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Women In MMA: You Go, Girl!

A couple of days ago, Seth posed an interesting question regarding women in mixed martial arts: "Is the women's segment of MMA just a blatant use of sex to help sell tickets to dirty old men or is there a separate technical value to women's fighting that I just don't understand?"

I chewed on that one for a while, because it's a topic worthy of more extended thought.

To some extent, I'm reminded of Samuel Johnson's famous quote about women preaching. He said, it "is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all." At the moment, the talent pool in women's mixed martial arts is probably too shallow to be truly competitive. This results in mismatches like the Strikeforce title match between Cristiane Santos and Jan Finney in June, which basically consisted of Santos pounding Finney for eight minutes straight. That does no one any favors.

However, there is no specific reason why women should not be able to compete against each other. Technique is more important than brute force in MMA, as long as you have the strength to apply an arm-bar. It wouldn't surprise me if that is reflected in the bouts at the upcoming show: Less ground and pound than normal, perhaps. There certainly should be no issue with pain tolerance, as women are generally better at that than men. (And if anyone wants to debate that, I have one word for you. Childbirth. Argument over.)

I can't confess to having any great MMA knowledge (though the first event I attended was here in Phoenix in 2000, back well before it became broadly popular). I probably have more interest in a couple of related areas: cinematic martial arts and professional wrestling.

The former has a long tradition of action heroines going back to the 1960s in Hong Kong, and I'd certainly argue that a fight like the one between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Yi-Yi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is among the finest in movie history. The best battles work because they take into account who is fighting and their strengths; for women, that tends to be speed, flexibility and agility. If you're going to imply the use brute force, there'd better be a reason - see Terminator 3 for an example there.

But there's a spectrum of action heroines, running all the way from Crouching Tiger to Barb Wire, and that's the key. It's not so much what is done, as how it's handled. The same is true in professional wrestling. In the WWE, the women's division is a joke: if the bouts last three minutes, that's a long contest, and it's far more about appearance than wrestling ability. And it's a completely unrealistic standard of appearance at that - see the firing of Mickie James, allegedly in part for being "fat." If you argued this was shallow exploitation, I probably wouldn't argue.

However, it doesn't have to be that way. Contrast the approach in Japan, where all-female federations like AJW were huge in the 80s and 90s, and took the sports entertainment very, very seriously. (The main audience at its peak was, curiously, teenage girls.) The likes of Manami Toyota and Akira Hokuto put on matches that, even now, are regarded as all-time classics by wrestlers of either sex. Hokuto basically broke her neck in one bout - and kept on fighting. That's just hardcore, is as far from WWE as you can imagine, and is far superior as a result.

It's all about context. How is it presented? I hae no doubt there are probably a certain (small) percentage of spectators who get off on the sight of women fighting, but then, some people get off on the Sears catalog. People are strange. But that doesn't mean the basic concept is flawed, and there's no evidence any of the MMA promotions are making any effort to target that audience, or promote the women's division in such a questionable manner. There is a sideshow curiosity factor involved, certainly, and as noted, the talent on view does vary considerably. Yet that's not very different from the early days of men's MMA.

Back then, there were comparisons to "human cockfighting," and some contests which were poorly-matched, to say the least. But the sport evolved and developed beyond that, and I see no reason why the women's side of things shouldn't follow suit. In all likelihood, it will remain a relatively minor aspect beside the masculine side, just as the WNBA is seen as a minor offshoot of the NBA. But that only increases my respect for those who take part in it, because breaking through gender barriers is never easy, even in these supposedly "enlightened" times. More power to them.