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Ronda Rousey, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Amanda Nunes, and Valentina Shevchenko.
UFC 30th Anniversary
Breaking Barriers

Looking Back At 10 Years of Women in the UFC | UFC 30th Anniversary

From The First Ever To The Greatest Ever, See The Women Who Had The Biggest Impact On The UFC Over The Last Decade

UFC President Dana White laughs at it now, but in 2011, he was adamant that women would never fight in the Octagon. It wasn’t a sexist comment, but one based on the realities of the female mixed martial arts scene at the time. Yes, there was a host of talented athletes competing, but the gap between the haves and have nots in terms of talent was wide, leading to several notable mismatches.

But White has always led the UFC with a “never say never” attitude, so when an Olympic Bronze medalist in judo named Ronda Rousey began competing for the Zuffa-owned Strikeforce promotion, he had to take a second look.

Celebrate UFC's 30th Anniversary

Rousey was a different breed in not just women’s MMA, but in MMA as a whole. She was a talented, hard-working, and determined force of destruction on fight night, but also a striking, quotable and charismatic figure outside of competition. Add in her Olympic pedigree and compelling backstory, and White was intrigued, so much so that after Rousey’s Strikeforce bout with Miesha Tate was over, he seriously considered bringing the women’s bantamweight division to the UFC. And in late 2012, he announced that it was going to happen, with Rousey, the UFC’s first female champion, to defend her new title against Liz Carmouche in the main event of UFC 157 on February 23, 2013.

“Ronda is the real deal,” White said at the time. “She’s nasty. She’s mean. She’s like Chuck Liddell. She goes out there and tries to finish her opponents. And Carmouche is tough as nails, too. She was a Marine and she’s got great ground-and-pound. I look forward to having the women join the UFC.”

Ronda Rousey poses for a portrait on January 6, 2013 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Ian Spanier/Zuffa LLC)

Ronda Rousey poses for a portrait on January 6, 2013 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Ian Spanier/Zuffa LLC)


And at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Rousey and Carmouche delivered, with the champion surviving a spirited effort by her challenger before submitting her in the first round.

The revolution had begun, and ten years after that debut, the ladies’ divisions of the UFC are stronger than ever, with champions Amanda Nunes, Valentina Shevchenko and Zhang Weili leading the way for a new generation of fighters who now have the chance to shine on the sport’s biggest stage on a regular basis. Rousey vs Carmouche was no one-off – this was the start of women competing on the same level as male fighters, with all the same opportunities and the same spotlight.

Soon after that historic night, the best female bantamweights in the world began fighting under the UFC banner, thrilling fans around the globe. Leading the way was Rousey, a dominant champion who was the perfect ambassador for the sport, drawing praise from all quarters, including female fighting pioneer Gina Carano.

Ronda Rousey vs Liz Carmouche: History Is Made | UFC 30th Anniversary
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Ronda Rousey vs Liz Carmouche: History Is Made | UFC 30th Anniversary
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“Going to the UFC fights, I remember sitting up in the last row and thinking, ‘Someday, someday,’” Carano said. “And being able to watch other women experience that and doing it with such confidence, it’s really changed a lot. At one point, it was bad to be female and walk in a gym, and people don’t understand that. But now they’re all looking for the next female fighter that’s going to make it. When I was training, it was a lot harder. Now little girls can put on gis at whatever age, and not having to see them struggle through what I kind of went through really has an emotional impact on me.”

READ: The Story Of The First Strawweight Champion | 30th Anniversary

In 2013, The Ultimate Fighter introduced women to the series, with Julianna Pena winning the season 18 title, and in 2014, the UFC brought in a second women’s division, with the 115-pound strawweights being featured on season 20 of TUF. When the dust settled on that season, Carla Esparza emerged as not just the TUF 20 winner, but the UFC’s first strawweight champion.

That’s quite a whirlwind journey, but the ladies enjoyed it as they paved the way for a new generation of female mixed martial artists that were now able to gain the respect they deserved for so many years.

Carla Esparza | Career Retrospective
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Unlock MORE of your inner combat sports fan with UFC Fight Pass! Fighting is what we live for. And no one brings you MORE live fights, new shows, and events across multiple combat sports from around the world. With a never-ending supply of fighting in every discipline, there’s always something new to watch. Leave it to the world’s authority in MMA to bring you the Ultimate 24/7 platform for MORE combat sports, UFC Fight Pass!

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Carla Esparza | Career Retrospective
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“It’s extremely satisfying because that was my goal from the very beginning,” Rousey said. “I wanted to gain the respect of people that I respected, and I knew that I was capable. It’s funny, but you can see on some old interviews that I did where I said ‘I’m gonna make these people love me, I’m gonna make these people respect me, and all I have to do is win and win impressively.’ It’s not like they’re gonna put me in the middle of an arena and be like, ‘Okay, here’s a model airplane, put it together in 60 seconds.’ (Laughs) I have no idea how to do that. But my mom was making me drill judo and armbars and being a fighter and an athlete ever since I can remember. I can’t remember not being an athlete. It’s just doing what comes natural, and I feel like I’ve always been deserving of that respect, but I have to do things to earn it.”

In 2015, the ladies’ segment of the sport continued to grow, and as the rest of the mainstream world took notice of this exciting development in mixed martial arts, attention skyrocketed, with Rousey earning the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine, where she was described as “The Most Dominant Athlete in Sports.”

