When Dana White was asked when fans would see women compete in the Octagon back in 2011, the usually talkative UFC president responded with a single word.
The answer was not out of step with White’s previous position on the matter of women in the UFC. White had long resisted the idea. Even as women competed in other major promotions, creating stars like Gina Carano.
The duration of “never” is flexible for White, however. A women’s fight would not only happen in the UFC in 2013, it would headline UFC 157.
White’s change of heart was spurred on by one woman. She was making her professional debut at about the same time White was trying to shut the cage door on the idea of women fighting.
Her name was Ronda Rousey.
Rousey, a former Olympic bronze medalist, had racked up a 6-0 MMA record in only 7 minutes 39 seconds of fight time. She was tossing opponents to the mat and armbarring them with a ferocity not previously seen in MMA. And she was marketable.
That marketability led White to change his tune. After the UFC purchased Strikeforce, Rousey was in a main event slot against Liz Carmouche at UFC 157. White made it clear the progressive step was about Rousey, and Rousey alone.
“I’m putting my toe in the water, and I’m checking it out,” White told MMAFighting. There’s no doubt, for people who say, ‘Oh, this is the Ronda Rousey show,’ [expletive] right it is. You’re absolutely right. I’m not trying to shy away from that and say, ‘Oh no, we’re getting into women’s MMA.’ This is the Ronda Rousey Show.”
White would also make it clear the experiment could have been a temporary one.
“I don’t know how long this is going to last,” he said. “This could last a year. This could be forever. The 135-pound division could fill up with tons of talent, and we could have tons of great fights. I can’t honestly sit here and predict what’s going to happen, but don’t kid yourself, this is absolutely the only reason this is happening is because of Ronda Rousey.”
Rousey would go on to defend her UFC bantamweight championship — which she received prior to her UFC debut for her status as Strikeforce champion — by submitting Carmouche with a first-round armbar.
The fight was so well received, and Rousey such an easy mainstream star, that White’s prior protestations and hesitation, almost immediately became a thing of the past.
Rousey continued to be central to the cause of women in the Octagon. She served as a coach opposite rival Miesha Tate on UFC reality show The Ultimate Fighter, before violently destroying her arm in a UFC 168 bout.
While running through opposition, she starred in Hollywood films, picked up corporate partnerships, hosted Saturday Night Live, and made herself at home on talk show couches across the world.
Her success also led many to wonder how much of the men’s 135-pound division she could beat. As well as odd side conversations on a hypothetical bout with boxing megastar Floyd Mayweather.
Her starpower helped the UFC find the faith to create more women’s divisions. It opened up the 115-pound flyweight division in 2014, before the 125 and 145-pound divisions opened in 2017.
Almost every champion falls, however, and Rousey fell hard.
In November 2015, a Holly Holm head kick left Rousey unconscious at UFC 193, ending her 12-fight winning streak. She would fade from the public eye before reentering the Octagon in December 2016 to face new champion Amanda Nunes at UFC 207.
Nunes would take only 48 seconds to defeat Rousey with strikes, and send Rousey into retirement from mixed martial arts.
While Holm was knocking Rousey out at UFC 193, Joanna Jedrzejczyk was continuing to build her star.
The then strawweight champion fought in the co-main event of the card, putting on another entertaining performance. Fans soon began gravitating toward her charming personality and violent striking style.
Cris Cyborg, a former Strikeforce and Invicta FC star, was named one of the women that fans wanted to see challenge Rousey.
Considered the most dangerous striker in any women’s division, Cyborg would not make her Octagon debut until May 2016 and UFC 198. She would go on to win the featherweight (145-pound) championship at UFC 214.
Nunes, the woman who disposed of Rousey in less than a minute, had won the 135-pound title from Tate, then knocked out Rousey, and picked up two more title defenses. That was before deciding to jump up a weight class and take on Cyborg this past December.
Again, it took Nunes less than a minute to knock out a woman considered to be among — if not the — best in the world, finishing Cyborg to become a two-division champion. Cyborg had been on a 20-fight unbeaten streak. Nunes also became notable as the UFC’s first openly gay champion.
Jedrzejczyk’s run of dominance would come to a sudden end in the attempted sixth defense of her strawweight title. That was when she faced off with Rose Namajunas, a former contestant on The Ultimate Fighter, who’d lost in the show’s final bout to crown the inaugural champion of the division.
Namajunas scored a huge first round upset over Jedrzejczyk in their bout at UFC 217. Then proved it was no fluke with a unanimous decision victory in their rematch at UFC 223.
The sport has evolved so much since Dana White’s proclamation that women would “never” fight in the UFC. But nowhere is that growth more apparent than in the female divisions.
What was once the “Ronda Rousey show” has become multiple divisions featuring depth, talent and stars.
This weekend, Namajunas will step back into the Octagon and defend her championship for the first time since that April 2018 win over Jedrzejczyk. She faces off with Jessica Andrade in the main event of UFC 237.
Two women in the strawweight division, both talented and accomplished, will headline a major event in Brazil. They’ll headline the show with future hall of famers such as Anderson Silva, Jose Aldo and B.J. Penn below them on the card.
And it’s happening because they’re the rightful fighters to be in the main event.
Women in the Octagon have gone from “never” to owning the cage and closing the show.