The (sex!) marketing of (catfights!) women’s MMA

Let’s get this straight: Women’s MMA is fantastic.

Women’s fights are often the highlights of a typical fight card, especially when they’re sandwiched in between a couple of wrestling stalemates with one dude leaning against the other up against the cage. And the athletes are compelling.

Don’t believe me? Let Tommy Toe Hold sing the profane praises of all-women’s organization Invicta.

Tommy was also ahead of his time in spotting the extraordinary talents of Rose Namajunas, one of the finalists in …

The Ultimate Fighter 20: A Champion Will Be Crowned

Yes, a champion will indeed be crowned. This is a unique season of The Ultimate Fighter — the UFC is adding a new weight class, and most of the fighters they’ve signed were in the TUF house. Instead of letting coaches pick matchups to benefit their teams (even as Dana White insists this isn’t a team sport), the UFC seeded the bracket to increase the odds of getting the top two to the final.

So these were the most accomplished fighters in that house for a long time. Namajunas made a mockery of her seed (seventh?!) by demolishing her opponents with wicked submissions. If I may repeat myself …

Her opponent in the final was the top seed, Carla Esparza, who got through a few tough fights to get to this point. They also had seasoned veterans like Joanne Calderwood, Jessica Penne, Felice Herrig, Bec Rawlings and Aisling Daly.

And these people are interesting. The inexperienced but talented Angela Hill is an animator who took up Muay Thai. Alex Chambers has a physics and math degree. Calderwood is a wispy-sounding Scot with a wry sense of humor. Several of the fighters, including Namajunas, had a tough childhood. A couple of them are moms.

So what will people remember most about this season?

(Now I feel guilty for using that phrase in a recap of one particularly nasty episode.)

It is reality TV, after all. Angela Magana may not have gone into the season intending to be this season’s Junie Browning or Jamie Yager (men who got a lot of attention for their antics in their TUF seasons), but she wound up on that path and likes where it led:

Magana uses her TUF castmate Emily Kagan as an example of the opposite.

“Nobody is gonna f—ing remember Emily,” Magana said. “I love Emily, but she has no charisma. She has no personality on TV. Even if she puts on a great fight, nobody remembers those people. The only people they’re going to remember is people who talk.”

One thing that didn’t help was TUF Talk, the Fox Sports 1 segment hosted by Karyn Bryant, who brings her own questionable decorum to the proceedings and made sure she highlights all the feuding.

The first women on The Ultimate Fighter had a little bit of these undercurrents, but what most people remember from that season is that Roxanne Modafferi might be the friendliest person on the planet.

But women’s MMA has this “Mean Girl” precedent … in the UFC. And how did that start? Ah, I remember asking a young Olympic athlete if she had thought about cashing in on her ability by going into …


Some of these antics are simply part of the sport. In the height of my UFC-covering days, I covered UFC 100. Dan Henderson knocked out designated bad guy Michael Bisping and followed up with a forearm to an unconscious opponent, for which he didn’t really apologize. Brock Lesnar beat Frank Mir, taunted Frank Mir, taunted a UFC sponsor, and made us all picture him having sex. It was foul.

And some of the drama on this TUF season was intriguing. Heather Clark was built up as the season’s villain, but it turned out some of the girls ganged up for no good reason. And who could really fault someone who vaguely resembles the truly awesome rock singer-songwriter Poe?

(Why do most streaming services play the toned-down version that erases all the guitars from the mix? This song rocks, people. Save the dance grooves for Haddaway.)

You could also make an argument either way on Randa Markos choosing to get her two training sessions a day even if the rest of the team wanted to split up to keep opponents apart. Esparza really didn’t help her image in that one.

In any case, the drama is done for the time being, and now we have a new class of interesting fighters in the UFC. And they have history beyond the show:

– Esparza has beaten Rawlings and Herrig (but finished neither).

– Torres beat Herrig and Namajunas (and Paige VanZant, who wasn’t able to go on TUF because she’s under 21 but was a smashing success in her UFC debut).

– Namajunas beat Emily Kagan and has one loss — to Torres, who lost a pair of close fights on the show.

– Penne beat Lisa Ellis and Magana.

– Herrig beat Clark and lost to Esparza and Torres.

– Ellis beat Daly and lost to Penne.

– Markos lost to Justine Kish, who was injured and unable to fight on the show or on this finale.

So do I have a few reservations on how women’s MMA is presented? A couple, sure. Will I be watching Friday night? Hell yeah.