From bare-knuckle fighting to women headlining PPVs; UFC has surely come a long way since its inhospitable beginnings in the early 1990s.
The predominant image of fighting has always been that of two rugged men punching the living daylights out of each other with the emphasis here being on the word ‘men’. Now let me stress on the past few decades which have seen women rise to attain equal status in every sport and not just in combative disciplines.
Women, though, have been an active feature of the combat sports scene since the 18th century, albeit in the shadows of their male counterparts. Until the early 1980s, female boxing matches attracted controversy, so much so that it was criticized for being a mere ‘gratification of the sensual ideas of vulgar men’. Nonetheless, the 1990s saw a boxing boom in the US and Europe and it was subsequently added to the Olympic Games in the 21st Century.
Around the same time when women’s boxing rose to prominence in the United States, female mixed martial arts fights began talking flight in the only country willing to push the boundaries – Japan.
The first female MMA fight in the US happened on March 28, 1997, in the International Fighting Championship, however, it took another 12 years for Strikeforce to have the first female main event when Cris Cyborg defeated Gina Carrano to become the first Strikeforce Women’s Featherweight Champion.
This decade has all been about UFC and the one person credited for the success of women in MMA, Ronda Rousey. However, she is far from being the greatest ever and in this slider, we take a look at the other greats that deserve equal recognition.
Holly Holm (12-4, won the UFC Women's Bantamweight title from Ronda Rousey)
Miesha Tate (18-7, formerUFC Women's Bantamweight Champion)
Rose Namajunas (8-3, won the UFC Women's Strawweight title from Joanna Jędrzejczyk)
#5 Valentina Shevchenko (16-3)
The Russian-born Shevchenko is the possibly the most underrated female athlete MMA today. Shevchenko has black belts in Taekwondo and Judo and holds the Master of Sports rank in Kickboxing, Boxing and Muay Thai. You won’t find a female fighter with better striking credentials than the Kyrgyzstani-Peruvian.
Coming to her statistics then. Her kickboxing record stands at 56 wins and 2 losses, while she has won both her professional boxing bouts. Popularly known as the Bullet, Shevchenko knocked out a 22-year-old when she was just 12 years old and had her first MMA fight in 2003. She won 8 amateur world championship gold medals in Muay Thai before signing up with the UFC in 2015 with an MMA record of 12-1.
Shevchenko has had seven fights in the UFC with both her losses coming against Amanda Nunes. The second of those was a split decision in which many actually felt Shevchenko had done enough to dethrone Nunes as the champion but the judges thought otherwise.
The controversial loss was Shevchenko’s last fight at 135 lb as she went down to Flyweight and as things stand, is the current Flyweight Champion.
Shevchenko beat Joanna Jędrzejczyk via unanimous decision to capture the vacant title at UFC 231. This was her fourth career win against Jędrzejczyk (3 kickboxing, 1 MMA) and it undoubtedly solidified her place as one of the most feared women on the roster.
Shevchenko is lethal with her stand up, proficient on the ground owing to her Judo background and became the UFC champion after beating one of the most dominant female UFC fighters of all time. Do you need any more reasons to justify why she is on this list?
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#4 Joanna Jędrzejczyk (15-3)
The former Women’s Strawweight Champion was the best pound-for-pound female fight during her peak. Even though Joanna has lost 3 of her last four fights, it does not undermine her status as one of the greatest female mixed martial artists in the UFC’s history.
Her track record speaks for itself. She became the first Polish as well as the first European Women’s Champion in UFC when she won the Strawweight title against Carla Esparza in 2015. She successfully defended the title five times in dominant performances against the top contenders of her division.
Her title defences were absolute striking clinics. The Polish brawler has notched up various records, some of which include the most leg kicks in a fight and the highest significant striking differential in a UFC title fight to her name.
She eventually lost both the title and subsequent rematch to Rose Namajunas before going to the 115 lb division, where she lost to Shevchenko in a title fight.
