Ronda Rousey isn’t a ‘game changer’ for women’s sports; many have come before her

Since emerging on the MMA scene in 2011, few have been able to deny Ronda Rousey's astounding achievements. In less than three years as…

By: Karim Zidan | 9 years ago
Ronda Rousey isn’t a ‘game changer’ for women’s sports; many have come before her
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Since emerging on the MMA scene in 2011, few have been able to deny Ronda Rousey’s astounding achievements. In less than three years as a professional, she has broken through the ceiling on women’s MMA and has spearheaded their arrival to the sport’s premier organization – the UFC.

While her numerous accomplishments are well documented and fully appreciated, UFC President Dana White, who has been known to blazon Rousey at any and every possible moment that presents itself, referred to her as a ‘game changer,’ not just for women’s MMA but for women in other sports and across all walks of life.

“I think she’s important to women in sports, period,” White said at the UFC 175 post-fight media scrum. “I think she’s such a big game changer for women. Women in general, in life, everything. Ronda Rousey is a game changer.

“When you look at the NBA – women play basketball – everybody s***s on it – women’s golf (same thing). This is a woman who can walk out of this building, walk down the Las Vegas strip and wreck every guy. There has never been a woman in the history of the world who can do that.”

It is one thing for a promoter to exaggerate the truth to sell a fight card-that’s just good marketing.  However, it is entirely unforgivable when those comments are a complete fallacy and blatantly disregard the rich and storied history that women have carved for themselves in the sporting world. Anyone interested in sports history can easily find an abundance of female involvement across any sport’s timeline. While it’s true that women athletes are more prominent in certain sports over others (such as tennis and gymnastics), White’s comments are particularly heinous as they make invisible the presence of female participation in professional sports by framing Rousey as the foremost pioneer for women athletes everywhere.

There have been many female athletes that have made tremendous headway for women in their particular sports. Here are some, just to name a few:

Billie Jean King, who will forever be remembered as one of tennis’ great champions, took part in arguably the most watched tennis match of all time: the “Battle of the Sexes.” This match saw her face Bobby Riggs, a former world No. 1 back in the 1940s, in order to determine, once and for all, if female tennis pros could play as well as well as the men.  King had initially rejected Rigg’s chauvinistic challenge, but after seeing the top-ranked female Margaret Court lose to him, she accepted in 1973.

King and Riggs were both past their prime years when they faced off, but it was the stylistic approach to the match that made all the difference. King, who studied Riggs’ game from his previous match against Court, relied on an entirely different gameplan than her usual aggressive style, which appeared to befuddle Riggs enough to win the match. While Riggs was 26 years older than King and there were accusations of match fixing on Riggs’ part, it was an extraordinary achievement for King, who was known to champion women’s rights during her time on the tour.

King was the driving force of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and played a pivotal role in making it so that women tennis players were eventually paid the same amount as their male counterparts.She had threatened to boycott the US Open, where she was the defending champion in 1973, if the tournament would not give out equal prize money with regards to that offered to the male players. Officials at Flushing Meadows gave in and prize money was equalized.

Following King’s retirement, top players such as Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova would take over her advocacy efforts, but it would be the Williams sisters who would bring the women’s game to new heights. Instead of playing with finesse, these two young phenoms brought an entirely new physical dimension to the game that subsequently raised the bar for the future generation. Venus and Serena permanently changed the women’s game and brought with them unrivalled coverage of the sport. They still stand as two of the most recognizable female athletes in the world – far ahead of Ronda Rousey.

Maria Sharapova is another tennis star that deserves recognition for a variety of reasons. Apart from her notable achievements in tennis and her exorbitant endorsement deals, Sharapova had managed to transform herself into a brand. Similar to the likes of LeBron James and Tiger Woods, Sharapova is able to draw massive television ratings to the events she participates in and has been a key player in women’s tennis over the past decade. Her value was noted in the Sochi Olympics, where she was one of the torch bearers in the opening ceremony.

Mia Hamm is another pioneer in the women’s sports, and is partly responsible for the growing soccer fandom in the United States during the 90s and early 2000s. Apart from her many accolades, which include 158 international goals (which was the record for international goals scored by any soccer player, male or female, until 2013 when another female player claimed that feat) and a national record of 144 career assists, Hamm was also a founding member of the Washington Freedom football club and ranked as one of the most influential soccer players in the United Stated until her retirement.

Is it fair for Dana to disregard the centuries of trailblazers that superseded Rousey, or the women who have managed far bigger ripples in the sporting world? How about Maud Watson who won Wimbledon in 1884 and ’85 when women’s singles competition was added? Or Annie Kopchovsky, who became the first woman to bicycle around the world back in 1894? How about Lizzie Arlington, who became the first woman to sign a professional baseball contract in 1898? Or even 14-year-old Aileen Riggins, who would win the first women’s Olympic springboard diving competition, thus setting off a dominant streak for US women in the competition between 1920-1948? And what about Edith Cummings, a golfer who, in 1924, was the first female athlete to appear on the cover of TIME magazine? And finally, what about all of the non-athlete women who fought for the passing of Title IX, which made it possible for hundreds of thousands of American women to participate in a wide range of publicly-funded sports?

So now I must ask: just how much has Ronda Rousey really done for women’s sports? Her impact on WMMA is immense, but her accomplishments account for less than a ripple in the sea of achievements that other female pioneers have accomplished. This is not an insult to Rousey, nor an attempt to underplay all of her successes, but rather a tribute to the other female athletes who deserve the same if not more recognition for crusading their beliefs and rights until they became commonplace. Rousey is just the latest in a long, long line of remarkable female athletes, and while we should hail her successes for the sport, we should not allow ourselves to neglect the long and impressive history of female athletic pioneers.

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About the author
Karim Zidan
Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is a investigative reporter and feature writer focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. He has written for BloodyElbow since 2014 and has served as an associate editor since 2016. He also writes for The New York Times and The Guardian. Karim has been invited to speak about his work at numerous universities, including Princeton, and was a panelist at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Oslo Freedom Forum. He also participated in the United Nations counter-terrorism conference in 2021. His reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov’s involvement in MMA, much of which was done for Bloody Elbow, has led to numerous award nominations, and was the basis of an award-winning HBO Real Sports documentary.

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