March 12, 2013

O’KASICK | Warrior Queen Reigns Supreme

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After all the hype and media mayhem, after endless broadcasts of pre-fight breakdowns and the inspirational backstories of each female combatant, the ending played out just the same. As she has done in every contest of her MMA career, “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey won via arm-bar against the ex-Marine, Liz Carmouche, in the first round of the first-ever women’s fight in UFC history.

Rousey’s fierce signature submission aside, the far-reaching impact of last month’s bout surpassed anything that has ever happened in women’s mixed martial arts. Just two years ago, UFC president, Dana White, proclaimed that the world’s top promotion would never welcome female fighters into its ranks. Even an ego the size of White’s could swallow those words with ease when along came a judoka who could bring both the panache and the pain.

What’s more, the UFC proudly promoted the fact that Carmouche happens to be lesbian and the first openly gay UFC fighter. White, the mad-macho genius of the UFC that he is, has openly supported any homosexual combatants who want to come out. Former light heavyweight champion, Rashad Evans, has since publically supported gay marriage. The recent outing of the transgendered fighter, Fax Fallon, has raised key questions about sexuality and the support as well.

After all, in recent weeks, Ronda Rousey went from the dangerous darling of the MMA world to an international megastar and heroine who has pushed the boundaries of mainstream women’s athletics. Hundreds of media outlets such as CNN and Time-Warner, which had previously given MMA scant attention, suddenly tuned in.

The UFC featured her bout with Carmouche as the main event at Anaheim’s Honda Center, and the women warriors more than delivered with a thrilling four minutes and 49 seconds. Carmouche had Rousey in trouble midway through the round, slapping on a standing rear naked choke and then a neck crank. Rousey, who won an Olympic bronze medal in judo in Beijing, eventually shook off her competitor and gradually worked her own submission on the mat to retain her UFC bantamweight title.

Diehard MMA fans have long followed women in the cage, and fighter-turned-actress, Gina Carano, became the first public face of female fighters nearly four years ago when she headlined an event for the now defunct Strikeforce promotion.

Overall, the UFC handled the marketing of Rousey’s fight with class. With the UFC’s core audience comprised overwhelmingly of males between the ages of 17 and 35, some Mad Men marketing types might turn to lower instincts to promote female fighters as sex objects or sideshows. Instead, the UFC showcased its first-ever female fighters as the highly-trained martial artists and accomplished athletes that they are and went a step further in making them the main event.

Certainly, Rousey’s sex appeal plays well into her marketability. The lone ironic eye-catching TV promo for the champion entailed a gym scene where she is shown walking barefoot and in training gear to the tune of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” when she suddenly is transformed into donning a devilish red dress and high heels and wearing full-make up. The tagline: Beauty is a Beast.

Rousey, who said she grew up as more of a tomboy and shunned feminine stereotypes, also recently posed nude on the cover of ESPN Magazine. It is not likely that we will ever see one of her male counterparts, such as the 265-pound heavyweight title contender, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, on a glossy cover shot with only his six-ounce gloves concealing up his more hairy parts.

Nevertheless, MMA scores higher marks than many entertainment and promotion circles on this front. Just watch the Academy Awards red carpet circus when all the ravenous paparazzi energy focuses basically on “how she looks and what’s she is wearing.” And let’s not even delve into the music industry.

Some segments of U.S. society might still take issue with women in a contact, violent sport. But those segments continue to fade away.

Coincidentally, Rousey’s rise coincided with last month’s announcement by the former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, to lift the military ban on women serving on the front-lines in combat. Some of the most telling comments came from male veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who said that, due to the changing role of foreign combat ground operations, women have already been serving in such roles.

For this writer, who grew up training with scores of women in martial arts in a state where women’s hockey and wrestling have decades of history, one question came to mind, “Is women’s MMA really a big deal in the 21st century?”

With the UFC now featuring its new warrior queen as a marquee star, the arena for female fighters will never be the same. Doubters and haters best drop their chauvinist grumbles faster than “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey could snap their arms in half.

MMA Update: Following up on the profile feature, “Shah of the Cage,” Shahbulat Shamhalaev silenced a stadium and stunned a nation on Feb. 21 by defeating his challenger, Rad Martinez, via a second round TKO in the Bellator MMA featherweight tournament finals. Due to a recent injury to another fighter, the Bombsquad Dagestani star has been fast-tracked to take on the Bellator Featherweight Champion, Pat Curran, in Atlantic City on April 4. What a wild skyrocket rise for Shah since move to Ithaca just six months ago.

Original Author: J.D. O’Kasick