There was a time when the fans believed Joanna could indeed back up her claims of retiring undefeated but it’s a rarely accomplished feat in MMA. It gets tougher when you get obsessed with the tag of being undefeated and the next entrant on this list is a prime example…
#3 Ronda Rousey (12-2)
Ronda Rousey went from being the most feared woman on the planet to being perceived as a cowardly quitter. She was adored by the hardcore MMA fanbase, now; she is probably the most criticized of them all. Arrogant, weak-minded and overrated are some of the words thrown around to describe the former Women’s Bantamweight Champion.
However, no one can argue over the fact that Rousey had a major role to play in women getting a level playing field and at the height of her popularity, she was untouchable, unstoppable, and quite frankly, close to a mythical figure as opined by Joe Rogan.
The former Olympic Bronze Medalist in Judo is the first female champion in UFC history as well as being the first Olympic medalist to hold a title. The Armbar Queen has the most title defences in Bantamweight title history (6) and has the second as well as third fastest finishes in UFC title fights.
She was on top of the world until she got her head kicked in by Holly Holm on that fateful night on November 15, 2015, at UFC 193. The once-unconquerable Rousey was made to look like an amateur by an elite boxer in Holm.
Her striking frailties were exposed and head coach Edmond Tarverdyan was accused of hyping up his client to such an extent that it seemed like the success got to Rousey’s head.
She did return with the intention of shedding the tag of being a one-trick pony in her highly-publicized return fight against Amanda Nunes. However, the loss against Nunes turned out to be even more humbling than the one against Holm.
Rousey packed her bags and went to the WWE, where she has seamlessly adapted to pro wrestling and is the cornerstone of the WWE Women’s division.
Rousey is an iconic figure for women’s empowerment. She is a high-class judoka with an extraordinary championship record to boast about. Heck, she is one of the most defining athletes of the 21st century as rightfully stated by FoxSports.
However, she was also the most lucrative marketing gimmick in UFC history which ended up falling like a sack of potatoes. She may have made a lot of money and catapulted herself into mainstream folklore, but strictly in terms of being a martial artist, she wasn’t a natural and had her time at the top until she was glaringly exposed.
Nonetheless, Rowdy is a deserved Hall of Famer for her exploits inside the Octagon and her contributions to MMA in general.
#2 Amanda Nunes (16-4)
The Lioness was criminally ignored in the build-up to her fight against the returning Ronda Rousey at UFC 207. She was relegated to being an afterthought and was made to look like the fighter who was expected to be the springboard for Rousey's rise back to the top.
Nunes though didn’t abide by the script. The Brazilian smashed Rousey in a 48-second affair to etch her name in the history books as one of two women to have beaten Rowdy; convincingly.
The openly lesbian fighter won the title from Miesha Tate at UC 200 and has defended her title thrice against Rousey, Shevchenko, and Raquel Pennington respectively. She is on a 7-fight win streak with her last defeat coming at the hands of Cat Zingano in September 2014.
A black belt in Brazilian Jui Jitsu, Nunes is relentless in the Octagon and her aggressive style coupled with her win against Rousey has transformed her into a household name. In hindsight, Rousey already knew how to put someone over even before she left for the WWE.
Nunes may have the record, accomplishments and skill set but there is one scary woman who she would have to beat in order to stake the claim for being called the greatest of all time…
#1 Cris Cyborg (20-1)
There is no woman like Cyborg currently in MMA. She is leagues above her competition in all aspects – size, intensity, skills, and experience.
The Brazilian has won the Women’s Featherweight title in StrikeForce, Invicta FC and UFC. Barring her only loss in her very first professional fight, Cyborg has steamrolled past every opponent in her 10-year career. The problem is that her greatness comes along with its fair share of controversies.
Cyborg has tested positive for banned substances in the past and been accused of being a cheat. However, she hasn’t landed in trouble with USADA in the UFC and has two successful Featherweight title defenses, one of them being against Holly Holm.
Cheat or not, Cyborg is a genetic freak who fights like a monster every time she gets into the cage. Rousey was the only women who seemed worthy enough to take Cyborg down but we all know how that fight would pan out if it were to happen now.
Cyborg can take out any woman on the roster and maybe, even some of the guys on her best day. A clean Cyborg is still an intimidating opponent and Nunes would already be having sleepless nights as the two face each other at UFC 232 for the Featherweight title.
It’s the battle to determine who greatest female UFC fighter of all time?