SXSports: How Ronda Rousey Changed the World

Why the UFC became the most woman-friendly sport

UFC president Dana White is a smart guy. He may have only said one truly dumb thing. That there would never be women in his MMA promotion.

As he sat on stage with current, undisputed, undefeated UFC Women's Bantam Weight Champion Ronda Rousey and rising star Jessica Eye, he was clearly glad to be wrong. White was blunt about his original concerns. "First of all," he said, "we were trying to sell men fighting on TV, which was hard enough, never mind women." The second issue was that the level of competition and skill. "I was completely wrong. It's insane how fast the women were excellng in this sport."

Dana White (left), Ronda Rousey, Jessica Eye, and moderator Allison Glock of ESPNW (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

Both Eye and White made it clear that none of this would have happened without Rousey, who they lovingly refered to as a killer and a mugger. Eye made it clear, the more that Rousey wins and succeeds, the more opportunities that there will be another Rousey. She said, "There's a girl out there training to be in the position to be right in the chairs that me and Ronda are in now." Last Halloween, White's social media team was astounded by how many girls were dressing as Rousey. For Eye, that's inspirational for young women, outside of combat sports, "even if it means that they're going to ask that boy out, or excel at that test."

That said, Rousey is a little uncomfortable with being called a role model, especially for younger fans. "I don't think anyone is going to be good enough for your kid. ... I don't want to act like there's an 8 year old following me around all day. I'd go nuts." She seemed a lot happier about helping redefine body image. When she was invited to be a Maxim cover star, she went in at "my walking around weight," compared to her fighting weight. "I only walk around at 145 pounds for a few hours a year." With a burgeoning acting career, does she see pushback from Hollywood on not looking, as she put it, emaciated? She laughed. "How could they stop me?"

Most importantly, she was quite happy to be a trailblazer for women in sport. White's deeper explanation of his initial reticence was that he wasn't going to found a WUFC ("we're either all in, or we're not doing it") and Rousey was simply that damn good. Now there are 60 women under UFC contracts: They train with the men, they are promoted the same as the men, and when they're on the card, they're just as likely to deliver a fight of the night.

The difference between how UFC treats its female athletes, and how other sports do was re-enforced when Olympic Gold Medalist Claressa Shields (amateur record: 54-1) stood patiently in line to ask a question at the end. The star of SXSW documentary T-Rex, she put it plainly: if only boxing, or any other sport, took women as seriously as the world's newest combat sport.

UFC: Women Breaking Ground Inside the Octogon

Saturday, March 14, Austin Convention Center


Documentary Feature
Wednesday, March 18, 9pm, Violet Crown.

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