Meanwhile, a Polish powerhouse named Joanna Jedrzejczyk introduced herself with a stirring second-round knockout of Esparza that earned her the UFC women’s strawweight title. Fight fans immediately embraced “Joanna Champion,” who successfully defended her title with wins over Jessica Penne and Valerie Letourneau, the latter win coming at the historic UFC 193 event in Melbourne, Australia, which was headlined by Rousey’s title defense against Holly Holm and the Jedrzejczyk-Letourneau bout. Why so historic? Not just because two women’s bouts headlined a UFC event, but because they did it in front of a then-record crowd of 56,214 fans at Etihad Stadium.

Joanna Jedrzejczyk celebrates her championship win by Unanimous Decision after five rounds against Valerie Letourneau (not pictured) in their UFC women's strawweight championship bout during the UFC 193 event at Etihad Stadium on November 15, 2015 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

Joanna Jedrzejczyk celebrates her championship win by Unanimous Decision after five rounds against Valerie Letourneau (not pictured) in their UFC women's strawweight championship bout during the UFC 193 event at Etihad Stadium on November 15, 2015 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)


That night, Holm, a Hall of Fame boxer who won multiple titles in three divisions during her boxing career, shocked the world when she knocked Rousey out in the second round and took her bantamweight crown.

“After I was landing a few good straight lefts, I knew that I had it if I didn’t lose focus,” Holm said. “Anything can happen in there, and I didn’t want to let down my guard, thinking that this is going to be an easy task, because there’s no way that would be an easy task to take down Ronda Rousey. So I did feel confident in being able to time her, and I just needed to make sure to stay focused and not put my guard down at any time. I thought if there’s a good opening, just take it, and there wound up being the opening, so I went for it.”

Four months later, it was Holm on the receiving end of a stunning upset when Tate submitted the Albuquerque native in the fifth round to cause another shift of the 135-pound crown. But the musical chairs didn’t stop, as Amanda Nunes removed the title from Tate’s grasp and then became only the second woman to successfully defend that bantamweight belt when she knocked out Rousey in 48 seconds last December.

Holly Holm | Crowning Moment
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Unlock MORE of your inner combat sports fan with UFC Fight Pass! Fighting is what we live for. And no one brings you MORE live fights, new shows, and events across multiple combat sports from around the world. With a never-ending supply of fighting in every discipline, there’s always something new to watch. Leave it to the world’s authority in MMA to bring you the Ultimate 24/7 platform for MORE combat sports, UFC Fight Pass!

Unlock MORE of your inner combat sports fan with UFC Fight Pass! Fighting is what we live for. And no one brings you MORE live fights, new shows, and events across multiple combat sports from around the world. With a never-ending supply of fighting in every discipline, there’s always something new to watch. Leave it to the world’s authority in MMA to bring you the Ultimate 24/7 platform for MORE combat sports, UFC Fight Pass!

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Holly Holm | Crowning Moment
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Meanwhile, Jedrzejczyk continued to dominate the 115-pound weight class, as she followed up her win over Letourneau with a trio of victories over Claudia Gadelha, Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Jessica Andrade that lifted her to superstar status and had fans thinking that her reign was going to last as long as she wanted it to. But in mixed martial arts, no one is untouchable, and in November of 2017, Joanna was dethroned by rising star Rose Namajunas.

SEE WHAT'S HAPPENING IN EVERY DIVISION: Strawweight | Flyweight | Bantamweight | Featherweight

And while the bantamweights and strawweights thrilled UFC fans, the 135 and 115-pounders made way for the featherweights in 2017, with Germaine de Randamie winning the first 145-pound title by defeating Holm at UFC 208. And while the reign of "The Iron Lady" did not last long, former Strikeforce and Invicta FC titlist Cris Cyborg settled in at the top after a dominant title-winning effort over Tonya Evinger at UFC 214 in July of 2017.

Later that year, The Ultimate Fighter’s 26th season introduced the fourth weight class to the ladies’ ranks with the 125-pound flyweight division. At the TUF 26 finale, it was Nicco Montano defeating Roxanne Modafferi to become a UFC champion, and though she was later stripped of her belt, the fighter who stepped in to defeat Jedrzejczyk for the vacant belt, Valentina Shevchenko, has gone on to become perhaps the most dominant champion – regardless of gender – in the sport thanks to seven successful title defenses that have made her a household name around the world.

UFC president Dana White presents Valentina Shevchenko of Kyrgyzstan her championship belt after her victory over Joanna Jedrzejczyk of Poland in their UFC strawweight championship fight during the UFC 231 event at Scotiabank Arena on December 8, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

UFC president Dana White presents Valentina Shevchenko of Kyrgyzstan her championship belt after her victory over Joanna Jedrzejczyk of Poland in their UFC strawweight championship fight during the UFC 231 event at Scotiabank Arena on December 8, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)


Shevchenko isn’t the only international superstar on the women’s side of the sport, though, as Zhang Weili became the UFC’s first champion from China when she defeated Andrade for the strawweight crown in 2019, and later engaged in one of the best fights ever seen in the Octagon with Jedrzejczyk, and no one will forget the accomplishments of Brazil’s Nunes, the first female double-champ in UFC history and the current queen of the featherweight and bantamweight divisions. A run through of the current pound-for-pound rankings will also show fighters from Brazil, Kyrgyzstan, China, United States, France, with contenders throughout the weight classes additionally featuring competitors from Mexico, Scotland, Russia and Iran.

In other words, it’s truly an international sport now, and a golden age for women’s mixed martial arts that is expected to only get better in the next decade and beyond.