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* * *

It has attracted scant attention, but there are there three major
mixed martial arts events this weekend and all three of them will
be headlined by female fighters. It starts Friday in Honolulu,
where Liz
will seek to continue her post-Ultimate
Fighting Championship
surge when she challenges the unbeaten
for the Bellator
women’s flyweight title at
Bellator 278
. Velasquez unseated Ilima-Lei
, who was becoming one of Bellator’s biggest stars,
and the hope is that she can capture some of Macfarlane’s cachet
while competing in the Hawaiian’s hometown.

The UFC and Bellator on Saturday go head-to-head with their own
women’s main events. The UFC offers Amanda
looking to win her sixth straight bout when she takes a
significant step up in competition against former champion Jessica
UFC Fight Night 205
. Meanwhile, Bellator counters with all-time
great Cristiane
“Cyborg” Justino
defending her featherweight title in a rematch
against Arlene
Bellator 279
. Bellator should have advantages in star power and
setting, while the UFC of course has the brand-name advantage and
ESPN+ platform.

Female main events in MMA were once a novelty, but now they don’t
really stand out in the public imagination. It’s not as if there
are obvious alternatives to any of this weekend’s three main
events; those are pretty clearly the top fights on each show. It
feels odd that it was only 11 years ago that UFC President Dana
said women would never fight in the Octagon, given how
uncontroversial and normal women’s fights now seem.

It isn’t even that female MMA fills a specific cache with its own
positives and negatives. Rather, fans by and large view fighting as
fighting regardless of which gender is competing. That seems
un-notable, but it was not the case relatively recently when early
women’s fights were sometimes greeted with whistles and the like.
The trend has even spread, with women’s bouts being much more
common on boxing cards the past few years.

While women’s MMA has steadily grown in terms of the depth of
quality female fighters and the respect paid to female fighters,
there are a few ways in which women’s MMA has not advanced and has
even moved backwards. Specifically, after many years when Ronda
was one of the top drawing cards in the sport, the UFC
hasn’t produced a major female star attraction for quite some time.
Rousey headlined six pay-per-views from 2013 to 2016, including
three massive buy rates. Women headlined another six pay-per-views
through 2018 but only two since May of that year, nearly four years
ago. Even that is a little deceptive, as UFC 250’s headliner of
only headlined after the original Henry
-Jose Aldo main
event fell through.

There are a number of different ways one might view what’s been a
marked movement by the UFC away from having women’s fighters
headline the promotion’s big shows. It’s certainly open to the
criticism that the UFC hasn’t given its female fighters the chance
to prove they can draw and earn the increased paychecks that come
with that responsibility. Joanna
, in particular, has connected with fans and
delivered memorable fights but has never been given the opportunity
to show she can main event a pay-per-view successfully despite 11
career title fights.

The flipside of that argument is that the UFC is a business and the
company’s decision makers are not going to hold back on promoting
anyone with whom they think they can draw. They might have implicit
assumptions that need to be overcome, but they are open to having
their minds changed—as we saw with Rousey. There was a concerted
effort to try to turn Nunes into a star, and it just didn’t take as
hoped. As great as she has been in the Octagon, she hasn’t captured
the public imagination on her own in the way Rousey or even
“Cyborg” did. Frustration with Nunes might have trickled into the
treatment of women’s flyweight and strawweight stars.

It doesn’t appear the trend against building pay-per-views around
female fighters is going to reverse itself anytime soon. Since the
coronavirus pandemic began, the UFC has felt little pressure to
provide much in the way of star power on UFC Apex cards, freeing
the company to stack pay-per-views like it used to in years past.
That has led to a clear hierarchy in terms of which divisions
headline pay-per-views. Since the UFC started running cards again
in spring of 2020, there have been 25 pay-per-views. Of those,
there have been four heavyweight main events, two light heavyweight
main events, three middleweight main events, five welterweight main
events, six lightweight main events and a combined five main events
in the other seven divisions below 155 pounds.

The argument can be made that size is the bigger differentiator
than gender, but either way, it’s not a great climate for female
breakthrough stars. As such, this weekend’s cards are a reminder
that it’s a good time for women’s MMA broadly, but the conditions
are still unfavorable for those who hope to climb to the top level
of the sport. It’s likely going to take a special talent and
personality to reverse that trend.

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