partner and trainer Pat Barry was forced to ask a very fair question.

“Rose is the main event of a UFC fight card and everyone wants to ask her about her haircut. What does the haircut have to do with the fight?”

While occurring in 2014, doesn’t the UFC’s questionable ad campaign for the 20th series of the Ultimate Fighter also speak volumes?

Set up with the purpose of crowning the first strawweight women’s champion, viewers could have been forgiven for mistaking it for a Miss World competition.

It’s decision to dress its fighters in heels and lipstick, calling them “easy on the eyes and hard on the face” only served to further reinforce a culture that values physical appearance above all else, while further fuelling the ‘hot girl fighter’ mentality that is behind the sexist and denigrating comments that pollute the internet.

Yet are those behind the running of the UFC solely to blame? Don’t the portion of male fans who routinely objectify female fighters on social media have a lot to answer for? After all the UFC, like any other business, will push boundaries to pander to its consumers.

Take the circulation and sexualisation of Cat Zingano’s stretching routine across social media platforms during The Ultimate Fighter 17 open workouts.

“It kind of sucks,” said Zingano. “My warm up is something that’s very calculated, something that I do a few times a day. To look at the way it was portrayed in that video was strange.”

Even her three – round finale battle with Miesha ‘Cupcake’ Tate, which nabbed a ‘fight of the night’ bonus could not take the attention away from the video, which fans were still commenting on the following day.

“I thought it was a good fight for people to see what women can bring to the Octagon,” Zingano said. “So, it is kind of disappointing to go on and see what people thought of my fight and just see a bunch of unrelated, sexist things. It’s like, ‘Oh. OK. Never mind then’.”

Former Olympic wrestler and UFC bantamweight division fighter Sarah Mc Mann, also spoke about her thoughts on the virtual advances made by male MMA fans.

“Guys wanting to hook up with you is probably the lowest form of compliment a guy can give you. If they say you are a great athlete that is so much more meaningful in a male dominated sport than saying ‘yeah, she looks hot.’”

Yet are the UFC ultimately to blame for such objectifying discourse? Is how they have ‘sold’ their female athletes to the masses part of the problem?

Author of Ultimate Fighting and Embodiment: Violence, Gender and Mixed Martial Arts, Professor Dale Spencer gave an interesting take on the matter to Bleacher Report.

“Tennis and MMA have been able to hypersexualise the women who participate in those sports. They’re able to promote those women and maintain a level of popularity that is roughly equivalent to the male side of the sport.”

Yet to paint both the whole UFC organisation and every male fan as being solely fixated on the physical assets of female fighters would be an equally disrespectful and unfair representation.

For one, I have seen and heard many male fans speak very respectfully about female fighters, often speaking reverentially about their fighting skills, while UFC media gods like Ariel Helwani and Joe Rogan often wax lyrical about the abilities and innate talents that female fighters bring to The Octagon on their respective podcasts.

You need only watch Rogan interview a Holly Holm or a Miesha Tate within the cage to witness first hand the genuine respect and admiration that he feels towards these female athletes.

Elaborating further on the MMA media’s stance on female fighters, take established and respected MMA Junkie journalist Ben Fowlkes, and his outpsoken piece on what he referred to as the ‘baffling’ ad campaign for TUF series 20.

“That’s the thing about these ads…they invite the viewer to see these women first as sex objects, then add, as if you’re supposed to be surprised,” …but they can fight!!!!” He writes, “They also attempt to lure us with the promise not that some of the best women in the world will fight for a title, but that the best pretty women in the world will fight for a title. Here’s where the discerning viewer might ask, but what about the applicants that didn’t fit that mold?”

The UFC has also been applauded by many for being a sport which is leading the way in terms of notable 21st century issues such as equality; to include, bridging the gender pay gap and sexuality.

Looking at the UFC paysheets, in a piece for Bloody Elbow, MMA Analytics writer Paul Gift presented data which suggested that the discrepancy between male and female fighters pay was extremely narrow.

It should be noted however that The Culinary Workers Union Local 226, through their examination of the same data, found that within the UFC, women earn 41-61% of their male peers.

In terms of sexual orientation, the UFC handled a main event with their first openly gay fighter former marine, Liz Carmouche, more respectfully than virtually any other sport has done to date, interviewing Carmouches girlfriend in the pre-fight video, while President Dana White praised her courage in coming out and voiced his support for gay marriage.

Bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes (recently honored with the Equality Visibility Award from Equality California) and her partner, strawweight Nina Ansaroff, relationship has also featured extensively in episodes of Embedded.

Most notably, Heather the ‘Heat’ Hardy, an American pro boxer and mixed martial artist, who has been an ever-present voice for women in female boxing, recently spoke out favourably about the organisation.

“The sport itself is much more evolved.” She opined. “Not even just more than boxing but more than any sport where females are involved. MMA is one of the few sports where women are seen as athlete’s.”

Speaking about the monetary aspect and in turn her Bellator debut she said, “It’s more than I’ve ever made in any individual bout in my boxing career, including a 10 – round title fight with an undefeated contender that was on NBC sports.”

With the UFC officially declaring a 145-pound weight class, and the popularity of women’s MMA continuing to skyrocket, the number of female fighters set to join the UFC ranks will only continue to grow.

It is my hope that the respect that they deservingly garner for their fighting abilities from the organization, fans and media alike will too.


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