According to the census bureau, there are currently more than 35-million women ages 18-34 living in the United States. And after Friday, one of them will be wearing a brand new UFC championship belt.
Three months ago, strawweights Carla Esparza and Rose Namajunas debuted as part of the sixteen-member cast on the twentieth season of The Ultimate Fighter; winning three nationally televised bouts apiece, the pair advanced through the single-elimination tournament to the show's finale, which airs live on December 12 (9 P.M. EST/6 P.M. PST, Fox Sports 1). And while the coronation of the UFC's inaugural 115-pound champion is yet another step toward transforming mixed martial arts into a legitimate, mainstream sport, it is also an opportunity for the UFC to continue its lure of the lucrative female demographic.
"It's completely about empowerment. It's proving or showing that women can do whatever men can do," stated UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta prior to the TUF premiere in September. "I think we're at the forefront; at the end of the day we're giving our female athletes the same exact platform that our male athletes have."
This is not the UFC's first foray into women's MMA, of course. Bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey made her debut with the promotion in February 2013 and has skyrocketed to international fame, both inside the Octagon, where she has finished all four of her challengers, and out, where she has starred in Hollywood blockbusters like The Expendables 3 and 2015's Furious 7 and Entourage.
Rousey has become a household name and one of the sport's most popular and recognizable athletes. But the two-time Olympian and 2008 bronze medalist in Judo has been reluctant to carry the torch as a female role model, and her resume of career achievements, or rather overachievements, has potentially alienated ordinary girls looking for a more realistic mentor to emulate.
"I can't take the world on my shoulders, I can only take little bite-sized pieces," offered Rousey. "I think there is a lot that people can learn from what we're doing in the UFC for the women, and I think it's good to learn for women that it should be celebrated and be found attractive to have ambition and really go after things and fight for what you believe in, and fight to belong in places where people don't think that you do."
And in Esparza and Namajunas, the UFC has found two prime candidates to capture the female youth demographic, especially as the promotion enters into its new apparel sponsorship with Reebok, effective in July 2015, which will certainly target female consumers, in addition to the promotion's steady male fan base.
Hailing from Redondo Beach, California, Esparza, 27, is a dominant wrestler, and a former champion with Invicta FC, an all-female MMA promotion. Awarded the top seed on The Ultimate Fighter, Esparza is a natural cultural ambassador for the 20-million Latina women in the United States, in particular in southern California and the southwest, where young girls already line up at local gyms to develop and hone their MMA skills.
"I'm really all about growing this sport for girls and that's kind of where my passion lies," commented Esparza. "I want the sport of MMA to grow as a whole ... I think a lot of women carry themselves well and are gonna be big role models for girls."
If Esparza should claim the title on Friday, there could also be potential benefits as the UFC continues its push into Mexico and Latin America following UFC 180, which sold out the 20,000-seat Mexico City Arena. However, if Namajunas wins the strawweight belt, the UFC will have its very own blonde-haired, blue-eyed midwestern girl to capture the attentions of the American heartland.
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Lithuanian-immigrant parents, Namajunas, 22, enters the TUF finale after three-straight finishes during the reality TV tournament. Namajunas, who brings an unorthodox combination of Taekwondo and submissions into the Octagon, is an accomplished musician. She is also a former victim of abuse, which she candidly revealed on television.
A champion for women's advocacy, Namajunas made her admissions public just weeks after the shocking video of three-time NFL Pro Bowler Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée Janay Palmer in the face went viral. And while Namajunas' technical kicks and chokes may not be the easiest for young females to master, her story of overcoming abuse, especially at a time when the subject is so prevalent in the contemporary milieu, has great potential to inspire others to pick up a set of MMA gloves and learn self-defense.
"Never in the history of the world was there a scenario where you actually believe that a woman could beat a man, well now it's a fact," added UFC President Dana White, who, himself, is a father to a young daughter. "This whole experience with women in the UFC has opened my eyes to what's really going on here. This is a [expletive] movement, man ... the women's fights are some of the best fights of the night: technical, mean, nasty; it's opened my eyes ... it's educated me on a lot of things."
Still, despite the added attention both Esparza and Namajunas can bring to women's MMA, there are a few important details the UFC must address when targeting impressionable females, in particular bringing attention to, and providing education about, weight cutting, a practice where competitors crash diet (sometimes with the help of a qualified nutritionist) prior to weigh ins.
Common among professional fighters, cutting weight has continued to be a controversial subject in the mixed martial arts community. And in a culture and society where millions of young girls suffer from body-image issues and eating disorders, the UFC needs to tactfully point out the dangers of cutting weight, especially when these female fighters and their figures are juxtaposed with the archetypal feminine, pinup forms of the Octagon girls.
With its second female champion set to be crowned in just a matter of days, the UFC is actively pushing its brand toward gender equality, providing young girls with strong a relatable role models and heroes. The promotion, once derided for its proliferation of violence, is now giving women an opportunity to perform athletic feats that were once deemed barbaric. And with a little added emphasis on proper health and nutrition, the UFC can now be viewed as a leader in women's sports, rights, and advocacy.