State of the UFC women’s bantamweight division is substandard

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On Oct. 3, veteran UFC fighter Holly Holm (14-5-0) put on a classic show of striking durability in a unanimous-decision victory against rising prospect Irene Aldana (12-6-0). This triumph will likely set up a rematch bout between Holm and fellow bantamweight Germaine de Randamie.

“I think everyone felt like her and I might meet up,” Holm said in a post-fight interview. “We’ll see where it goes from here.”

Whoever wins this potential rematch may face off against UFC double champion Amanda Nunes for the bantamweight title. However, with Nunes’ extended layoff, it’s unlikely she will defend her belt sometime before this year is out.

This is not good for the women’s bantamweight division.

The once-coveted weight class has continued on a subtle decline in the last year and a half. This stems from a lack of growing anticipation and minimal budding talent, as well as the impact of Nunes’ role as a champion.

To start, the division has struggled to build hype around any fights other than title matchups. While it may be easier for UFC fans to get excited about a strawweight bout between Angela Hill and Michelle Waterson or a flyweight matchup between Jessica Eye and Cynthia Calvillo (as was the case on UFC Fight Night on Sept. 12), a women’s bantamweight matchup between Raquel Pennington and Marion Reneau doesn’t get the same treatment. These are not unfair comparisons, as none of these matchups were for a title, nor were the participants considered fighters next up for the title. Not to mention, the most recent bantamweight title that received a headline (not pay-per-view) was Holm and Aldana’s fight Oct. 3. Furthermore, though both of the most recent bantamweight championships were on the main card, they were there only as a co-main or simply a third-place matchup.

This is a major shift from the division’s first champion, Ronda Rousey, who headlined five pay-per-view bouts before retiring after back-to-back losses. Similarly, the fight between strawweights Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Weili Zhang (arguably the best fight of 2020 and one of the best of all time) was a co-main to the middleweight matchup between Israel Adesanya and Yoel Romero.

The difference for the bantamweight division is that both women who may face off against Nunes have already fought against Nunes and lost in convincing fashion. Holm was KO/TKO in her title matchup in under two minutes, and de Randamie had a painful five-round fight, as she continuously became unable to withstand Nunes — not to mention, her first loss against Nunes was a KO/TKO back in 2013. In terms of name recognition, casual fans might struggle to recognize the depths of de Randamie’s talent. As for Holm, her fame largely comes from knocking out arguably the most popular female fighter in current history, Rousey.

Knowing all of this, it becomes hard to get behind seeing rematches of these fights, especially considering how little Nunes defends her bantamweight title (and when she does, it’s never too difficult). Frankly, even seeing a Holm and de Randamie rematch only sounds exciting because of how questionable the officiating was for their first matchup for the women’s featherweight title. The same case made for the bantamweight division can also apply to the women’s featherweight division, though the latter has more leeway as it was inaugurated in early 2017. The repetition of these same women continuously fighting each other in title fights or main event matchups feels overly repetitive and makes them unintentionally smother new talent.

Speaking of new talent, where is it?

Well, they are mostly in other divisions — or more specifically, the women’s flyweight division. While Aldana, Aspen Ladd, Ketlen Vieira and even Julia Avila are likely the upcoming headliners of the sport, their inconsistency or their sometimes lackluster performances are likely delaying these ladies’ title shots. As a result, many women moved to the flyweight division, including the current women’s flyweight champion, Valentina Shevchenko, who may be next in line to fight Nunes for the bantamweight title if Holm or de Randamie cannot get it done a second time.

But to understand the pitfalls of the women’s bantamweight division in-depth, perhaps it’s best looking toward the top. Not at Dana White, but at the champion herself: Nunes.

Nunes is a dominating force in two divisions and is on track to build a resume that outlasts her retirement, yet there is something almost predictable about her talent. And in essence, predictability can be an amazing tool, as most fight fans enjoy seeing Adesanya, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Henry Cejudo continue their title reigns and eviscerate their opponents. However, seeing these competitors fight someone more than once is rare due to either the rotation and oversaturation of talent or the surplus of talent. And if there is a rematch, it is typically fully warranted by fight fans. No one is truly worthy yet to face Nunes for the bantamweight title other than the women previously mentioned. With how dominant Nunes is, it’s hard to see a scenario where she does not retain her title.

However, it’s best to acknowledge the covert prejudices and subtle misogyny in placing Nunes in a “lackluster” box. Frankly, Nunes has accomplished more than many of her male peers in the sport, and rarely is there the perception that these male champions are boring for their dominance. Yet, the attention and buzz she receives are lacking in comparison to her pedigree of talent. When a champion receives little attention on a stage beyond each upcoming title defense, the entirety of the division suffers. Therefore, it’s best to look at the only other champion who likens to Nunes’ resume and helped pioneer the women’s bantamweight division: Rousey.

On top of her aforementioned multitude of pay-per-view contests, it’s hard to communicate how vast Rousey’s reach and fame was. She was eye-catching and openly welcomed the press, and she also had a signature style in her armbar submissions that seemed unstoppable at the time. Rousey also capitalized off her fame by appearing on late-night talk shows (an uncommon move for mainstream fighters) and began to take roles in movies. Essentially, once she made her exit from the sport to WWE, her successors had big shoes to fill. And it’s hard to tell if anyone, including Nunes, is capable of doing so. It’s easy to argue that Nunes is a better overall fighter than Rousey, but it’s much harder to argue if she can draw the same fame, press and attention. Hypothetically, if Rousey came back to the bantamweight division tomorrow, it would perhaps draw more buzz than anything Nunes has done in the last two years has.

Again, this does not by any means suggest that Nunes is a bad fighter. She is likely a lock for the Hall of Fame after defeating Cris Cyborg. She is the No. 1 women’s pound-for-pound fighter, and she defeated all of the previous bantamweight champions, as well as the top talent so far. However, there always has to be more from the champion outside of simply showing up and competing, but placing the entirety of the blame solely on Nunes is unfair.

That’s what makes this perception nuanced.

The women’s bantamweight division began with such a groundbreaking force as the first women’s division, even after White said “never” in response to a question posed by TMZ about seeing women fight in the UFC. The UFC has come a long way from that “never,” and it can continue to do so if there is a prioritization to allow the women’s bantamweight division to flourish as much as the strawweight and flyweight divisions are currently.

This may all be chopped up to a simple slump in the grander scheme of the division’s history. However, it’s hard to tell if this continued path may be self-destructive for the future of the division overall and how it will look in the post-Nunes era.

Only time will tell.

Contact Raven Gatson at [email protected].