Women’s MMA 2016: Year in Review

2016 was the most important year yet for women’s MMA, and in this piece we’ll recap all the incredible moments that made it so.

Back in 2011, TMZ was able to capture a quick interview with UFC President Dana White right before he stepped into his car. The second (and final) question asked by the cameraman conducting this interview was simple and direct: “When will we see women in the UFC?”. Similarly, White’s answer was concise and to the point: “Never”.

Perhaps White, being an excellent businessman and intelligent person, was downplaying women’s MMA to undervalue the UFC’s largest rival at the time, Strikeforce, which was beginning to popularize female combat by providing prominent fight-card positions to athletes like Amanda Nunes, Marloes Coenen, and others at this point, and Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate, as well as others yet in the future. This seems likely, as the UFC would purchase Strikeforce outright just a couple months after this interview.

However, there’s also a pretty good chance that White, at least in part, was nervous about the prospects of success for women’s MMA. At the time of this interview, it had been less than six years since Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar saved the UFC from bankruptcy by putting on an incredible show for fans at the TUF 1 Finale. Their performance launched the UFC into the mainstream, and additionally, onto the televisions of interested viewers across the world.

Before this bout jumpstarted the UFC, its owners, the Fertitta Brothers, had poured many, many millions of dollars into it; the initial two million they spent to purchase the company seemed like nothing compared to the thirty or so they spent keeping it alive between 2001 and 2006. The point is, the days of being buried in debt weren’t too far in the rearview mirror for White or the Fertittas, and they may not have wanted to rock the boat by adding women to the UFC roster.

This was a big mistake, but in fairness, there was almost no way to predict just how popular women’s MMA would become at this point. It would be easy to poke fun at White’s comments now, but how could he have known that female competitors would amplify the UFC’s popularity and success, instead of alienating longtime fans? How could he have known that Ronda Rousey would soon be selling out entire stadiums and millions of pay-per-views while breaking into acting and modeling? Or that Miesha Tate could also find success in acting and modeling, in addition to the cage. Furthermore, a significant number of female stars have also emerged, including Holly Holm, Joanna Jędrzejczyk, and Paige VanZant.

But for as successful and profitable as women’s MMA has been since Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche initiated a global craze at UFC 157, in the inaugural UFC women’s bantamweight title fight, 2016 was something of an anomaly—at the outset and in practice.

The one consistent factor in the rise and continued success of women’s MMA was Ronda Rousey. Other spectacular athletes and personalities also helped to build interest, but she was the one garnering the most attention, by and far, both inside and outside the Octagon. Accordingly, when Holly Holm brutally knocked her out in November 2015 at UFC 193, and Rousey needed to take some time off from fighting, the future was unclear for women’s MMA. Sure, there were never any doubts about whether or not it would continue to exist, but the question of whether or not it would continue to grow and command fans’ attention needed to be answered.

2016 has been loud and clear in its response, as the past twelve months have been the most significant yet for women’s MMA —inside the UFC, Bellator, and away from the cage altogether. To commemorate and celebrate this point, let’s take a look at the specific occurrences responsible for further elevating the independence and popularity of MMA for female athletes.

 

Lauren Murphy and Kelly Faszholz Thrill Fans at UFC Fight Night 83—February 21

Lauren Murphy and Kelly Faszholz. Photo: MMAJunkie
Lauren Murphy and Kelly Faszholz. Photo: MMAJunkie

Few fans expected a whole lot of action from Lauren Murphy and Kelly Faszholz at UFN 83. Fazholz was making her promotional debut, while Murphy was looking to rebound from back-to-back losses. But, instead of being a boring contest buried on Fight Pass, their bout was a fast-paced demonstration of skill, excitement, and heart, and also, was awarded “Fight of the Night” honors.

Lauren Murphy may have officially won via TKO with just five seconds left in the fight, but the real victors of this one were the fans—and women’s MMA.

