Friday 5ive: 5 of the Most Important Women in MMA (Pre-Current Era)

By: Albert Miller – With this past weekend being Mother’s Day weekend, you see the customary greetings to mom’s all around the world. A staggering statistic that I had come across was how many female fighters are mom’s; it’s a good feeling, thinking about the future of school yard banter being “My mom can kick your dad’s ass.” As the sport progresses, we’ll stop calling these women “women’s champions” and call them “champions”; we’ll stop referring to their fights as “women’s MMA” and call it “MMA.”

At this particular moment in history, MMA is still inclining towards its pinnacle and female fighters have yet to truly capture their foothold. While champions like Joanna Jedrzejczk, Meisha “Cupcake” Tate, former champions like “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey, and “the Preacher’s Daughter” Holly Holm may make it seem like women’s MMA is a household staple, it always hasn’t been the case. There was a day and time when promoters like Dana White would hold firm that women wouldn’t compete in the UFC, and a belief was held that Women’s MMA had no place in the media spotlight. During those dark times, there were women who were training and fighting, ready to kick down the door. Today’s Friday 5ive is counting down five of those special warriors, hopefully getting them some of the recognition that they’d earned well before Ronda Rousey was headlining UFC events.

NOTE: “Before current era” in this article is defined as the time before Meisha Tate was crowned Strikeforce women’s bantamweight champion. Gina Carano and Julie Kedzie are permitted on this list because their televised bouts were contested under modified rules for women’s MMA. Women’s Japanese MMA was not considered. This list is also not definitive. You may have a different opinion, and that’s OK.

MMA: Strikeforce-Tate vs Kedzie

No. 5: Julie Kedzie – Julie Kedzie holds a distinct honor of being one-half of the first televised women’s MMA bout on a major network. What impressed me the most with Kedzie, and what really began precedent that women are warriors to be reckoned with, was that she had no quit in her. The Elite Xtreme Combat (EliteXC) bout that aired in 2007 happened at the perfect time; we were in the middle of the initial MMA boom and if there were ever a better time to get women’s MMA noticed in the main stream, in the newly found consciousness, it was then. After the bout, Julie Kedzie apologized for a mild grade of lethargy, stating that she’d just taken a lot of really hard shots to the head.

Although you don’t see Julie Kedzie lacing up her gloves to fight, she does do incredibly important work with the Invicta FC promotion; Invicta serves as the flagship for the women’s MMA promotion, giving them a platform to compete on when other promotions aren’t ready for them yet.

EvingerNo. 4: Tonya Evinger – Before the Ultimate Fighter: Tate vs. Rousey, Tonya Evinger was an established name to begin with, if only to the initiated. Despite being on the Ultimate Fighter, and being the current Invicta FC Bantamweight champion, Tonya Evinger holds the distinction of being one half of the first bout ever sanctioned by the California State Athletic Commission. Truth is, women like Tonya Evinger carried women’s MMA on their shoulders when it was treated like a spectacle. Evinger, at the time, was based in the Northern Mid-West; she would take fights where she could, traveling to Hawaii and Florida when promoters were hardly able to pay fighters well enough to make that trip worth their time. It’s those fights that pushed women’s MMA from obscurity and into the face of the world at large. As further evidence of Evinger’s grit and drive, after her appearance on the Ultimate Fighter, Evinger began a winning streak that lead straight to the Invicta FC Bantamweight Championship.

LaRosaNo. 3: Tara LaRosa – Before the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and EliteXC were showcasing women’s MMA, the fighting females of the world had to rely on promoters that they had good relationships with and sanctioning bodies that would allow for the fights to happen. The Hook N’ Shoot promotion happened to be one that had a real niche for women’s MMA. When Hook N’ Shoot found their footing and began gaining momentum, Tara LaRosa hit the scene and began dominating the fights she was in. Much like Tonya Evinger, LaRosa took fights where she could and made a very prominent name for herself in the mid-west. The sheer volume of fights that LaRosa was able to obtain without any benefit of global promotion is extremely impressive. As the MMA boom hit, BoDogFIGHT was visionary enough to understand that women’s MMA is the future, began showcasing LaRosa on their televised cards. Tara LaRosa was on those BoDogFIGHT shows, kicking ass and clearly displaying that women’s MMA is MMA and not a spectacle by any gauge or measure.

CaranoNo. 2: Gina Carano – When EliteXC: Destiny happened and women’s MMA was going to be featured on national television, one of two things could happen: women’s MMA could have been viewed as a “T n’ A” spectacle, or the nation would understand that women are capable of distributing equal opportunity ass kickings. Thanks to Carano vs. Kedzie, we got the latter. The good work that Carano did was being consistently dominating, consistently entertaining to watch; Gina Carano did a tremendous job of being in the public spotlight, becoming accepted, and kicking down doors to women’s combat sports. Carano went on to mentor other women on the Oxygen Channel TV series “Fight Girls.” I’m not saying that Gina Carano was a revolutionary or started a movement; I’m saying that Carano rose to prominence in a time when skeptics were waiting for the flash in the pan to die down. Her fights, however fortunate she were to get them, were showcased in a way that created opportunities for other female fighters.

PurcellNo. 1: Debi “Whiplash” Purcell – I remember the first time I’d ever seen Debi Purcell’s name. I was watching a King of the Cage fight on DVD and Debi Purcell vs. Nicole Albrecht (incorrectly billed as Nicole Albright on the DVD) and I was completely sold on the concept. Nicole Albrecht isn’t a push over who thought it’d be fun to fight one day; in order to fight for KOTC, you have to be able to fight. The thing is, Debi Purcell was so good in that fight that it really eclipsed any talent of Albrecht.

Debi Purcell’s record may not be as lengthy or as in depth as a lot of other females these days, but that’s mostly because the opportunities afforded to females these days (and I’m not saying there are fight promoters beating down the doors these days too) were extremely scarce before public embracing of MMA. Debi is the only female black belt in Ruas Vale Tudo, in the world. Purcell was the first women’s MMA card headliner for Hook N’ Shoot, one half of the first women’s bout for King of the Cage, and the solitary female coach for the International Fight League (for Marco Ruas’ Condors).

What does make Debi so extremely important to the work that women have done to carve a place for themselves in the proverbial pantheon has been done outside of the ring or cage. Debi founded FighterGirls.Com in 2001, a website that is a tremendous resource and motivator for women who want to fight. By definition, a pioneer is one who is first or among the earliest in any field of inquiry, enterprise, or progress; I can’t think of a more fitting description for a woman who has advocated for the advancement of other women, more than the advancement of herself. Without women like Debi Purcell picking up the cause, change couldn’t have begun itself for the sake of change.

Thank you for joining us for this week’s edition of the Friday 5ive. A very happy and belated Mother’s Day from us to you!

Until next time: Fights, Cameron, Action!