Rousey and Women in the Big Cage – Fighting for Image
The Way She Walked
Liz Carmouche came out first and the announcer stated that she would be the first woman to enter the octagon – ever, as “the octagon” is a trademarked title for the UFC cage – and I started crying right there. To me there is something really beautiful about the fact that any woman fighter who is being heralded as the first whatever because it necessarily means there is another woman involved. Want to be the first woman to fight in the UFC? We’ll then you’re automatically bringing a second woman with you. It’s amazing. So Carmouche gets in the octagon and does a lap and I’m choking on my tears and telling Kevin that she looks great in there – it looks “right.”
And then Rousey’s music starts and the camera pans back to a long shot of all the ridiculous lights flashing around the stadium and then they cut to Rousey’s posse heading out to the cage. She’s walking fast. I’ve never seen anyone walk so fast out to the ring – or at least it feels that way – and I’m getting all teary-eyed again because I absolutely love Rousey’s “game face.” She looks like a teenager who is about to go tear something up – Michelle Rodriguez had this face all throughout the movie Girl Fight – and I can feel where her fight comes from. She wears it on her face.
So there’s a million hours of introduction and talking and whatever the hell people do before starting a fight and my hands are sweating. Finally the ref slices the air with his hand and the fight begins and Rousey comes straight in with her jab, the same thing that worked really great in her fight against Sarah Kaufman and then she just stopped doing it 30 seconds in. There’s high energy, there’s a scramble and Rousey is pressing Carmouche into the fence and does a Judo takedown but it only lasts for a moment before Carmouche takes Rousey’s back and climbs up on her, Rousey wearing her like a backpack and I’m not breathing anymore. Carmouche wraps her legs around Rousey’s waist in a triangle and she’s not going anywhere and she’s got her arms working toward a choke but she doesn’t seem to have her forearm under the chin, so I know she’s not going to get the choke but she’s squeezing so damn tight that Rousey’s face is contorted and turning blue while she’s trying to shake Carmouche off. And I’m still not breathing. I’m freaking out and Carmouche is so strong and she’s not budging and then with a few jerks that don’t seem to be working at all Rousey somehow dumps Carmouche on the mat and goes to work.
Now they’re on the ground, rolling and changing position and Rousey isn’t “slippery” so much as she just keeps rolling over and coming out the other side in a new position that seems to be better and better each time it happens. Carmouche has been training against arm bars – what the hell else are you going to do to get ready for Rousey? – and she’s so strong but Rousey gets to a position where she’s got her legs across Carmouche’s chest and face and she’s got Carmouche’s shoulder between her knees and she’s just prying at that arm. Honestly, she’s so relaxed and diligent it looks like a monkey peeling open the husk of a coconut or something, like no big deal at all and you can see the fatigue and horror taking grip on Carmouche’s face as that arm starts to come loose. Rousey gets it out straight and leans back and then she’s looking at the ref – she doesn’t stop even when Carmouche taps because she’s waiting for the ref to call it – and he calls it and she lets go and just erupts a scream and I kind of imitate it silently because I think this is the first time I’ve exhaled since this whole fight started. Rousey got the submission with twelve seconds – twelve seconds – remaining in the first round. Unbelievable.
Before the fight Rousey had said that what she wanted out of the fight was for people to say, “those girls absolutely deserved to be the main event.” Mission accomplished. I don’t care about belts and titles but when they put the belt on Rousey – a title she was “defending” although she refused to accept it personally until she’d earned it with this fight, she said – I choked up again. Not for her – I was happy for her and proud of her and everything – but because it meant more than it does for any other fighter in that cage and she knows that, she’s all about women and not being the one exception. I could feel how close her emotional surge was to the surface, she looked like she needed to get the hell out of the camera lens and go cry – I know how that feels and I’ve seen men break down right there in the ring – but still she went directly over to some female fans in the audience and took some pictures. She knows what she represents and she is willing to carry it with all its weight and contradiction and become stronger out of it. Watching her deal with that emotional overload as she walked (more slowly on the way out than the way in) through the crowd I felt like something had happened.
