Stuck In The Middle With You: Women's MMA Has a Middle Class Problem
By their very nature, UFC’s divisions are perpetually in flux. Fighters lose and move down or win and move up, dependent and independent of each other. Don’t fight and someone is inevitably going to pass you. Fight and win often, your stock will rise quickly. Since no two fighters fight at the same frequency or find the same success, the way a division shifts is imperfect. Divisions aren’t binary.
That’s why we have to take a more holistic view of every division. In the longer run, a fighter’s record eventually means for naught. Robbie Lawler has a 28-11 record, but the numbers have stopped carrying as much meaning in recent years since Lawler ascended to greatness. In sumo a rikishi ascends through a series of classes - komusubi, sekiwake, and ōzeki - until they reach the pinnacle and are named a Yokozuna. Become an ozeki then hit a rough patch of losses; you get demoted back down to sekiwake. However, once a yokozuna, that title can never be taken from you no matter what happens to your record.
MMA operates unofficially this way. An Anderson Silva or Georges St. Pierre would have to be a total embarrassment (in the cage, see. Jones, Jon) before the end of their career for anyone to drop the label of ‘GOAT’ from their name. These kinds of fighters belong on Mount Rushmore. At the foot of Mount Rushmore is everyone else, scraping and clawing to have their name carved among them, moving up and moving down. Before a fighter lands on Mount Rushmore, they were just another one of these fighters trying to work their way through a series of unofficial classes.
In Women’s MMA, Mount Rushmore is still being carved. Cris Justino, Ronda Rousey, and Joanna Jedrzejczyk are there. Beneath them is the elite. Women like Amanda Nunes, Valentina Schevchenko, Holly Holm, Claudia Gadehla and maybe Karolina Kowalkiewicz. However, these fighters trying to ascend dance dangerously close to a steep cliff, a long drop, fifty feet of crap and everyone else.
For context, consider that a month ago, the then ranked 9th Women’s Straw weight Miranda Markos lost to Alexa Grasso at UFC Fight Night Mexico City. It was her fifth loss in ten fights. Off the top of your head, try to think of a handful of top ten ranked fighters in any division running a .500 record through ten fights. A quick scan and my eyes can only spot Shogun Rua and John Moraga as top-ten fighters in their division with records at .500 or worse. Hell, even Stefan Struve has more wins than losses through his last ten fights. Men’s Flyweight, Light heavyweight, and Heavyweight all contend with each other for thinnest division in the UFC.
To some, this measurement may come across as arbitrary. Miranda Markos is one fighter, what does her record have to do with Women’s MMA as a whole? Take a step back and you will see what Markos’ pedestrian success is really a sign that there is not a middle class in women’s MMA. There is no ‘gatekeeper’ flock of fighters who win a few for every loss and generally are a tough out for almost anyone not in the top three.
Just start at the top. In Straw weight, you have the champ, Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Her most recent opponent, Jessica Andrade, has a moderate 16-6 record. Jedrzejczyk likely next opponent, Rose Namajunas, is 7-3 but riding only a single win into her likely title shot. Carla Esparza, the first champion the division’s history has traded wins for losses on her way to 7th ranking in that division. Michelle Waterson was given a push based on only two wins in the UFC – the only men’s fighter who has pulled such a feat is Volkan Oozdemir (still don’t know him?) and he floats in the shallowest division in the UFC, Light Heavyweight.
What about Bantamweight? The 10th ranked fighter is Alexis Davis, with an 18-7 record. Cat ZIngano has fought once since losing to Ronda Rousey and sits at 7th. Liz Carmouche, Rousey’s first title defence (and her toughest) is still in the top ten, ranked 9th, despite a 3-2 record since her loss to Rousey. Holly Holm is still ranked highly despite her many struggles recently.
Women’s MMA has been rapidly improving. The level of talent is a far cry from even when Ronda Rousey was champion only two years ago (though Bantamweight has changed very little). It’s just going to take time for a true middle class to evolve. All it takes is a win here or there, and a few of those 3-2 and 3-3 records become impressive 4-1 or 5-0 tabs.
Eventually, Straw weight and the new Flyweight division should be hotbeds for Women’s MMA talent. The ebb and flow of these divisions will eventually carve out a middle channel, a class of fighters who rise to the top on sterling records and stay there for years to come. It only takes time.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys is the host of The Hurt Take on Not The Public Broadcaster