Sunday, February 24, 2013

Brave new world: Ronda Rousey and Danica Patrick

Two days, two huge moments for women, as Ronda Rousey and Danica Patrick sucked up a majority of the attention in the world of professional sports.

Last night at UFC 157, the main event featured "Rowdy" Ronda Rousey defending her newly issued UFC Women's Bantamweight Championship against Liz Carmouche. This was significant for a number of different reasons. Once upon a time, UFC president Dana White declared that there would never a women's division in the UFC, never ever ever. Obviously, he changed his tune. Once upon a time, women's combat sports were something of a side show; women competitors rarely got any press unless they were very attractive--like Gina Carano--or were viewed as freaks of some sort--as was the case for now-disgraced Cris "Cyborg" Santos.

Despite a number of heavily promoted pre-Rousey MMA contests in the now-defunct Strikeforce promotion, and despite a brief surge in popularity for women's boxing a decade or so ago, women have really not been taken seriously in combat sports. Even though there has been a steady rise in the recognition of the capabilities of women athletes in many, many sports, there remained a handful where the consensus of many fans--and participants--was that women just didn't have what it takes to be real competitors.

UFC 157 ultimately sold out. The Pay-per-view numbers are not yet in, but things are looking pretty good, according to insiders at the UFC. Local bars that carried the event did quite well (at least in South Florida). Like Rousey's title fight against Meisha Tate in Strikeforce, this card had the right match set for the end of the night. Unlike Santos-Carano, it really delivered the goods, ending with another first-round submission--via armbar, of course--by Rousey. But Carmouche was a game fighter, no walkover, who proved Rousey has to be at her best to keep winning. Exactly what a championship fight should be. In contrast, the co-main event of Henderson vs. Machida was a veritable snooze-fest (Machida won a split-decision).

Meanwhile, in another male-dominated sport--NASCAR--Danica Patrick made headlines by winning the pole position for the Daytona 500, the first woman ever to do so. Still, most experts gave her no real shot of winning the race. Here's one:
As historic as it'll be when You Know Who [Danica Patrick] leads the field to the green flag on Sunday, it's time to move on to drivers who have the best chance to finish the day in Victory Lane.
For these experts, Patrick's pole-winning was just something of a fluke; they all took it as a given that she couldn't really compete in the actual race, that she was just there as kind of a show and didn't have the necessary skill set. And yet today, compete she did, from start to finish. She was in the top ten for the great majority of the race and when the final five laps began, she was in third place. She ended up finishing eighth, probably due to a little risk aversion on her part, something she seemed to indicate in her post-race interview.

But there's no getting around the truth here: she was doing it. She remained in contention, she never made a serious mistake, and she was a factor in the race. She led the race for more than one lap under green--the first women ever to do so--and likely could have made a move in the last several laps if she had a teammate to work worth. She feared--rightly, I believe--that if she dropped down to make a run at the leader, no one would back her up. Some of the boys there talk a good game, but the truth is none of them really wanted Patrick to best them. She was on a bit of an island, and yet she still finished in the top ten.

It is true that both Patrick and Rousey market themselves in every way possible, and that includes their sexuality. But that's the hand they've been dealt, for better or worse. All things being equal, I'm sure they'd both prefer to be known for their abilities, alone. And what the last two days proved--in may opinion--is that they should be. These are serious competitors, not people playing up a gimmick for all it's worth. More importantly, both have demonstrably impressive skills in their chosen sports, skills absolutely in the same league as anyone else in those sports, male or female.

True enough, Rousey is only competing against other women, but I suspect she'd do just as well against the men in her weight class. But none of the men in that class--135 pounders--would admit to it, you can be sure of that.

My little flight of fantasy aside, these two events indicate just how rapidly the world is evolving, when it comes to issues of sex, of man versus woman. There remain physiological differences between the sexes, but the lines of demarcation about who does what better, in a general sense, are disappearing. We often worry about these issues in the spheres of politics and business occupations; gains by women, when it comes to perceived equality, are routinely judged through such prisms. But it is perhaps in the arena of sport--as a commentary on culture--where the real evidence lies. What does it matter if there is a women President if there remains a widespread belief that--somehow--women can't drive as good as men or can't fight as good as men?

Thanks to women like Ronda Rousey and Danica Patrick, such myths may finally be ready to fall.

Cheers, all.

1 comment:

  1. OT: The April 9 bout will mark the third time Pacquiao and Bradley have faced one another. Fortunately we can still see his training for previous fight with Tim here at the Manny Pacquiao Official Video Channel