An MMA Thanksgiving

By: Staff
Nov 22, 2012
Ronda Rousey was the first woman to join the UFC roster. | Esther Lin/Forza LLC via Getty Images

In various parts of the world on Thursday, people will pause to give thanks. In conjunction with the Thanksgiving holiday, various members of the staff sat down and opened up about what they were most thankful for in the world of mixed martial arts:

Breaking Barriers

Mike Whitman, news editor: I am thankful for women’s mixed martial arts.

Who could deny that this sport’s female divisions have grown by leaps and bounds in the past five years? Not only are more women fighting, but more women have developed the type of world-class skill that commands respect from even the most seasoned fight fans.

This has finally been recognized by UFC President Dana White, who recently made Ronda Rousey the first female signee in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s history. With Cristiane Santos’ positive steroid test knocking her out of action for all of 2012, Rousey has undoubtedly become the new face of women’s MMA. The Olympic judo bronze medalist skyrocketed to stardom this past year, and it has been entertaining as hell to watch.

I can remember a conversation I had two years ago with Sherdog photographer Dave Mandel, who had just shot Rousey for a gallery. We were covering a Strikeforce event at the time -- this was obviously before Zuffa had bought the company -- and he asked me if I had seen Rousey in action yet. When I told him I had not, all he could do was shake his head, his jaw agape. Months prior to Rousey’s first pro fight, I distinctly remember him telling me that Rousey would be a world champion.

Good call, Dave.

As we all now know, Rousey would take this game by storm, finishing her first four opponents in less than 60 seconds with her patented straight armbar before capturing the Strikeforce bantamweight crown from Miesha Tate and defending easily it against Sarah Kaufman. Every time I watch Rousey fight, my jaw drops, just like Dave’s did. Judging by Rousey’s growing popularity, other jaws are dropping, as well. Bottom line: Rousey is being watched, and not just by males aged 18-34.

For instance, my 12-year-old niece rang me up out of the blue during Rousey’s August title defense against Kaufman, asking me if I was watching the fight, despite never before showing any interest in MMA. Honestly, I thought she might have been pulling my leg. The next day, I sent her an email asking whether she had managed to stay awake through the main event. She wrote me back: “That girl is insane! The arm lock is unbelievable.”

Let me be clear. Ideally, my niece will not choose a career path in which she will be punched in the face on a regular basis. However, I am thankful she feels empowered by someone like Rousey, a woman who would rather apply a lifetime of hard work toward becoming the best at a given craft than simply be ogled for a living.

Whether we want to admit it, the online MMA community is often a misogynistic space. The insulated walls of Internet forums provide character assassins the necessary cover to either shoot down women excelling in this sport or pseudo-glorify them with backhanded compliments that ultimately only serve to objectify them further. With every brilliant female performance we see, however, those voices become quieter and quieter.

In short, I am thankful a woman in Rousey’s position of power has decided to use her platform to inspire others and not just to make a living. I am thankful Rousey decided to pose for ESPN The Magazine’s “Body Issue” and not for Playboy or Maxim, because, yes, there is a difference. I am thankful for both her colleagues and for those who paved the way for her, and I am thankful for an all-female organization like the Invicta Fighting Championships.

Most of all, I am thankful that as a male fan of MMA, I am seeing more and more of my brethren admiring the skill and dedication of the women competing in the cage, instead of discussing how they might look if they were not wearing any clothes. Yes, the MMA fan community is still often defined by that type of attitude but it is nevertheless changing for the better, and that is something for which we should all be thankful.

Room for the Little Guys

Demetrious Johnson File Photo

Johnson will headline UFC on Fox 6.
Tristen Critchfield, associate editor: The UFC debuted the flyweight division to the world with a four-man bracket at UFC on FX 2, exposing the uninitiated to some of the most frenetic action available in combat sports. Some six months later, Demetrious Johnson became the promotion’s inaugural 125-pound champion with a split decision triumph over Joseph Benavidez at UFC 152.

The bout was far from well-received, however, as many in attendance that night at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto booed the back-and-forth action in the Octagon. Johnson and Benavidez were perplexed by the reaction. UFC President Dana White was furious. It was clear the newly minted division did not yet have a place in the hearts of the masses. These things require time.

I, for one, am thankful the UFC continues to push its newest division instead of relegating it to also-ran status.

By putting Johnson’s first title defense against John Dodson atop the UFC on Fox 6 bill in January, the promotion is showing faith that the naysayers will eventually come around. This next year figures to be a time of development for the flyweight division in the UFC. The talent pool will continue to grow as more 125-pounders are added to the roster, while the fighters already under contract will have more opportunities to establish a following. The end result will be a slew of competitive and exciting matchups in 2013 -- and maybe a few converted fans along the way.

A Welcomed Return

Georges St. Pierre File Photo

GSP’s return was a welcome sight.
Brian Knapp, features editor: He was gone for 19 months, a serious knee injury and subsequent surgery stalling what had been a run of pure brilliance. Georges St. Pierre returned to the cage for the first time since April 2011 on Saturday in the UFC 154 headliner at the Bell Center in Montreal. “Rush” sounded like a man with a renewed passion for his profession in the weeks leading up to the event. Most importantly, he was healthy.

MMA as we know it is not yet two decades old, hard as that may be to believe. It still needs fighters like St. Pierre, pictures of grace, class and professionalism, to carry the torch for a sport still viewed as barbaric in some circles. Ambassadors do not grow on trees. To that end, I was thankful to see St. Pierre enter the Octagon against the outstanding Carlos Condit after a lengthy, frustrating and undoubtedly painful period of rehabilitation.

That St. Pierre looked like his old self after such an extended stretch of inactivity was nothing short of miraculous and speaks volumes about the man.

Outside of a 30-second spurt in which Condit stunned him with a head kick and swarmed for an attempted finish, St. Pierre bullied, controlled and short-circuited one of the sport’s most dangerous offensive fighters. Afterward, St. Pierre admitted he had a new appreciation for the term “ring rust.” It never showed during the 25 minutes he was engaged with Condit. He was the same sharp, dominant and technical thoroughbred who has lorded over the 170-pound division since 2008.

A little more than a year into its landmark television deal with Fox, the UFC finds itself with transcendent athletes atop four of its eight weight classes: Jon Jones at light heavyweight, Anderson Silva at middleweight, St. Pierre at welterweight and Jose Aldo at featherweight. It was wonderful to see St. Pierre rejoin the others after such a long time away.

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