Thursday, October 21, 2010

Female MMA History

MMA has history. It’s not a very long history, and it’s constantly changing, so sometimes people don’t think it’s important, but I think examining the sport’s history is essential to understanding its present and future.

There hasn’t been much written on the history of female MMA. Here, I’ve attempted to construct a history, pieced together with all the information I could research. Most of the information comes from Japanese sources, so the history must be slightly Japanized. But, this was a piece that needed writing, so I’ve written it to the best of my abilities. If you have the will and knowledge to write something similar, please write it.

Japanese women’s MMA has its roots in female pro wrestling. In 2010, you can still find many current and ex-pro wrestlers competing in Japanese women’s promotions like Jewels and Valkyrie. The thin female scene has also acquired much of its talent from kickboxing. I don’t judge those fighters by their backgrounds, but I do think elite martial artists are a special breed. Martial artists who convert from other disciplines only truly shine against stiff competition, and the Japanese female MMA scene isn’t at that level yet, aside from a handful of top-tier fighters.

Female MMA in Japan began when the promotion Ladies Legend Pro Wrestling (LLPW) started its “shoot fighting” Ultimate L-1 Challenge tournament in 1995. The first L-1 tourney was ruled by Svetlana Goundarenko, a Russian Olympic judoka who tipped the scales at 150kg (330 lbs.).

After a few shows, LLPW discontinued its experiment, but in that era, female pro wrestling orgs couldn’t ignore MMA. Therefore, Neo Women’s Pro Wrestling started an event named ReMix in 2000.

The first ReMix World Cup offered a huge bonus of $100,000 to the tournament winner. That type of money had never before been offered in female MMA, so many foreign fighters came to participate in the events, including current stars like Marloes Coenen and Erin Toughill.

L-1 ruler Goundarenko also took part in the tournament since, like men’s MMA, there were no weight classes in the early stages. One would think that the heavier fighter would have an advantage, but Goundarenko lost in the tournament semifinals to 60kg (132 lbs.) fighter Megumi Yabushita. How? ReMix rules prohibited ground-and-pound, and featured a 20 second time limitation for ground fighting. Yabushita was able to avoid Goundarenko’s submission game with the turtle position, and Goundarenko’s stamina proved to be less than impressive, having competed in Olympic judo at 72kg (158 lbs.). So, Yabushita outstruck the Russian with low kicks, and then tried to take down the gassed Goundarenko. After this bout, female MMA began to favor small-but-athletic fighters over heavyweight fighters. Of course, there aren’t many heavyweight female competitors anyway, compared to the number in men’s MMA.

Neo recognized that it couldn’t continue to hand out the huge cash bonus which drew many competitors to the ReMix tournament, and therefore made a new brand for female MMA.

From 2001 to 2008, Japanese women’s MMA was ruled by one promotion: Smackgirl. Founded by Neo Women’s Pro Wrestling head Daiki Shinosaki, Smackgirl operated with a limited rule set, prohibiting ground-and-pound and setting a 30-second time limit for ground work. The ground limitation was eventually lifted in 2007, but it stunted the level of skill improvement in the early stages of women’s MMA. Still, Smackgirl was the only all-female MMA organization in the world to continuously hold events; therefore, almost all of the day’s well-known female fighters passed through the Smackgirl ring.

Koichiro Kimura is the man who developed the ground rules for women’s MMA in Japan. He started an event separate from Smackgirl, named AX. It would run for less than one year, but AX did host some crucial matches. Early on, Smackgirl’s Ikuma Hoshino was considered the Japanese female fighting ace. However, Hoshino lost to Yuka Tsuji via armbar at AX’s second event. It was Tsuji’s first fight, and Hoshino’s first loss.

Tsuji would prove to be Japan’s first elite female fighter, notching 22 wins between 2001 and 2009. Her only loss in that period came at the hands of Ana Michelle Tavares in July 2003, and that memory was erased when Tsuji won a rematch via first-round TKO in September 2009.

Yuka Tsuji

Tsuji’s loss to Tavares took place in Deep, and set a new standard for local Japanese MMA promotions, who began mixing female fights into previously male-only cards. Also during that period, a new rookie beat Tavares and assumed Tsuji’s position at Japan’s female ace. Her name was Megumi Fujii.

After dissolving AX, Koichiro Kimura continued trying to promote female MMA events. He worked with Shooto to start G-Shooto, which opened doors for female fighters to participate in the world’s longest-running and most sporting MMA promotion. Despite Shooto’s reputation for churning out top fighters, G-Shooto never reached its potential, running for just two years before folding.

It was in G-Shooto that Megumi Fujii became the first fighter to defeat Tavares. Fujii was known for her participation in sambo and BJJ competitions, and did not debut in MMA until the age of 30.

