It’s no big deal for women gladiators to climb into the mixed martial arts cage anymore.
Now they’re headlining the fight cards as main events for Las Vegas-based fight organizations such as juggernaut Ultimate Fighting Championship and Lion Fight Promotions, which stages and markets Muay Thai matches.
Tonight, UFC superstar bantamweight champ Ronda Rousey climbs into the UFC 168 octagon against her nemesis, Miesha Tate. The fight is significant because the Rousey-Tate match is the co-main event with the Anderson Silva-Chris Weidman rematch for the UFC’s world middleweight championship.
The fact that UFC is marketing a card topped with two co-main events that includes a female match is remarkable when you consider UFC President Dana White said in January 2011 that women would never even fight in his combat fight organization.
But that was before White met Rousey and learned she was a TV ratings, ticket-selling and marketing machine.
“If you asked me a few years ago, I would say no. Then I met Ronda,” White said.
“Now it closes 2013 with a bang. It made all the sense in the world,” he said. “The whole card is sick.”
Rousey and Tate were team leaders in the Fox Sports 1 reality TV show “The Ultimate Fighter 18,” which featured both female and male fighters. The TUF show that highlighted female fights drew higher ratings than the men’s fights on the program. The finale was earlier this month.
White said the decision to make a fight between two women as a co-main event for today’s card was made in July.
White said he projected the Rousey-Tate story line on “The Ultimate Fighter” show this year would resonate with UFC viewers and fans, with the show finale serving as a good lead-in to tonight’s fight event.
Shannon Knapp, president and owner of Invicta FC, a Kansas City-based all-female fighting organization, said spotlighting women MMA fighters makes business sense.
“This is an amazing time for women in the sport,” said Knapp, who oversees five weight divisions in Invicta. “To see the growth, to see women break down the barriers, it’s amazing.”
Knapp said White is doing what any good businessman would do: “It’s the smartest thing in the world they can do. If you look at the numbers and the following, people want to see women fight,” she said.
Expect more female MMA fighters on “The Ultimate Fighter.”
White said TUF 20, which debuts in September, will feature 13 women in UFC’s new 115-pound strawweight division. White said he is drawing the 13 female fighters from Knapp’s Invicta organization.
UFC is not the only fight organization in Las Vegas that is placing women at the top of the card.
Lion Fight Promotions is matching top female Muay Thai star — featherweight Tiffany van Soest — against Caley Reece, an Australian champion, in the main event of a Feb. 7 card.
Knapp said fans are buying into female MMA fights because the women are more intense in the cage.
“Women feel like we have something to show, we have something to prove. They carry the weight of the entire future of women fighters,” Knapp said. “They fought so long to get this opportunity, they want to grab it.”
Scott Kent, president and chief executive of Lion Fight Promotions, which is staging the van Soest-Reece match, said women have earned the right to be at the top of the fight ticket.
“It’s a great opportunity for them. They trained in anonymity. They’re legimitate world-class athletes. They haven’t gotten the press. It’s been a male-dominated sport. But you look at the success UFC has had with Ronda, and we’re getting feedback from around the world,” Kent said.