I’m not sure that there will be immense changes for women in the world of competitive combat sports or advancement in promoting women as athletes from this one single event, but the ball is rolling. With Invicta gaining visibility and female fighters finding more open channels, this is a very exciting time for us. Ronda Rousey isn’t without her complications and her marketing is not ideal, but she has a number of things going for her that benefit the cause for female fighters, not the least of which is that she sees her success as being shared by all women athletes. And when I see her fight, I agree.
I wrote my first blog post about Ronda Ronda Rousey: “The question isn’t who’s going to let me, it’s who’s going to stop me?” almost exactly one year ago, following her fight against Miesha Tate on March 3, 2012. At the time Rousey was only a contender, a name in a batch of barely-known names of female MMA fighters and the promotion painted her as the “black hat” to Miesha Tate’s “white hat” persona. It was repeated a lot then and a year later everyone knows it, Rousey had finished all her opponents with the arm bar within the first round of her fights – the accusation against her was that she was a “one trick pony”. Nearly everyone expected her to be be schooled by the more experienced and established Tate. I wrote about the “one trick pony” jab: it requires a lot of tricks to get to the point of being able to pull off that one trick over and over, so I have respect for it. Rousey was a little unpolished, everyone could see it, but she had a mouth on her that I liked and she talked trash with a high degree of intelligence and truth and she stood out from any other female fighter I could name. She was both marketable and interesting.
Over the year since that fight Rousey has gained popularity. She crushed the fight with Tate and then, standing in the ring afterwards, basically said that Sarah Kaufman had indeed been cheated out of her shot at the title – Rousey had basically talked her way into the fight with Tate, another blemish critics held against her. She called the promoters out to set up a match between herself and Kaufman and then proceeded to crush that fight, too. To recap the story, her popularity grew so much and her personality and image became so marketable that Dana White, who was a huge jerk when Gina Carano was still a feasible option for female fighters in the UFC and stated that women would “never” be in the UFC because nobody wanted to see that, abruptly reversed himself. He did a 180 and wrote a contract for Rousey before she was even available to sign it, as she was still obligated to Strikeforce. Zuffa purchased Strikeforce, Rousey’s contract was void and she signed with the UFC already with a belt in hand since her Strikeforce title was carried over in the absorption. In a further about-face, White expressed unambiguous support for Rousey’s announced opponent, the openly gay former Marine Liz Carmouche, creating this top-billed female main-event for UFC 157. The two opponents also received a three part production after the style of HBO’s “24/7” leading up to top boxing bouts with the likes of Pacquiao and Mayweather, a promotion that works to bring out the lives and personal stories behind the fighters. Female fighters were being treated like athletes, deeply interesting people, with high production value close ups, evocative music lead-ins and reflective voice overs, and I loved it. Even Carmouche’s lesbianism was embraced as a major narrative in her life and an integral part of her identity. Carmouche and Rousey were being advertised as if they were already UFC superstars.
I was nervous for this fight. I’m a Rousey fan and I think she does a great deal for the advancement and acceptability of female MMA. She is absolutely a role model, whether or not people dig her particular branding. When I watch her in interviews I see the exact same thing I see when she’s training, which is a cocktail of rage and emotional pain fueling absolutely controlled physical aggression, all resulting in confidence that pulls it all together. Sometimes it’s evident how hard someone works to construct a beautiful body and so we give credit to that effort and all the sacrifice that goes into it – it’s part of an athlete. With Rousey, she knows everyone is aware of how hard she and every athlete works to be good at their craft, but she demands acknowledgement of how much pressure and strength goes into constructing confidence and is unapologetic for her own because she’s worked for it. I can’t help but rally behind that. But I was nervous for this fight because while I really like Liz Carmouche also – I’ve seen her fight on the Invicta FC promotion – I didn’t believe that she could do as much – individually and as a figure – for women’s MMA as Rousey’s figure can.