 

Rebecca Ruth Makes Her Name Known Against Lena Ovchynnikova at Bellator 150—February 26

Rebecca Ruth and Lena Ovchynnikova. Photo: Bellator MMA/Viacom
Rebecca Ruth and Lena Ovchynnikova. Photo: Bellator MMA/Viacom

Rebecca Ruth had all the makings of a high-level MMA competitor prior to Bellator 150: a nice win streak, clear technical prowess, years of experience, and toughness that simply will not allow her to quit. However, the only thing that had eluded Ruth to this point was a high-profile win over a big-name opponent on a sizable stage. This is exactly what she earned against Lena Ovchynnikova, a skilled martial artist, world-champion kickboxer, and well-followed competitor, on Bellator 150’s main card. Over eight-hundred thousand fans watched this main card live, with millions more following the results online.

The pressure and takedowns of Ruth carried her to victory across three rounds—with a good deal of adversity worked in as well—and she proved that Bellator’s flyweight division is talent-heavy and here to stay, just as she is. Any conversation of 2016’s best women’s MMA moments should include Ruth.

 

Miesha Tate Dethrones Holly Holm At UFC 196—March 5

Miesha Tate Submits Holly Holm at UFC 196. Photo: LA Times
Miesha Tate Submits Holly Holm at UFC 196. Photo: LA Times

To many, Holly Holm seemed invincible following her magnificent head-kick knockout of Ronda Rousey. The Jackson-Wink product had a vast array of techniques and maneuvers at her disposal, boasted an undefeated record, and had adopted the same “unbeatable” demeanor that Rousey had at her peak. Thus, few critics or fans gave longtime veteran Miesha Tate much of a chance at victory against Holm in the co-main event slot of the year’s second best-selling pay-per-view, UFC 196.

And through four rounds, it looked like the majority would be correct. Besides a dominant round two, made possible by a takedown and submission attempt, Tate was being outpointed by the world champion boxer Holm. In the fifth and final round, however, Miesha showed how much of a veteran she was by making a few key adjustments, completing a takedown, locking in a rear-naked choke, and stealing the belt away after encountering the brink of defeat.

This win—the culmination of thousands upon thousands of hours of hard work and training put in by Tate over a decade-plus—was made even more significant because of its once again ultra-important co-main event slot. Needless to say, this submission was awarded “Performance of the Night” honors. Tellingly, the next women’s bantamweight champion, Amanda Nunes, kicked UFC 196’s main card off with a win over Valentina Shevchenko.

 

Paige VanZant Makes Her Dancing with the Stars Debut–March 21

Paige VanZant's Official DWTS Photo. Source: ABC
Paige VanZant’s Official DWTS Photo. Source: ABC

Paige VanZant also had a very fruitful and successful year outside the Octagon–particularly on network television, as she competed on the twenty-second season of Dancing with the Stars. Booking VanZant on the program seemed like a phenomenal idea at the outset–fighting requires a substantial dedication to footwork which can also be applied to dancing, she’s displayed her dancing-specific skills in the past, and her popularity has been steadily rising since her UFC debut.

Paige’s abilities and performances on the show proved that inviting her to compete was an intelligent maneuver, however, as she and her dancing partner, Mark Ballas, continually wowed viewers and judges alike week after week. VanZant and Ballas would ultimately finish in second place, out of twenty dancers, although many believe they should have been awarded the number-one spot.

In addition to drawing ample positive attention towards women’s MMA and her specific fighting career, Paige VanZant broke down a substantial barrier by joining the cast of Dancing with the Stars. Even without Ronda Rousey actively competing, new female MMA stars can and will emerge–and knowing this is half the battle, as the same question and worry arose for men’s MMA when Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva stepped away from the spotlight. Thus, VanZant made clear that the sport will roll onward without losing steam–even when ultra-popular competitors decide to retire.

 

Cristiane Justino Makes Her Long-Awaited Octagon Debut Against Leslie Smith at UFC 198—May 14

Cris Cyborg and Leslie Smith. Photo: UFC
Cris Cyborg and Leslie Smith. Photo: UFC

Cris Justino—commonly identified by her semi-official nickname, “Cyborg”—had dominated outside the UFC prior to her promotional debut. Having not lost a contest since her professional debut in 2005, Cyborg became the Strikeforce featherweight champion, and then the Invicta featherweight champion, beating the likes of Gina Carano and Marloes Coenen in the process. Some logistical issues and questions of “risk and reward” delayed her UFC debut, but after these problems were eventually solved, Cyborg seamlessly brought her talents to the Octagon against Leslie Smith, winning via TKO in less than ninety seconds in a virtually flawless performance at UFC 198.

