Another post-UFC Monday morning, and two things are the talk of the MMA town: Roy “Big Country” Nelson’s knockout of Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, with a subsequent kick to the posterior of ref Big John McCarthy for being a little slow in waving off the fight, and the shellacking of Lina Lansberg by Cris “Cyborg” Justino in what was essentially an execution. With the latter comes calls for the UFC to establish a women’s featherweight division, spearheaded by UFC color commentator Joe Rogan, who while not at the event, was clearly invested as a fan of the sport.
The call for featherweight has ignited a frenzied debate on the comments pages of all the usual MMA news suspects: Junkie, Mania, Bloody Elbow, MMA Fighting. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion. Yet most are knee jerk reactions: I don’t like women fighting, so I don’t want more of this. There isn’t enough talent. Cyborg will just crush everyone anyway.
Maybe it’s time to build a case for featherweight. Because, frankly, a third (and arguably fourth) women’s division in the UFC is long overdue.
Lets start out with as apples to apples a comparison as you’re going to get in this situation: the introduction of women’s bantamweight to the UFC in 2013. Prior to that, the primary home for women’s MMA stateside was Strikeforce. When the UFC bought them out, UFC President Dana White infamously claimed women would never fight in the UFC. Never. Period. End statement.
One woman changed his mind: Ronda Rousey. In Rousey, he saw what any promoter would see: star power. Marketability. Make no mistake, the inclusion of women in the UFC was not about competition, or giving women a shot. It was about hanging on to a star with huge potential. For the first year, women’s bantamweight was the Rousey show, for better or worse. Marketable stars like Miesha Tate, who was Strikeforce’s bantamweight champ before Rousey arm-barred her out of their first fight, were overlooked. It was all Rousey, all the time.
Critics of a featherweight division who claim featherweight would just be the Cyborg show, take note. We’ve been there, done that. It all worked out in the end. One star can establish a division.
The depth criticism is a little more valid. Bantamweight had an entire division ready and able to prop up Rousey: a steady stream of victims if you will. In the women’s featherweight division, the ranks are split: Invicta FC has a chunk of the talent. So too does Bellator MMA, who got the jump on the UFC in creating a women’s 145lb weight class. They scooped up Marloes Coenen, who has twice lost to Cyborg, as well as Julia Budd, Arlene Blencowe, and Gabrielle Holloway. Four of the top ten ranked featherweights at the moment, in other words.
Still, it’s hard not to think of that old Field of Dreams line: If you build it, they will come.
Consider for the moment that if you’re a 135lb fighter in the UFC, you have just two options: fight at bantamweight, or make a grueling cut down to 115lbs. For many, especially those already cutting weight to 135lbs, there are no other options. Now, add a weight class 10 pounds north of bantamweight. Not only do you have Cyborg, but possibly the likes of Holly Holm and Cat Zingano moving up in weight. Those two fighters alone would represent the biggest tests of Cyborg Justino’s career. While three fighters (potentially) does not a division make, also consider the Invicta angle: when the UFC adopted the strawweight division, they absorbed the bulk of Invicta’s 115lb fighters. With featherweight, it’s likely the UFC would do the same. Invicta just so happens to own five of the top ten women’s featherweight fighters in the world at the moment, not counting Cyborg herself, who fights for both Shannon Knapp’s promotion and the UFC. Not to mention they boast a number of fighters just outside the top ten.
See the building blocks? The argument about competition and a thin weight class seems to be based on how far ahead of her opponents Cyborg is, but that is the exact same argument made about Rousey just a few short years ago. It took some time, but the division caught up to her. With Justino and featherweight, it will be no different. Yes, it will take time — but development is inevitable when the platform to do it via is present.
The UFC represents that platform. The money is greater, allowing fighters in a potential 145lb division to invest more in themselves. The exposure is greater, something that will attract more stars from other disciplines. How many boxers, wrestlers, and Mauy Thai champs fighting around the featherweight limit might jump at the chance to cross over if the opportunity to fight in the UFC arose? We already saw it happen in the bantamweight division with Holly Holm. A multi-time, multi-weight boxing champion, she saw MMA as the future, made the move (starting in the regionals, but it didn’t take long), and dethroned Rousey.
There’s nothing to say that can’t happen again. There’s nothing to say it will, but for the UFC, as a business, it feels like opening up a featherweight division is a no-brainer. Dana White stalling and claiming otherwise feels akin to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman insisting his southern hockey experiment is going well. It’s short-sighted at best, disingenuous at worst.
The financial incentive is there. Cyborg is already headlining cards. If your argument is that no one outside her would be able to headline a card in a new women’s featherweight division, go back to the bantamweight experiment. Who besides Rousey headlined a UFC card as a female? Here’s a trivia answer for you: no one at 135lbs until she lost. The first female headlined card not involving Rousey was technically the finale of The Ultimate Fighter 20, when Carla Esparza defeated Rose Namajunas to become the first ever UFC women’s strawweight champion. Since then, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Miesha Tate, Holly Holm, and a Paige VanZant/Rose Namajunas pairing have been used as headliners. Amanda Nunes, the current bantamweight champ who won the title from Tate at UFC 200, will likely meet Rousey for her first title defense. That will mark her second headlining bout, if it goes ahead. Point being, if the lack of star power is your argument, it’s weak. Women aren’t exactly headlining a ton of cards as it is. That’s fine. Star power takes time to grow.
The ugly (yet valid) complaint that does lurk in the shadows is the previous drug test failure of Justino, back in her Strikeforce days. Some trepidation over building a division around a fighter who proved to be taking a banned substance in the past is reasonable. Yet as the years have progressed, Cyborg has passed all her drug tests to date, including under the heightened USADA regime. When names like Alistair Overeem, Josh Barnett, Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, Chael Sonnen, Wanderlei Silva, and a host of others remain draws, why shouldn’t Cyborg?
When you get right down to it, a women’s featherweight division is just good business. Doing it now, while Justino is still in her early 30s, is good business. Strike while the iron is hot. She has the skills to carry the division for a few years if necessary, and by that time, it will have caught up, enough that if she either declines or retires, the weight class will be capable of surviving without her.
In the end, it would also eliminate the arbitrary, unhealthy cut down to 140 pounds for Cyborg, something the UFC seems to have done on a whim. Maybe it’s a way of convincing smaller girls to move up in weight, but establishing an actual division, with a title, and contracts, would be enough to convince more — and frankly better — fighters to make the jump.
Not convinced? Then you probably never will be, but if you’re a fan of women’s MMA, then you should know that now is the time.