In 2009 Gina Carano was the “face of female MMA” and in August she and Cris Cyborg met in the cage for the first ever female main-event on a Strikeforce card, a huge Network broadcast “first” for all female fighters. Carano was a big deal. She was becoming known to wider audiences due to her American Gladiators stint, her name was growing as she comprised a striking beauty and an action femme image, and this main-event ticket seemed to be heading toward further inclusion of female fighters on televised fight cards, even if much of the audience still didn’t know know who those women might be. It was exciting. But it was pretty clear even before the fight that the excitement surrounding Carano as a pioneer figure for female MMA was not equally offered to Cris Cyborg, the Brazilian fighter whose aesthetic stood in opposition to the sexualized image of Carano.
I wrote a little about the contrast between the two fighters in an interview I did with Kru Natalie Fuz in 2009 (found on an old blog of mine):
Women training today have an aesthetic difficulty in that the “hot female Muay Thai” practitioner has become the dominant image for American audiences. The female fighter is meant to be physically feminine and attractive to the hetero-male eye; her body is not judged by its ability to perform Muay Thai, but her ability to look good doing it. The recent MMA bout between Brazilian contender [C]ris Cyborg and American icon Gina Carano is a lucid example of this disparity. Both women are – simply put – big, fighting in the 140+ lbs weight class. Cyborg came out looking incredibly built, with bulging muscles and a strong, square jaw; hair braided in corn-rows and an aesthetic that generally expressed strength. Carano came out looking like she works out – toned rather than built – with curves and areas of softness, a heart-shaped face framed by pig-tails and an aesthetic that made me think she looked “cute.” (That said I still wouldn’t get in the ring with her.) Thing is, both women entered the ring wearing makeup – lipstick on Cyborg, mascara on both [I wrote about my own recent experiences of being dolled up for a fight in Isaan here.]. The fight was brutal and Cyborg dominated the whole thing, but I don’t know that if it had been reversed that Gina would be called a “beast” in the way that Cyborg often is.
Carano lost a spectacular fight, one in which she appeared to lack a killer instinct. The male-dominated world of MMA was not ready to rally behind Cyborg as the new “face of female MMA” and instead of ushering in a new visibility and opportunities for female MMA fighters (in a strong way), both Cyborg and Carano practically disappeared as fighters. Carano resurfaced as an actress in an atypical action movie, “Haywire,” directed by Soderbergh, and Cyborg became the first person (male or female) to be publicly suspended from MMA for testing positive for steroids. (It is incredible to me on every level that a woman was the first person to publicly be suspended for performance enhancement.)
So with collapse of the last and first great run at female fighters having a “face” it is enough to say that I was very uneasy about the outcome of the Rousey vs. Carmouche UFC bout. I like both fighters and I think Carmouche is an amazing figure and inspiration, as well as a tough, excellent fighter – she is very exciting to watch and I would love to see her fight more. But I truly believed that the outcome of that fight could go in two very different directions, one leading toward the excitement and promotion of female MMA and the other leading toward a much less enthusiastic effort toward female inclusion, largely because of how each of these women look and how they can be marketed. It’s unfair and it’s terrible, but welcome to the world.
Since we live in Thailand my husband and I watched the UFC 157 card a few days after the actual live event and we’d been avoiding Facebook and any news sources that might divulge the results because we wanted to see it fresh and be surprised. As the music started at the introduction of the main event Kevin who knew I was pulling for Rousey turned to me and asked, “Would you rather see Rousey lose a really good fight or win a crappy fight?” I was so pissed at the question. I would rather see a great fight, of course, but I really, really thought Rousey had to win for this fight to be what it should be for female MMA. Luckily for everyone it was a great fight with my projected positive outcome and both women deserve recognition for what, together, they’ve achieved. It’s enough to make me breathless.