Before, as women’s MMA was still in its early UFC stages, Cyborg had no desire to fight in the promotion. But after years of substantial growth and a steadily increasing reach, she had no choice but to do so, as an athlete, to allow herself the largest platform to compete upon. By its own right, her debut was important, but more than that, it was a sign of the times.

 

Alexis Dufresne Upsets Former Strikeforce and Invicta Champion Marloes Coenen at Bellator 155—May 20

Alexis Dufresne Submits Marloes Coenen. Photo: Bellator/Viacom
Alexis Dufresne Submits Marloes Coenen. Photo: Bellator/Viacom

Few expected late-replacement Alexis Dufresne to put up much of a fight against Marloes Coenen at Bellator 155. Sure, Dufresne was a UFC veteran boasting an impressive record, but her difficulties in the UFC, along with the fact that she once again took this match on short notice, were points which didn’t prompt very many to instill confidence in her. Also working against her was Marloes Coenen, a women’s MMA pioneer, skillful practitioner, and former world champion riding a two-fight winning streak.

However, the one thing overlooked by most everyone was the weight cut aspect. Alexis Dufresne had commented multiple times that her cut down to 135 lbs. in the UFC inhibited her performances. In this featherweight bout—where she missed weight by a small margin, but had much more “wiggle room”—her analysis was proven correct.

Alexis took her opponent down early and rode the position out for three minutes or so, landing a series of stinging blows in the process. Then, the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu awareness of Coenen pulled through temporarily as she completed a reversal and jumped into the full guard. After controlling Coenen’s hands inconspicuously, much like Anderson Silva did against Chael Sonnen in their first fight, Dufresne threw her legs up for a technically perfect triangle. Coenen fought out of it for as long as she could, but was forced to tap when an armbar was added to the mix by Alexis.

Just like that, Alexis Dufresne had beaten one of the greatest female featherweights of all time, shocked the world, and bolstered Bellator’s weight-class depth. This was a remarkable 2016 women’s MMA moment.

 

Joanne Calderwood Beats Valérie Létourneau in the UFC’s First Women’s Flyweight Bout at UFC Fight Night 89—June 18

Joanne Calderwood and Valerie Letourneau Poster. Photo: UFC
Joanne Calderwood Versus Valerie Letourneau Poster. Photo: UFC

UFC strawweight Valerie Letourneau has publicly documented her weight-cutting struggles several times, and her difficulty making 115 lbs.—in coordination with the difficulty many other women undoubtedly face in doing so—along with the UFC’s interest in adding new, and likely profitable, female divisions prompted the inception of the women’s flyweight class.

At UFC Fight Night 89, on June 18, Letourneau met Calderwood in the first-ever UFC women’s flyweight bout. This exciting match saw Calderwood walk away with a third-round TKO finish, in what could very well have been, but unfortunately wasn’t, a “Performance of the Night” victory (Donald Cerrone and Krzysztof Jotko’s first-round finishes deserved UFN 89’s bonuses, but on most other nights, Calderwood would have been a shoe in).

And while the UFC has yet to formally instate the weight class, this match demonstrated their willingness to consider accommodating female fighters of all sizes, and furthermore, it set the stage for the adoption of a women’s featherweight class, which would come later in the year.

Thus, while we aren’t lucky enough to have a full-fledged women’s flyweight division presently—likely because the UFC brass don’t want to weaken a still-developing strawweight class or lose any bantamweights—its future creation is all but guaranteed. And when its announcement does come, Calderwood and Letourneau will still have the honor of having been the fighters to mint it.

