Are the UFC Really Committed to Women’s Bantamweight Division?

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When Dana White pulled out a new UFC title belt and turned toward the curtain in a news conference at the back end of 2012, calling for the champ, a new era in women’s mixed martial arts began. Ronda Rousey was officially presented as the UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion, and the sole reason that the UFC would be promoting female fights.

Rousey was set to face Liz Carmouche for the new title at UFC 157 in February of 2013. By the time that fight approached, Dana was already proclaiming the company were heavily invested in developing a strong women’s division.

“The 135-pound division is stacked with talent. We already signed 10 girls, we’re signing five more.”

The commitment appeared genuine. We were assured this was not just about promoting Rousey, but about building a competitive stable of fighters who would start adorning the slew of shows that the UFC now promoted. Two and a half years on, the company’s commitment to their women’s 135 pound division is questionable.

PROMOTING ROUSEY vs PROMOTING WOMEN’S BANTAMWEIGHT

At last count the UFC had 26 fighters currently signed to the division. The lowest of any weight class in the company. Even the recently added women’s strawweight division, which did not really get going until a champion was crowned during season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter at the end of last year, has 31 fighters under contract.

Of course, it is not just about the number of fighters signed. Of the more established weight classes, light-heavyweight has only 32 fighters under contract and serves as a suitable point of comparison. While it is one of the company’s weakest divisions it has, like women’s bantamweight, been headlined by a dominant champion in recent years. Still the company remain committed to 205 pound mixed martial arts.

Of the 32 fighters in that division, 16 have fights scheduled. When you consider that five others are unavailable through injury or suspension, it makes the 50% booked for a fight seem that much more impressive.

Compare that to the women’s bantamweight division and of the 26 fighters under contract, only eight have a fight booked at this time. Coming in at little more than 30% of the division scheduled to fight, only the men’s flyweights have a lesser percentage of their division booked.

That would be acceptable, were the rest of the division coming off recent fights, but that is not the case. Alexis Davis fought Sarah Kaufman at the end of last month. Liz Carmouche and Lauren Murphy fought at the beginning of April, as did Julianna Pena and Milana Dudieva. The rest stretch back from there, waiting for another fight to be announced.

A look back over the fights that did take place over the past twelve months is even more telling. Including fights that were fought at a catchweight when one fighter failed to make weight, we have seen only 22 fights in the division. Over the same period, 31 light-heavyweight fights have been promoted by the UFC.

The breakdown of where those women’s bantamweight fights have been positioned on the cards shows the importance attached to the division by the UFC. Of the 22 fights on offer, 13 were on the prelims of pay-per-views, Fox Sports 1 events, and Fight Pass exclusives.

There were only five women’s bantamweight fights in the past twelve months that made it onto a pay per view main card, and two of those were Ronda Rousey fights. The rest, Holly Holm vs Raquel Pennington, Bethe Correia vs Shayna Baszler, and Cat Zingano vs Amanda Nunes all ended up in more prominent spots by accident when other fights fell through.

When you look across all UFC cards over the year, including the various levels of TV shows and Fight Pass exclusives, the trend is continued. While almost 55% of the light-heavyweight fights were featured on main cards, that percentage was slightly under 41% for women’s bantamweight.

Are the bantamweights being pushed back to the prelims because there are much more appealing fights on the main cards? Rarely.

When highly ranked Alexis Davis and Sarah Kaufman met on the UFC 186 prelims, neither main card fights between John Makdessi and Shane Campbell, nor Thomas Almeida and Yves Jabouin, involved anyone in the top 15 rankings of their divisions.

When former world title challengers Miesha Tate and Sara McMann met on the UFC 183 prelims, they were kept off the main card by the likes of Jordan Mein, Thales Leites, Al Iaquinta and Joe Lauzon.

Even if you believe that non-Rousey women’s bantamweights do not command attention from fans or warrant more prominent positions on major cards, a theory that I do not subscribe to personally, then you would have to accept that the UFC’s handling of the division is at least partly to blame. Nobody can build a substantial fan base when they aren’t put on screen regularly enough to do so.

LACK OF SUITABLE TALENT NOT AN EXCUSE

Women’s Bantamweights are rarely signed, but to suggest that this is down to a lack of available talent at 135 pounds would be short sighted. There are fighters out there who could be added into the mix. More fighters, more fights, more opportunities for the division to grow.

It seems clear at this point that the UFC have free reign to pick whoever they want from Invicta, and there is barely a flyweight or featherweight on the planet who would turn down the opportunity to move out of their natural weight class for an opportunity with the UFC. Raquel Pa’aluhi, Irene Aldana and Tonya Evinger could all be competitive if given the opportunity.

When you then add in a handful of new prospects from across Brazil and Europe, fighters such as Pannie Kianzad, Taila Santos and Megan Anderson, you demonstrate a genuine commitment to developing a 135 pound division. It is hard to believe that these fighters are not experienced enough, or skilled enough, when you compare them with the lesser fighters who receive opportunities in the men’s divisions.

Whatever words come out of Dana White’s mouth regarding the future of the women’s bantamweight weight class, evidence right now suggests that they have given up on the division. The UFC promote Ronda Rousey, and with that they have taken on the bantamweight division as necessary baggage.

Should Rousey leave, a discussion that is already starting to come up when the champion is quizzed about her future plans, do you really have faith in the UFC starting to invest in the division to compensate? Could it be possible that their shift towards promoting a number of marketable talents at strawweight, is simply preparing for an eventual Rousey departure? Goodbye Ronda Rousey, hello Paige VanZant.

If it is, that would be sad. The perception of the bantamweight division has been skewed by Rousey’s outstanding level of ability, but what is left behind without her are a bunch of talented fighters with intriguing personalities. I’d take any top 15 women’s bantamweight fight over yet another lightweight prelim between two barely distinguishable fighters every time.

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