UFC 203: Proof It’s Time to Add Additional Female Weight Classes

UFC 203 is long in the books, and in analyzing its pay-per-view sales, title implications, and post-fight antics, fans and critics are overlooking the event’s significance for women’s MMA.

Despite not being particularly stacked with quality fights, UFC 203 presented viewers with quite a bit of entertainment—before, during, and even after its bouts took place. On/at this pay-per-view event, one fighter would withdraw due to sickness, another fighter would withdraw due to a back injury sustained in an elevator accident (the same elevator that several other UFC fighters were occupying), a WWE star would be bested in the first round of his professional debut, a brawl more thrilling than the sanctioned fight that preceded it would break out, and finally, a losing title challenger would incorrectly claim his opponent tapped, at one point.

Once again, this wasn’t a normal show.

However, UFC 203 also drove home an argument that’s been made by many for quite a while: the time is now to expand women’s weight classes, to flyweight initially, but even further after that.

In the featured preliminary fight of the evening, Jessica Eye lost an uneventful split decision to Bethe Correia. Eye, formerly a flyweight, has now dropped her last four fights at bantamweight. Earlier in her career, while competing at 125 lbs., Eye claimed a Bellator title by defeating Zoila Frausto, and also topped Angela Magana and several other skilled fighters.

Unfortunately, it’s clear that Eye’s size disadvantage in comparison to most other bantamweights is greatly inhibiting her Octagon success. Furthermore, she would have an essentially impossible time dropping down to strawweight.

Joanne Calderwood, the Tristar-based Muay Thai specialist, opened UFC 203’s main card opposite Jéssica Andrade, the well-rounded submission specialist and bantamweight-turned-strawweight. Calderwood was taken down, dragged out of her striking comfort zone, and submitted in the opening five minutes.

Having previously fought at flyweight in the UFC, it’s clear that the weight cut down to 115 lbs. drains Calderwood more than she’ll admit. To be sure, she looked phenomenal against Valérie Létourneau in her prior outing at flyweight.

As was said, the time to make a UFC women’s flyweight division is now. These contests serve as additional proof of the point, and the following arguments seal the deal.

First, female fighters are unnecessarily draining themselves to make the weight—potentially sacrificing their health in the process. These women are too small for bantamweight and too big for strawweight, and the effects of their cuts are evident in their performances, and equally as important, they’ve clearly documented their struggles (see Letourneau’s worrying description of her weight cut, and on a separate note, Miesha Tate during her weight cut preceding UFC 200, where she lost in the first round).

Next, the UFC is driving out top-tier competitors negatively impacted by the demands of weight cuts. Who knows if bantamweight and strawweight fighters too small and large (or perhaps even the inverse), respectively, for their particular weight class have been released in the past, despite having the skills required to fight at the highest level of their proper division. For as dominant as Demetrious Johnson currently is, it’s hard to completely forget his initial fight opposite current UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz. Similarly, Robbie Lawler came into his own after dropping back down to welterweight.

Third, the men’s divisions have this sort of depth and then some, and to create a level playing field and more pressingly, to one day boast women’s classes with as many or more competitors than the male divisions, fighters of all sizes must be accommodated (to an extent, of course). The point is that there may very well be women who would otherwise compete in MMA being deterred by the potentially tumultuous weight cut—or size disadvantage—associated with fighting.

Fourth—and this is a big one—the UFC has already held an official flyweight contest. As was briefly noted above, Joanne Calderwood competed against Valerie Letourneau at UFC Fight Night 89 in June of this year; the contest was classified as a flyweight meeting. Why not go ahead and officially announce a full-fledged division?

The answer to this question is simple: business. That’s not an attack on the UFC, either. They are a business, they operate for profit, and at the end of the day, they’re not forcing anyone to step into the cage or cut weight. But, the fact that their women’s divisions are relatively barren at the moment—especially bantamweight, as I highlighted here—isn’t helping the potential creation of flyweight. Many fighters would move classes, and instead of having two thin divisions, they’d have three or more thinner divisions.

This is understandable, but some of the top current strawweights, along with some of the top current bantamweights and natural flyweights (especially those signed with Invicta), would culminate and make one hell of a division—perhaps one that surpasses the others in terms of quality.

The blame can’t be pinned squarely on the UFC, either. Last Friday, the clear-cut number two promotion in the world, Bellator MMA, held an event that featured two talented flyweights—Anastasia Yankova and Veta Arteaga—competing against one another on the main card. Unfortunately, Yankova would have to move the 125 lbs. limit up several times due to a particularly strenuous weight cut—moves her opponent agreed to, perhaps because of her own weight-shedding process. The end result was a bout contested at a catchweight of 131 lbs.

While Anastasia is a solid fighter, it’s too early in her MMA career to know for certain just how good she is. However, we can be fairly sure that she wouldn’t have gotten hit so much and rocked so badly had she not dealt with ample adversity before stepping on the scale. It’s clear that she too is unable to make flyweight comfortably (or even safely), but moving up to featherweight (the next division up in Bellator) would prove disastrous because of the size disadvantage she’d place herself at.

A bantamweight division in the promotion would go a long way in helping athletes like Yankova and Arteaga find a weight class to call their own, and also, at attracting as much attention to the company and its competitors as possible. While it’s true that, as in the UFC, this would further dilute already-thin divisions, the immediate benefits to fighters as they perform at their best, put on exciting shows, and attract viewers would be significant, as would the long-term benefits of the move: deeper women’s MMA weight classes, and additionally skilled female fighters.

To sum it all up, success won’t come immediately for the UFC or Bellator if they choose to broaden their women’s MMA horizons. However, once the dust settles in two to five years, the benefits of the maneuver will be monumental—financially and otherwise.

Max King