 

Ilima-Lei Macfarlane Establishes Her Legitimacy Against Rebecca Ruth at Bellator 157—June 24

Ilima Lei Macfarlane Submits Rebecca Ruth. Photo: Bellator/Viacom
Ilima Lei Macfarlane Submits Rebecca Ruth. Photo: Bellator/Viacom

Controversial losses can define a fighter’s career, but more than this, controversial wins can really stick with an athlete. Case and point: Ilima-Lei Macfarlane’s ten-second knockout of Katie Castro in the Xplode Fight Series. Footage of this contest went viral after Macfarlane, in her professional debut, brutally finished Castro in ten seconds. Castro, clearly having no business competing as a professional, held her hands low, boasted an out-of-shape physique, and wore tights for the match. She had lost her prior two fights via finish in less than thirty seconds, and Xplode had been identified at the center of a controversial matchmaking and record-stacking scheme in the past.

Even though this victory came at no fault of Macfarlane’s, and she gained a tremendous amount of press from it, many individuals doubted her abilities as an athlete, judging her on this one fight alone. But at Bellator 157, on the main card, she kept her professional record intact and won via gorgeous rear-naked choke against an elite opponent in Rebecca Ruth.

This win legitimized Ilima-Lei Macfarlane in the eyes of many fans, and further expanded the depth of Bellator’s flyweight class, as well as their women’s MMA roster as a whole.

 

Joanna Jędrzejczyk and Cláudia Gadelha End Their Rivalry and TUF 23—July 8

Joanna Champion and Claudia Gadelha 2. Photo: UFC
Joanna Champion and Claudia Gadelha 2. Photo: UFC

Part of the UFC’s much-anticipated “Fight Week”, The Ultimate Fighter 23 Finale crowned two new TUF winners and saw coaches Joanna Jędrzejczyk and Cláudia Gadelha put an end to their bitter rivalry. The two skillful competitors first fought in December 2014, when Joanna Champion won via split decision. Ever since then, the women have publicly butted heads, and as it’s not a secret that drama, tension, and high-stakes sell reality TV, booking them opposite one another to coach TUF was a no-brainer.

Their main event, and conclusion to a heated couple months coaching against one another, was more than worthy of the “Fight of the Night” honors it received, as both Gadelha and Jedrzejczyk left it all inside the Octagon. Claudia started off strong in the opening two rounds, but as Joanna Champion delivered more and more blows without slowing down, her power-minded opponent began to falter. Thus, the last few rounds were enough to definitively win Joanna the fight.

Gadelha-Jedrejcyzk 2 was a huge deal because it provided two ultra-exciting female fighters with a massive platform to market themselves, but more importantly, it validated the women’s strawweight division. Although there’s still room for growth, strawweight is no longer an afterthought to women’s bantamweight—and this TUF season and finale serve as proof of the point.

 

Amanda Nunes Claims the Bantamweight Title Against Miesha Tate at UFC 200—July 9

Miesha Tate and Amanda Nunes UFC 200 Poster. Photo: UFC
Miesha Tate and Amanda Nunes UFC 200 Poster. Photo: UFC

UFC 200 was 2016’s biggest MMA card. It may not have sold quite as many times as UFC 196 and UFC 205 did, but from top to bottom, it was the most stacked and anticipated event held by the promotion. For reference, UFC 200’s Fight Pass portion featured Jim Miller versus Takanori Gomi, Gegard Mousasi versus Thiago Santos, and Joe Lauzon versus Diego Sanchez—fights that would have been on the main card of any other event!

This near-insane stacking carried on through the televised prelims and onto the main card, upon which former heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez clashed with Travis Browne, former featherweight champion Jose Aldo rematched former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar, light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier took one for the team by fighting former middleweight champion Anderson Silva on three days’ notice, and former heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar returned against longtime veteran and former UFC title challenger Mark Hunt.

Based upon the undeniable quality of UFC 200’s bouts, as well as its desirable placement at the top of Fight Week, it’s not hard to understand why the main-event slot was so coveted. In the end, the UFC chose Miesha Tate and Amanda Nunes to headline the show—a massive, massive achievement for both women.

And just as Holly Holm took the belt from Ronda Rousey, and Miesha Tate from Holm, Amanda Nunes delivered a stunning performance and stole the title away from Tate. After connecting with stiff punches from the get go, Nunes took her opponent’s back, locked in a rear-naked choke, and drew a tap at the three-minute mark of the very first round.

