UFC female division: the price of breaking the glass ceiling

«Never has a female done battle inside this storied octagon… until now.»

Tonight is the history-making, first female title match up of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which will see MMA media darling and “arm-bar queen” Ronda Rousey take on former marine —and first publicly out fighter  — Liz Carmouche for the title.

Whether you like or follow Mixed Martial Arts or not, tonight is undoubtedly a milestone for women in sport.

But, like any advancement, this fight has seen its fair share of criticism, largely due to the gender of both contenders. As MMAfighting.com put it, there are a number of people, trolling the internet or otherwise, who still want to see these women fail:

“Some don’t want women in MMA. Some don’t like the fact someone who has never fought in UFC has been given so much attention. Some have been mad the fight was put in the main event slot. Some were mad about Rousey’s opponent, who was clearly not the top contender and was almost a complete unknown until the recent whirlwind of publicity for the bout. Some are mad the UFC women’s bantamweight champion and has been strutting around with a belt without having ever won a fight in the company…  If you fell asleep in 2006 and woke up this week, all of those comments about how people don’t want to see women fight would make for an interesting argument. In 2013, there is only one point that can be argued without being out-of-touch: Can a woman’s main event draw on pay-per-view?”

I guess we’ll find out. But from the preliminary hype, I’d reckon it already is.

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Beyond the media excitement (it certainly doesn’t hurt the UFC that both of these women are traditionally ‘good looking’ and therefore marketable, right?) and bottom-line rhetoric about whether or not this sport will ‘work’ with women fighters, there is something strikingly underplayed in the story of this matchup; something pertinent to explore about female fighters and athletes who have to do whatever they can, living paycheck to paycheck with little outside support or belief, to keep getting back into that ring.

It’s not about the money, but what about the money?.

Female fighters, like females in any other vocation, are subject to a stark gender gap in earnings for their work. (In the United States in 2010, the median income of full time, year round workers was $42,800 for men, compared to $34,700 for women, according to the Census Bureau.) While the quality and technique of a female fight is certainly comparable to the male division, the money, promotion and notoriety isn’t. As The Bleacher Report recently stated in an article suggesting that Rousey has finally “broken the glass ceiling” for women in MMA, “while a fighter can make ends meet in smaller promotions, no one is going to get rich or even make a respectable living anywhere but in the UFC.”

It will be interesting to see how much money and eyeballs this fight makes both these fighters and the UFC tonight.

But perhaps we should take some comfort in the fact that UFC is making efforts to get their gender disparity in order relatively quickly to allow women this opportunity to fight. Established in 1993, it has only taken the organization 20-or-so years to get women in on the action, whereas an organization like the Olympics only admitted female wrestling last year (the IOC was founded in 1894) …

Let’s hope Rousey’s UFC first will leave her in far better shape than after she became the first female American citizen to medal in Judo in 2008.

“After the Olympics,” Rousey explained , “they pretty much gave me ten grand and a handshake… there’s nothing in place for athletes.” There was a void of opportunity following her win. “There are no scholarships, no job placements, there is nothing. I didn’t have any other skills; I couldn’t walk in to a job and say, ‘Hey I’m really good at throwing people down, do you want to hire me?'”

After a five-year military stint that saw her deployed in the Middle East, Carmouche was faring no better in terms of employment prospects when she came back to the states. “Jobless and directionless” she found the gym. And while Rousey was doing shifts at two different bartending jobs,  Carmouche became employed at The San Diego Combat Academy — an opportunity they provided the promising athlete when she told them she didn’t think she could afford to continue to train.

“I open the gym, I close the gym, I run the front desk, I teach classes, I do personal training sessions, I cover other people’s classes: I do everything'” she said of her workweek. “I am here from 8 a.m. until 10:30 p.m.” This is on top of her own training.

Tonight’s match, if Carmouche provides the spoiler we’re looking for, really has the potential to change her modest life forever.

Either way, the underdog is feeling pretty cool about whatever is to happen. Carmouche told the MMA Weekly that she sees the chance in this spotlight as a “win-win situation.”

“I get to participate in my dream one way or another”‘ she said.  “It was always my dream to be in the first women’s UFC fight, so at this point it’s just creating new dreams to pursue.”

And it certainly means something that other women with similar dreams can now turn to role models that have seen them through.

Outside of the rags-to-riches, fame and recognition at stake for these two women taking each other on tonight, what might a newfound visibility for female fighters at the UFC mean to those who come after them? Or to other sports worlds like the Olympics? Might we start to take these athletes more seriously? Might promoters, trainers and UFC bigwigs begin to provide more adequate support and coverage for female athletes? Could this division pull the Rousey’s and Carmouche’s of the female wrestling world out from their obscurity into earnings and livelihood?

It’s hard to say if this fight will have any impact in the long run. But for now, whatever the outcome, we can at least celebrate a small victory that these women made it to the top in the meantime.

If you’d like to come and watch the Rousey v Carmouche UFC title fight with Team Edgy Women tonight, we’ve reserved some space at Maclean’s pub in Montreal at 10 p.m. 

– posted by @LauraBeeston

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