Megumi Fujii

If you’ve watched local female MMA in Japan, you’ve probably realized that the lower tier of female fighters is simply not well-trained. It’s no great secret. Male MMA fighters often point to this fact when asked why they refuse to treat female competitors as equals.

Fujii was the opposite of that stereotype. She told her students, “we need to be well-trained in order to not be looked down at by males.”

In December 2004, lightweight fighter Takumi Yano refused to participate in a Pancrase event. His reasoning? Yano had a philosophy about female fights, and therefore would not take part in a card which involved female fighters.

Pancrase, itself an offshoot of professional wrestling, began holding female fights in 2004 under the specially devised “Pancrase Athena” division. The rules consisted of three-minute rounds (as opposed to the standard mens’ five), but did allow for ground-and-pound.

Pancrase began cooperating with the All-Japan Kickboxing Federation (AJKF), bringing in kickboxing converts such as “Windy” Tomomi Sunaba. However, the Athena division had only one true prospect, and that was Hisae Watanabe.

Watanabe made her debut with Smackgirl in 2002. She lost to rival Satoko Shinashi in the 2002 Smackgirl tournament, but audiences were interested in Watanabe because of her “gal” style.

Watanabe’s weak area was on the ground, so she began working out at Gutsman Shooto Dojo and cross-training with male fighters to develop her submission game.

In 2006, at Deep’s 25 Impact, a rematch between Watanabe and Shinashi drew huge attention in the Japanese MMA scene. Four years after their initial meeting, Watanabe outgrappled Shinashi and scored a huge first-round knockout win. Until that point, elite Japanese female fighters had been mostly dependent on submission styles. This type of striking and grappling fusion at a high level was really a first for Japanese female fighters.

However, Watanabe would lose her next match to Seo Hee Ham, a South Korean kickboxing convert with a background in Sanshou. Watanabe showed confidence in her striking, but Ham still outstruck her. Watanabe tried to work her newly-developed ground game, but that wasn’t enough to finish Ham either, and the Korean debutante eventually took a two-round unanimous decision.

Seo Hee Ham

Ham made her name in the Watanabe fight, but her grappling game was not strong enough to hang with Japan’s elite female fighters. She would lose bouts to both Fujii and Tsuji after being outgrappled. Immediately after her win over Watanabe, Ham also lost to a young up-and-comer named Miku Matsumoto.

Hailing from Toyama, Matsumoto was not well-known in Tokyo, since half of her early fights were held in her hometown. She also didn’t participate in Smackgirl, which drew the most attention from women’s MMA fans at the time, being female-only.

Matsumoto became known following a controversial loss to Carina Damm wherein the Brazilian scored an armbar submission, secured in part by grabbing Matsumoto’s glove. Deep promoter Shigeru Saeki -- who sent Matsumoto to the fight in the now-defunct promotion MARS -- got angry and demanded a rematch from the organization’s head, Yuki Amano. One month later, Miku beat Damm by unanimous decision.

Matsumoto’s next fight would be a submission loss to Lisa Ward in Smackgirl. Afterward, Miku said Ward was on a “different level” from herself. This loss drove Matsumoto to become a more complete fighter.

Matsumoto went on to claim the Deep title by outstriking the striker Watanabe to a majority decision in August 2007. Matsumoto showed a technical prowess and brutal knockout power which is rarely seen in female MMA. In August 2008, having armbarred Misaki Takimoto in three previous meetings, Matsumoto knocked Takimoto out with vicious kicks to the body. Six months later, she destroyed Nicdali Calanoc in 21 seconds with similarly nasty knees from the Thai clinch. Matsumoto was not only showing a new level of striking in female MMA, but simultaneously building a viral video fanbase.

Putting her Deep belt on the line, Miku rematched Lisa Ward in front of a supportive hometown crowd in June 2009. This time, Matsumoto totally outgrappled Ward, eventually submitting her via armbar in the third round.

After this, many fans called for Matsumoto to fight Fujii, since they were now considered the top two pound-for-pound female fighters in Japan. Miku intended to fight Fujii, but Fujii changed weight classes and Matsumoto made a sudden decision to retire. Matsumoto didn’t explain to fans why she chose to retire, stating only that there was nothing left for her. However, she said, if there was enough money for top-tier female mixed martial artists, she might return someday.

On April 17, 2010, Fujii and Matsumoto took part in a special exhibition match at Deep’s 47 Impact, after which Miku relinquished her title and retired. Near the same time, Fujii took her act stateside and began participating in Bellator Fighting Championships’ 115-pound women’s tournament.

When Smackgirl folded in 2008 due to financial issues, it gave way to two separate all-female organizations: Jewels and Valkyrie. The result has been a diluted talent pool too shallow to support either organization.