Just like that, the UFC had another women’s bantamweight champion.

This impressive upset shocked many fans and illustrated just why the UFC decided to headline their biggest show of all time with Miesha Tate and Amanda Nunes; these women always deliver.

 

Valentina Shevchenko Bests Holly Holm in UFC on Fox 20’s Main Event—July 23

Holly Holm and Valentina Schevchenko Poster. Photo: UFC
Holly Holm and Valentina Schevchenko Poster. Photo: UFC

The UFC doesn’t play around with Fox main events. Since signing a massive television deal with the value-heavy network in 2011, each event held on the main Fox channel has been stacked to the brim with talented and attention-grabbing fighters. More pressingly, Fox main events are always grade-A contests; consider some of the previously booked headliners: Cain Velasquez versus Junior dos Santos for the heavyweight title, Benson Henderson versus Nate Diaz for the lightweight title, T.J. Dillashaw versus Renan Barao 2 for the bantamweight title, Demetrious Johnson versus Joseph Benavidez 2 for the flyweight title, and Rafael dos Anjos versus Donald Cerrone 2 for the lightweight title. The point is, main events booked on Fox are title fights or bouts between two competitors pretty darn close to fighting for the belt.

Holm and Shevchenko fit the latter bill. During their five-round battle, the ever-skillful Valentina Schevchenko—who has only lost once, to Amanda Nunes, since 2011—used her movement, speed, and timing to outpoint her opponent. If not for this recent loss to champion Amanda Nunes, Valentina may have been able to fight for the belt immediately after beating Holm.

Also on Fox 20’s main card, TUF competitor and perennial strawweight contender Felice Herrig met Kaitlin Curran, and won via rear-naked choke in just under two minutes. This “Submission of the Night” choke was fast, technical, and well-executed, and those who have yet to check it out shouldn’t hesitate to do so.

Entrusting women’s bantamweight fighters other than Ronda Rousey to a Fox main event was risky, and countless male competitors—even champions—have been quietly downgraded to Fox Sports 1 shows after performing poorly in Fox ratings. But the UFC’s doing so demonstrates their confidence in the division, its competitors, and women’s MMA as a whole, and this was therefore a huge 2016 moment.

 

Karolina Kowalkiewicz Earns a Title Shot By Beating Rose Namajunas at UFC 201—July 30

Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Rose Namajunas. Photo: MMAJunkie, Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports
Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Rose Namajunas. Photo: MMAJunkie, Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Robbie Lawler put his welterweight title on the line in UFC 201’s main event, and in the co-main event, Karolina Kowalkiewicz and TUF runner-up Rose Namajunas went to war–for the fans, for their teams, and for women’s MMA. Their “Fight of the Night” battle, which featured plenty of adversity and challenge on both sides, ultimately ended in a split decision nod for the Poland-born Kowalkiewicz.

Fun may not be a powerful enough adjective to describe this contest, and like many others on this list, it’s clear why the UFC brass placed these talented up-and-comers in such a desirable position. This riveting win allowed Karolina Kowalkiewicz to fight fellow Poland native Joanna Jędrzejczyk in the featured fight of UFC 205, the promotion’s long-awaited New York City debut event and the most successful and popular UFC show of all time.

 

Paige VanZant Viciously Finishes Bec Rawlings at UFC on Fox 21—August 27

Paige VanZant and Bec Rawlings Poster. Photo: UFC
Paige VanZant and Bec Rawlings Poster. Photo: UFC

Statistically speaking, the lower the weight division is in MMA, the smaller chance its fights have of ending before the final bell. While finishes aren’t necessarily indicative of exciting combat, this data-proven point has been a common fixture of many fans’ criticism of both male and female lower weight divisions. Thus, Paige VanZant’s “Performance of the Night” switch-kick knockout of Bec Rawlings at UFC on Fox 21 captured the attention of MMA hardcores and casual followers alike, while further legitimizing her status as a riveting fighter (all but one of her UFC contests have ended before the final bell), and demonstrating that statistics—and the way top-level fighters compete—are changing.

