Women want more than fighting chance in UFC

Women want more than fighting chance in UFC
Julianna Pena's most difficult opponents in her early days as a fighter were her parents, who worried for her safety.
PHOTO: Cynthia Choo

In her early days as a professional fighter, Julianna Pena's parents begged her to quit.

Her father found it hard to watch his youngest daughter get beaten and also thought it was "not very dainty"? for a girl, said the 26-year-old. "He didn't like seeing his baby girl get punched in the face,"? she said.

Despite the challenges, Pena is today a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter in the United States competing in The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the world's largest MMA promotion company. Nicknamed "The Venezuelan Vixen"?, the bantamweight athlete is among the UFC's 59 female fighters, who make up 10 per cent of the fighters on its active roster.

Going against her family's wishes was one of her biggest sacrifices, Pena told The Sunday Times at Fight Night 79, the UFC's debut event in South Korea last month.

She eventually joined the UFC after being crowned the first female winner on the UFC's reality TV series The Ultimate Fighter in 2013.

Today, her family gives her their support and her father is her biggest fan.

Pena is not the only professional female fighter to have faced familial objections. Strawweight Ham Seo Hee, 28, who competed on the preliminary card in Seoul, also does not have the full support of her family yet, even though she has made history as the first UFC female athlete from South Korea.

The UFC, which has been around since 1993, staged its first women's match only in 2013. It was won by American Ronda Rousey, who has gone on to become one of the promotion's biggest stars.

But despite the impact made by Rousey, the UFC women's division is still in its infancy.

For instance, it has only two weight classes for women - strawweight (52.2kg) and bantamweight (61.2kg). The men have eight.

This has resulted in some athletes having to join a higher or lower division than their actual weight.

For example, Ham used to fight in the atomweight division at 45kg.

But the UFC has not introduced that weight class so she fights as a strawweight and faces larger opponents. Her size disadvantage has affected her MMA ranking.

Previously, she was ranked second as an atomweight on the unified women's mixed martial arts rankings but, after competing as a strawweight, she no longer features in the top 10. "I was at the top of my game, but ever since I joined the UFC, I'm starting from the bottom all over again," she lamented.

But before they turn aggressive, explosive and meaner in the cage, women in MMA are also under pressure to look good for the fans.

"Over 80 per cent of the audience for UFC are male, so when you've got a prettier face, they're going to tune in," said American strawweight Cortney Casey, 28, who faced Ham in Seoul.

Still not everyone sees that as a negative. Pena, a self-described "diva" who turns up for weigh-ins wearing make-up and curled hair, said: "It's important to show women that you can be feminine and still fight, be strong and do anything a man can do."

The women are keen to show that they can stand their ground.

"For female fighters, technique is everything," said Rick Little, 40, noting that, for male fighters, it does not matter as much as strength, speed and aggression.

He owns martial arts school Sik-Jitsu and is head coach for Pena and two male UFC fighters.

Women tend to dominate with technical skill because they are not strong or powerful enough to render an opponent unconscious with just a punch, he added.

It should be noted though that Holly Holm shocked the MMA world last month by knocking Rousey out with a kick to the head.

"Female fighters are also way easier to coach," Little said.

Men can be very competitive and more active while women are more disciplined and willing to sit and listen, he explained.

Because men have more power and can execute more knockout blows, people tend to think male fighters bring a "more dynamic"? fight than female fighters, Ham said. "But these days, women have improved and can present a fight that is as interesting, entertaining and exciting as a fight between men,"? she added.

Case in point was Ham and Casey's three-round brawl in Seoul on Nov 28, which saw the audience chanting Ham's name and roaring triumphantly when she won.

While Rousey has been a gamechanger for female fighters, there is much left to do.

"Having more female fighters in the UFC is something I've wanted for a long time," said Ham, who trains with men because of the lack of women she can practise with at her gym. The Korean also called for more female bouts at UFC events.

A UFC spokesman told The Sunday Times: "The UFC is always looking to add to the women's divisions so finding new talent is a priority."

Casey hopes the UFC will open the division to all women, "instead of just those who are prettier, more marketable, or have better records". "If you just open it up, you can really see there are stories behind every fighter," she added.

This article was first published on December 27, 2015.
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