Breaking Barriers? Unpacking Women’s Empowerment in Women’s Mixed Martial Arts

By Justen Hamilton

Women’s mixed martial arts (WMMA) is among the fastest growing sports in the world. Long existing on the margins of combat sports, women are now routinely punching, kicking, kneeing, elbowing, and strangling opponents into submission in front of sold-out crowds in the United States and around the world, as women’s “cage fighting” has suddenly become a very lucrative business for combat sports promoters. Catapulted by the meteoric rise of WMMA superstar, Ronda Rousey, WMMA has quickly gone from being viewed as a sideshow attraction to a major professional sport in just a few years’ time. As of 2018, MMA is now more popular with both men and women ages eighteen to thirty-four than major U.S. sports leagues such as the NBA, NFL, and MLB, and, globally, WMMA now has a bigger fanbase than almost any other professional women’s sport. While women have participated in other combat sports to varying degrees throughout history, no women’s combat sport has been met with the level of curiosity and attention than that which has been given to women’s mixed martial arts. 

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a full-contact combat sport that allows athletes to use a wide range of fighting techniques to seek victory by knockout, submission, referee intervention, or judges’ decision while competing within the confines of a ring, or more commonly, a cage. Its athletes incorporate techniques from numerous martial arts disciplines—including Brazilian jiu-jitsu, muay Thai, wrestling, karate, and boxing—and wear minimal protective equipment to create the most “realistic” form of combat sport. MMA is most commonly associated with its premier organization—Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)—and is colloquially referred to as “cage fighting” or “ultimate fighting” by outside observers. Although women were prohibited from competing in the UFC until 2013, women now account for more than 15% of their total roster and are featured in most MMA events throughout North America and across the world. 

While media coverage of WMMA has ranged from moral panic to acclamation, in recent years, WMMA has increasingly been framed as a site of women’s empowerment. Drawing from popular feminist language, media have routinely portrayed WMMA athletes as revolutionaries “breaking barriers” to liberated female subjecthood through their participation in the violent and hypermasculine world of mixed martial arts. The UFC has also capitalized on this empowerment discourse, itself, with marketing taglines such as “breaking barriers” and “women’s empowerment [with] a whole new look” (UFC.com) while other MMA promotions have even begun holding all-women’s events, such as ONE Championship’s September 2021 event, “Empower.” This framing of WMMA as a site of women’s empowerment raises interesting questions for the sociology of gender: Who are these new female subjects? In what ways are they challenging and reproducing gender? And to what extent should we characterize their participation in this new sport as “empowering”?

These are some of the questions I explore in my recent article in Gender & Society. Drawing from interviews with 40 professional WMMA athletes, as well as more than four years of ethnographic fieldwork on the sport of WMMA, I take seriously this notion of WMMA as a site of women’s empowerment and attempt to unpack what that means—not just for the athletes themselves, but also for women in general.

I find that although women’s participation in MMA offers potential to challenge patriarchal constructions of womanhood and influence feminist social change, this potential is not currently being realized. Rather, WMMA athletes’ experiences in MMA only seem to strengthen their beliefs in “natural” sexual difference and male superiority, as well as instill in them an ideology of individualism that blinds them to inequality and allows them to believe in a world where  social change is unnecessary and even undesirable. I conclude therefore that rather than empowering themselves, paradoxically, these athletes are actually disempowering themselves by ignoring the existence  of gender inequality and undermining their potential to serve as agents of feminist social change.

The implications of my findings are that we must resist the inclination to see women’s participation in any traditionally “masculine” arena as inherently empowering. Rather, we should be embracing more radical and collective visions of women’s empowerment that incorporate intersectional concerns with class, sexuality and racism. While the symbolism of women fighters may be encouraging to feminist observers who strive for a more equitable society, such symbolism does little to alter the lives of women when the social and structural forces that constrain women’s lives remain unchallenged. Only by first addressing these barriers can we actually begin to break them. Only then may martial arts and combat sports fulfill their potential as spaces of women’s empowerment and combat sports athletes as allies in women’s liberation.

Justen Hamilton is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Riverside. His research is situated at the intersection of gender, sport, and ideology.