In the weeks since her 14-second defeat of Cat Zingano, UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey has been everywhere – demonstrating her armbar on Jimmy Fallon, throwing 255-pound Triple H over her shoulder in the ring at WrestleMania, and mixing it up in the latest installment of the Fast & Furious epic. And everywhere Rousey goes, the question usually follows: Could she take on a male fighter? The question goes well beyond the current champion’s skills in the Octagon.
Ronda Rousey is a prodigiously talented mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter, and the current women’s bantamweight champion of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). With a perfect 11-fight winning streak and a fearsome reputation for ending fights quickly, along with a series of roles in action movies, a modeling career, and a reputation for trash-talking and fight-picking with celebrities, Rousey is no stranger to the spotlight. But as a woman excelling in what many people imagine to be a deeply “masculine” sport, Rousey’s achievements are rarely discussed without reference to her sex.
Indeed, during the build-up to her recent fight against the previously undefeated challenger, Cat Zingano, UFC president Dana White mused that should Rousey win with the ease she’d demonstrated so often before, then she would “have to start fighting men” to really prove her worth. Although White had been joking, UFC commentator Joe Rogan claimed in all seriousness following the bout – which Rousey spectacularly won within fourteen seconds – that she could defeat half of the UFC’s male bantamweight fighters. The sportsbook Bovada subsequently offered 25/1 odds that Rousey would fight a man in a sanctioned UFC bout before 2017. The question of whether Rousey would be able to fight men had been raised on MMA discussion websites before. But after her most recent victory – and particularly given White’s and Rogan’s comments and Bovada’s odds – what had previously been little more than fodder for Internet-forum banter spawned widespread speculation across MMA and other sports websites. Would Ronda Rousey really be able to fight a man?
In response, many online journalists (and no small number of reader-commenters) argued there was just no way that this would be possible. Any suggestion to the contrary was seen as a fantastical over-reaction to Rousey’s dominance over her female peers. But I am not so skeptical. Although the prospect might seem highly improbable at first, there are several reasons that a mixed-sex MMA fight shouldn’t be thought outright impossible. Some may note that this sort of fascination with Rousey’s (and by extension, any woman’s) potential to hold her own against male opposition risks reducing her to her gender – that is, pandering to the idea that “she’s only good for a girl” until she fights a male. However, imagining the possibility of a mixed fight requires thinking around – and perhaps past – the disbelief that has long haunted women’s participation in so-called “masculine” sports. For that reason, I argue that this discussion is one worth having.
The elephant in the room for any such debate is the apparent fact of male biological advantage, thought to make mixed athletic contests inherently unfair. After accounting for average size differences (as is otherwise done in MMA through weight divisions), this argument tends to focus on the effects of testosterone on performance. But claims about natural male “testosterone advantages” are not as well-evidenced as many believe, being far more a matter of on-going scientific debate and arbitrary judgement on the part of sports authorities than is often acknowledged. Indeed, this lack of certainty has fuelled legal contests against sport policies for the unnecessary exclusion from competition of, in particular, intersex and trans women athletes. As attention to such disputes grows (as with, for example, recent commentary on the trans woman MMA fighter, Fallon Fox), it is possible that claims about “natural advantages” may be subject to much closer scrutiny than before, and their power to keep the sexes separate in sports is likely to diminish.
Outside of scientific and legal disputes, the claim that natural differences between all men’s/women’s bodies might create “unfairness” deserves further criticism, as it often ignores physical differences existing between individual men and women (as well as the vastly uneven socio-economic organisation of sport – a source of many competitive advantages for more fortunate athletes). Indeed, as Amy Bass recently argued in The Allrounder, few doubt the genetic gifts of exceptional sportsmen like Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, yet who urges they be barred from competing because of those genetic gifts? The idea of there being a truly “level playing field” in any athletic contest surely ranks as one of sport’s most overstated and misleading myths, making supposed “natural advantages” a less convincing reason to refuse any possibility of mixed-sex competition.
Additionally, it’s also worth noting that victories in sport – and particularly MMA – depend upon much more than biology. Indeed, the specific extent of how far genetically-fixed attributes determine the outcomes of fights are very difficult to accurately measure. MMA is about as multifactorial as sports can get, depending on complementary skill sets, tactics, mental qualities, physical conditioning, environmental factors, and even blind luck. So, proclaiming with great certainty that no woman could ever compete fairly with men is actually quite disingenuous. This claim ignores the potential for individual brilliance (which Ronda Rousey, for one, has by the bucket-load) and reduces deeply complex performances to nothing more than the assumed, natural limits of athletes’ bodies.
