Sarah Kaufman discovered mixed martial arts through ballet. Thuds booming from a new kickboxing gym below her dance studio drew her downstairs, and before long the Victoria teen had traded pointe shoes for punches.
Kickboxing was also a gateway for Alexis Davis. Soon after trying a class in her small retirement community of Port Colborne, Ont., she was leading a double life: training in jiu-jitsu by night and working a desk job by day, hoping her co-workers wouldn’t spot the bruises under her makeup.
Nearly a decade later, Ms. Kaufman and Ms. Davis have grappled and kicked their way to a new frontier for their sport. Last week, the Ultimate Fighting Championship announced it had signed its first female MMA fighters, a 10-woman roster that includes the two Canadians.
The announcement came in tandem with another historic event: the first women’s bout in UFC history, which pitted an Olympic medalist in judo against a former U.S. marine.
Ronda Rousey’s main-event win over Liz Carmouche last Saturday took place in front of a sold-out crowd of 15,525 in Anaheim’s Honda Center and attracted an estimated 500,000 pay-per-view buys at a cost of up to $60.
Ms. Rousey’s victory has been widely characterized as a win for all women. A year ago, UFC’s bombastic president, Dana White, proclaimed women would never fight on a UFC ticket, leaving female fighters to duke it out in lower-tier promotions, often as oddities or sideshows to the main event. Mr. White reversed his position after recognizing dollar signs in the 26-year-old Ms. Rousey, whose good looks and trash-talking persona are matched by her undeniable talent: She is undefeated in seven professional fights and won a bronze medal in judo at the 2008 Olympics.
But the attention heaped on the 135-pound bantamweight title holder has surprised even Mr. White. Following an interview with Sports Illustrated and a naked appearance on the cover of ESPN Magazine’s body issue, Ms. Rousey is now reportedly in talks to be a part of the next film in the Hunger Games franchise.
“If you would have told me a year ago that a female athlete would get that kind of coverage, I would have said you’re out of your mind,” Mr. White told reporters last month. “And if they did, it would be a freak-show story. And it’s far from a freak show.”
Ms. Kaufman and Ms. Davis say the response to the bout has proven what female fighters have been saying for years: They belong on MMA’s biggest stage. The nod means better appearance fees and more sponsorship opportunities, money they can use to train full-time and afford elite coaches and support staff.
“It’s definitely something that we’ve been pushing for, and to now see it really come to fruition is amazing,” said Ms. Kaufman, who is waiting for her first matchup on a UFC ticket. (The next women’s bout is scheduled for April.)
But the hype around Ms. Rousey has also been a stark reminder of the realities of their profession. They are skilled athletes – not freaks – but UFC is definitely a show.
“It’s almost like we’re products. You’ve got to remember that,” said Ms. Davis, a 28-year-old black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, in an interview from San Jose, Calif., where she moved recently to train. “It’s not the way we like to see ourselves, but that’s how you get more sponsors, that’s how you get recognized more, you get bigger fights. That’s what Ronda did. She sold herself. She got the media attention and it pushed her to where she is today.”
Ms. Davis says female MMA fighters face the same pressures as other athletes, especially females, to tweet, share their personal struggles and look good. But they are also operating in the most hyper-masculine of professional sports, in front of crowds that can be bloodthirsty and crude – in an arena where, until now, the only females on stage have been ring girls in bikinis.
“A lot of people want to just talk about the hotness of a fighter, and that’s because it’s inherently a male-dominated audience,” said Ms. Kaufman, a former women’s welterweight champion with the now-defunct promoter Strikeforce.
“I think as long as people … are able to just be themselves and dress nicely without having to over-sexualize themselves – as long as they’re still able to win fights and get fights, I’m happy.”
As women learn to navigate the business side of their sport, promoters are also trying to figure out exactly what fans want to see from them in the cage.
“I think the fans are still way more skittish about the blood with the girls,” said Shannon Knapp, the founder of Invicta, a company that promotes only women’s fights, launching last year and finding immediate success. (The company’s first fight ticket had over 200,000 unique views online). “Let’s face it, we’re still a society that has GI Joe not GI Jane. We’d rather see the man go out there and fight the fights than the girl.”
But as women’s bouts gain exposure and skill sets improve, those conventions seem to be falling by the wayside. In all seven of her professional fights, Ms. Rousey has defeated her opponents in the first round using her trademark armbar, which involves hyperextending the other woman’s shoulder or elbow. The move is quick, effective and gruesome; Ms. Rousey has compared it to digging into a turkey and “you feel all the cartilage and the tendons and the bones coming off when you’re pulling it.”
Ms. Kaufman, who is known for winning by knockout, says she’s not interested in holding back, no matter what society’s expectations. “Once you’re in the cage you’re not going to laugh and hold hands and play patty-cake,” she said.
Last year, a bout between Ms. Kaufman and Ms. Davis went the full three, five-minute rounds. It was an exhausting, brutal match that ended with both fighters on the mat, eyes swollen and blood smeared on their faces, and the announcer exclaiming in awe: “Oh, Canada!”
Ms. Davis, who required stitches above her eye, said she woke up the next day craving more. “After the fight,” she said, “you just want to fight again.”