The separate promotions created a horrible situation. A few years before, every female MMA fan thought of a dream match between Meguji Fujii and Yuka Tsuji; now, it was prevented from happening by organizational politics. (Fujii worked with Deep-affiliated Jewels early on, while Tsuji sided with the Greatest Common Multiple-ran Valkyrie.) It’s unacceptable for fights like this not to materialize because of political reasons. Female MMA doesn’t have an endless supply of fighters to help boost popularity. With such a small amount of quality fighters, organizations simply can’t afford to avoid these matchups.

Still, today’s local female MMA scene is the best ever. There are more prospects than ever before, with fighters like Rin Nakai, Hiroko Yamanaka, Ayaka Hamasaki and Sakura Nomura all steadily rising in the ranks. I can say that more real talent with all-around MMA knowledge will continue to rise up, both locally and in the world.

Ayaka Hamasaki

Hiroko Yamanaka

Rin Nakai

With the American MMA market expanding in the post-TUF era, the women’s MMA market in the U.S. has also grown. With Strikeforce creating major women’s titles, female fighters are receiving more attention than ever before.

At first, the stateside scene didn’t get much attention at all, since there was no stable organization holding all-female MMA events. Some investors tried to develop a female MMA scene after watching the success of “The Ultimate Fighter.”

Internet casino owner Calvin Ayre started bringing elite female competitors onto his BodogFight events, including Tara LaRosa, Amanda Buckner, Hitomi Akano and Shayna Baszler. While it made many dream matchups possible, the events were mostly held outside of the U.S. market and didn’t generate much attention.

After BodogFight, fans saw two fighters as sitting atop the women’s 60kg (132-pound) division: Tara LaRosa and Amanda Bucker. (No, I didn’t forget Laura D’Auguste, but she chose not to continue her career.) In April 2008, one Japanese fighter beat Buckner and shook up that situation. Her name was Takayo Hashi.

Hashi had won the Smackgirl title against Hitomi Akano, and although that was a sound accomplishment, Hashi was not considered among the super elite. Hashi went in underweight against Buckner, but outstruck the American with superior kickboxing technique.

I’m not sure if I need to explain Gina Carano to visitors of this website, so I’ll just talk about the basics. Carano was known for her charm and beauty, and gained great popularity on MMA forums. She fought for EliteXC and became something of an idol, maintaining an unbeaten record while beating mostly undersized opponents.

Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos was first known for being the wife of Pride veteran Evangelisa “Cyborg” Santos, but she became known as the first female fighter to combine a stunning physique with actual striking skills. Her impressive early performances against the likes of Baszler and Yoko Takahashi gave people the idea of “Cyborg” vs. Carano.

In 2009, Strikeforce purchased EliteXC’s assets and held a 145-pound female championship bout between Santos and Carano. It was the first female title fight to be held within a major MMA organization.

“Cyborg” used her physical strength to put Carano down and pound her out. Watching Santos’ power, people couldn’t help but think that a new generation of athlete had entered female MMA.

After the event’s success, Strikeforce started a second women’s title division at 135 pounds, where Sarah Kaufman became champion. “Cyborg” and Kaufman were seen as the new evolution of female fighters.

Because of the money and attention available there in the early days of MMA, most elite female fighters have fights in Japan on their records. Roxanne Modafferi, on the other hand, always had ambitions to live and fight in Japan.

Roxanne is known as an optimistic character, so she’s gained a lot of support from fans and those around her. She started in Japan teaching English at a private school, or eikawa.

Modafferi continued to evolve as a fighter with support from her Wajyutsu Keishukai teammate, Ryan Bow, and his Kaminari Dojo people. Despite always having a popular online presence, her first real fan attention came after the 2007 K-Grace tournament.

The eight-woman K-Grace tournament was held by Japanese sports newspaper (or tabloid) Naitai Sports on May 27, 2007, and carried a $10,000 bonus for the winner. It was there that Modafferi beat Megumi Yabushita in the semifinals, then went on to defeat Marloes Coenen by a close decision in the final round. Coenen knocked Modafferi down in the first round, but Modafferi took the Dutchwoman down in the second and worked her ground-and-pound, avoiding Coenen’s armbar attempts.

Coenen had a tough time at 66kg (145 lbs.), losing a unanimous decision to the debuting Cindy Dandois in January 2009. However, Coenen signed with Strikeforce and, in November of that year, took her revenge on Modafferi with a first-round armbar submission. She next stepped up to face the champion “Cyborg,” but couldn’t handle Santos’ striking and physical pressure and, like many others, was TKO’d.

In October 2010, 10 years after winning the first ReMix tourney, Coenen dropped to 135 pounds and armbarred Sarah Kaufman to take the Strikeforce title.

It was this nice coincidence and timing which made me think it was a good time to look back at female MMA history. In 10 years, we’ve confirmed that actual divisions can develop when elite fighters face one another often enough, such as in Strikeforce and Bellator. Having finally jumped that hurdle, female MMA can look forward to having even greater success.

Big thanks to Chris Nelson (write for Bloody Elbow and Sherdog) for English and editing.