Yet while this “biological unfairness” argument remains commonplace, other sex-integrated sports do nevertheless exist. While many avoid or mediate direct male-female physical interaction – like mixed-doubles tennis, or equestrianism – some others don’t. For example, wheelchair rugby, also known as murderball, is a sex-integrated, full-contact Paralympic sport widely recognised for its high-impact physicality. Elsewhere, women have earned places on men’s teams in otherwise segregated sports – several have played in professional men’s ice hockey leagues, for instance. Women and men have competed directly against each other in a wide range of individual sports, too. In some, like marathon open-water swimming, women have regularly beaten men. Biathlon, swimming, and triathlon have also introduced mixed relay events, indicating a growing popularity for men and women to compete together – even if not directly against each other – in a variety of athletic contests.
In combat sports, sex integration in training is normal in many gyms and schools, while a wide array of mixed-sex training videos can be found online – several featuring Ronda Rousey herself. Mixed fights are apparently an irregular feature of the US military’s “Combatives” tournaments, while in the civilian sporting world, it’s not uncommon for women to compete against men in grappling competitions. On this point, other commentators have claimed that when it comes to sex integration, there is a world of difference between grappling and striking-based fights. I agree. But I argue that this difference is far more to do with cultural interpretations than with the usual, spurious references made to male biological advantages. That is, we tend not to allow men and women to box against each other because it looks a little too much like “violence against women,” something difficult for a mainstream audience to stomach, not really because women’s facial structures reduce their ability to absorb men’s punches. Accordingly, fight promotions won’t stage male-female matches because of the political and commercial ramifications of people seeing the women fighters as men’s “victims,” rather than their opponents. For her part, Rousey herself says that she does not want to “celebrate a man hitting a woman in any kind of setting” when explaining why she isn’t keen on having a mixed fight (she still fancies her chances, though).
Despite this concern, the image of men and women fighting as apparent equals is not so alien elsewhere in popular culture. The sight of heroines, villainesses, and femmes fatales beating men senseless – or getting beaten up themselves – is a staple of many action movies, while sex-integrated fighting/contact sports are sometimes seen in sci-fi shows and films (a few examples include Starship Troopers, The Island, and Star Trek). Additionally, virtually all major martial arts video games made since the 1990s have pitted male and female characters against each other. Of course, these things aren’t “real.” But they are certainly revealing as to how far we can imagine the possibilities of trained (or otherwise enhanced) fighters’ bodies, suggesting a cultural fascination with seeing violent performance outside of the rigid gender norms we otherwise live with.
Martial arts have long appealed to Western audiences on the premise that people with different bodily abilities will be able to fight each other effectively, if they are skilled enough. This ideal was epitomised by the first UFC (male) champion, Royce Gracie, who won multiple tournaments by defeating a series of much larger opponents. I’ve previously argued that this notion, alongside a familiarity with male-female combat in fictional media, makes it easier for rookie martial artists to overcome their initial squeamishness about integrated training and sparring. If martial arts ideals and sci-fi narratives have any predictive quality to them, then perhaps in the near future, the idea that real men and women might competitively square off against each other may not seem so absurd or repulsive.
As for the implications of such a fight, speculating in detail is beyond the scope of this article, but I have little doubt that the sight would leave a lasting impact on those who’d care to watch. A woman competing with (and possibly defeating) a man in elite-level, full-contact fighting could powerfully challenge the sexism which leads us to believe that women are always physically or competitively inferior to men. Comparably profound changes in sport have been occurring over the past several decades, with things thought physically impossible for women only a few generations ago now a regular feature of the contemporary sporting landscape.
Considering the growing cultural and legal challenges to pseudo-scientific beliefs about sex and fairness in sport; the relative commonality of integration within combat sport cultures, along with its popularity in a range of other sports; and also the context of fictional narratives potentially normalising images of mixed-sex fighting, such a matchup in competitive MMA might not seem so unlikely, after all. But while her outstanding example is at least partly responsible for sparking this sort of debate, only time will tell if Ronda Rousey herself will be the figure around which its potential could yet be realised.
Alex Channon is lecturer in physical education and sport at the University of Greenwich. He has published articles on gender and MMA, and sport in general, in scholarly journals in sociology and sports studies. Alex tweets at @.