Such a well-timed technique is rarely seen from any fighter, male or female, in any weight class. The maneuver helped VanZant to further elevate the excitement of women’s MMA (and overall MMA) for the fans.

 

Cris Cyborg Headlines UFC Fight Night 95—September 24

Cris Cyborg’s first UFC main event slot was a success. At a catchweight of 140 lbs., like her first Octagon fight, she met the tough-as-nails Swedish striker Lina Länsberg and won via vicious, second-round knockout. Truth be told, there wasn’t a whole lot particularly unique about this match-up—in theory or in the way it played out—but the UFC’s willingness to book Cyborg in such an important spot, thereby investing a significant amount of cash in her image and future fighting career, is noteworthy.

 

Joanna Champion and Karolina Kowalkiewicz Battle and Miesha Tate Retires at UFC 205—November 12

Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Karolina Kowalkiewicz Face Off. Photo: UFC/Michael Reaves
Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Karolina Kowalkiewicz Face Off. Photo: UFC/Michael Reaves

The significance of Joanna Champion and Karolina Kowalkiewicz’s UFC 205 placement, which was mentioned earlier in this piece, is monumental. If the UFC’s treatment of Fox main events is serious, their treatment of bouts which occupy “marquee” events like UFC 205 is insane (even more so here because it marked the promotion’s first trip to New York after years upon years of litigation and fighting to legalize MMA in the state). To be placed on the main-card portion of an event like this, fighters have to be big draws who are also very fun to watch; forget about the millions of dollars that it costs to hold a title fight at a show of this magnitude (between pay-per-view points and salaries), because the real financial damage will be inflicted when a fight doesn’t draw as well as it should.

The tremendous amount of trust placed in Joanna and Karolina turned out to be well-issued, as they riveted fans in a fast-paced five round affair, drew ample attention to their still-evolving division, and further solidified the importance of women’s MMA in today’s fast-moving professional landscape.

In terms of the match itself, Karolina Kowalkiewicz did what no other fighter had been able to—weather the vicious strikes of Jędrzejczyk and continue to move forward and achieve some success with punches. Just when it looked like Karolina could be counted out, she rocked her opponent in the fourth period, and temporarily turned the tide. The end result here was a unanimous decision for Joanna Jędrzejczyk, and even though the expression’s already been used in this piece and it’s a bit cliché, the real victors here were the fans and women’s MMA.

Also on UFC 205’s main card, former bantamweight champion Miesha Tate clashed with high-level up-and-comer Raquel Pennington—who has lost just twice since 2014, to Jéssica Andrade and Holly Holm via split decision. In this match, the younger and more precise Pennington peppered Tate with hard punches and shrugged off all her attempts to drag the fight to the canvas. The judges all ruled in Pennington’s favor after fifteen minutes of combat, and after the decision was made official, Miesha Tate formally announced her retirement.

Her decision to walk away from MMA competition was initially surprising—after all, she’d been a world champion earlier this year—but upon further inspection it makes perfect sense. Tate competed as a professional for nearly a decade, from women’s MMA —and general MMA’s—relative infancy into its mainstream popularity explosion. Along the way she fought the very best fighters in the world, beat most of them, and served as a class-act ambassador of the sport. Just as Tate’s in-cage skills attributed to her success, her out-of-cage professionalism and intelligence did as well.

In short, Miesha Tate helped build women’s MMA into the international phenomenon it is today through ten years of grueling training and competition; her decision to step away from the cage shouldn’t come as a surprise.

But she won’t be too far away from the cage after all, as the UFC quickly capitalized on her aforementioned consistency, reliability, and knowledge of MMA to sign her on as an official analyst. Now, we can celebrate Tate’s career, and all she did for the sport, by watching her break fights down, and enjoying women’s MMA in general. Without her, it simply wouldn’t be where it is today.

 

Keri Anne Melendez Debuts in Style at Bellator 165—November 19

Keri Melendez and Sheila Padilla. Photo: Bellator/Viacom
Keri Melendez and Sheila Padilla. Photo: Bellator/Viacom

Keri Anne Melendez, wife of former Strikeforce lightweight champion and UFC contender Gilbert Melendez, faced an extraordinary amount of pressure before her professional MMA debut; her husband’s achievements, for better or worse, created inflated expectations of her abilities. Further contributing to this monumental pressure was Melendez’s successful kickboxing career, which had been thrust into the spotlight as she won in dominant fashion earlier in 2016 under the Bellator Kickboxing banner. Finally, the size of her provided platform was unusually colossal, as Bellator 165 was headlined by a highly anticipated lightweight title fight between Benson Henderson and Michael Chandler.

Nothing short of a vicious and completely one-sided win against her undefeated (2-0) opponent, Sheila Padilla, would have been enough to satisfy fans, and under the biggest spotlight of her career, that’s what Keri Anne Melendez provided.

At just forty-seven seconds of the first round, the referee was forced to draw a halt to the action after Melendez floored Padilla with an explosive and well-timed punch, before sealing the deal with another couple blows while her opponent was on the mat. Just like that, another strawweight and flyweight star was born, and Bellator added another layer of depth to its ultra-impressive women’s ranks. This win was one of the best for women’s MMA in 2016, and it’ll undoubtedly be a fixture of numerous highlight reels for many years to come.

 

Sinead Kavanagh Impresses in Her Promotional Debut at Bellator 169—December 16

A lot of pressure accompanies any big promotional debut, in Bellator or the UFC, but there was a great deal of extra stress on Sinead Kavanagh to perform at Bellator 169, in her first match with the company. In front of her hometown Irish crowd, the boxing world champion and undefeated martial artist Kavanagh faced an opponent who was also undefeated, Elina Kallionidou. Even with such tremendous expectations on her shoulders, Sinead didn’t miss a beat.

Across three rounds, she simply dominated Kallionidou with precise and powerful strikes; admittedly, Elina showed off tremendous heart and determination in defeat, but there’s simply no denying that the SBG Ireland product Kavanagh is an elite fighter after this bout. This win was tremendous for her career, Irish MMA, and Bellator’s women’s featherweight division, which like flyweight, is more stacked than its UFC counterpart.

 

Michelle Waterson Beats Paige VanZant in a Main Event Slot; Leslie Smith and Irene Aldana Put on a Fight of the Night at UFC on Fox 22—December 17

Paige VanZant, the young, exciting, and popular Team Alpha Male product, shared main-event honors with Michelle Waterson, a similarly exciting and popular combatant who trains at Jackson-Wink’s world-famous gym at UFC on Fox 22. Both women made the most out of the spotlight by leaving it all inside the cage, although their match would take just over three minutes to conclude.

The story of this fight was the technical expertise of Waterson, who for reference has been competing as a professional since VanZant was just thirteen years old! “The Karate Hottie” tossed her opponent in stunning fashion, before working her way to the back and locking-in a textbook rear-naked choke. Even in defeat, VanZant’s heart and willingness to win was on display, and in victory, Waterson looked fantastic after more than one year away from the cage. This was a top-notch display for the strawweight division on a huge platform. Additionally, it was later revealed that she and VanZant attracted an astonishing 4.8 million viewers for their contest–the largest Fox rating since 2013!

Earlier, on Fox 22’s televised preliminary portion, Leslie Smith and Irene Aldana went to war and reminded fans of just how deep women’s bantamweight is. Their “Fight of the Night” brawl was fast-paced and full of heart—exactly the kind of contest that casual and hardcore fans alike love to see.

 

As was stated initially, 2016 was the biggest and most important year yet for women’s MMA—because of its core results and achievements, as well as the fact that they were recorded without the assistance (until the final day of the year) of megastar Ronda Rousey. The only thing more exciting than the action turned in by female UFC and Bellator athletes this year, on remarkably powerful platforms, is the prospect of 2017. Women’s MMA has grown exponentially over the last half decade, and with the stage set for even more explosive boosts in popularity, fans can rest assured that the future looks bright.

Be sure to stay up-to-date with the latest MMA and boxing developments, as well as all other female sports news, here at Athena Sports Net—in 2017 and beyond!

Max King