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Introduction of female fighters to UFC would be huge leap forward for women's sports

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

In the flurry of interest that surrounds the possible move of Ronda Rousey to the UFC, there has been one thing missed, and that is this: the introduction of female fighters to the world's biggest mixed martial arts promotion would be the biggest leap forward for women's sports in nearly 20 years.

This wouldn't be a side-by-side league, as the WNBA is to the NBA, or its own tour, as the Women's Tennis Association is as compared to the Association of Tennis Professionals. Instead, the women would be competing on the exact same surface, and for the same air time, as the men at the sport's highest levels.

It's no small thing that a sport considered by its detractors to house the largest population of meatheads this side of the Jersey shore would prove itself to be the most inclusive.

Even if it's been done before in other nationally televised promotions like EliteXC, Bellator and Strikeforce, the move to the UFC will signify that the women's game is ready for the brightest lights MMA has to offer. That's a serious about-face for the UFC and its president Dana White, who as recently as early 2012 was publicly voicing doubts about the depth of the women's game.

To be fair, it is a very real concern. While Rousey stands at the vanguard of the women's division, the list of other top names is not as long as it needs to be. Yet it is still an improved lot from just a few years ago.

Partially due to her own feud with Rousey and her own charisma, Miesha Tate's star has risen sharply. Striker Sarah Kaufman remains a top fighter. Brazilian terror Cris Cyborg soon returns to eligibility. Former Olympic wrestling medalist Sara McMann is still unbeaten. There is, at least, a very real nucleus to build upon.

But the fight business is beyond all else a "star" business, where the biggest names draw the lion's share of the money, and Rousey has shown the ability to capture headlines and imaginations. In a short amount of time, she's shown that her telegenic appearance, brash personality and ferocious fight style are capable of enrapturing a crowd.

In less than one year of being "famous," Rousey has done guest spots on TMZ and Conan. She's appeared on the cover of ESPN The Magazine. That's as mainstream as mainstream gets. And with all of the UFC's marketing and promotional prowess behind her, Rousey is capable of filling an even bigger spotlight.

The rest of the women have shown they are, too. It certainly helps that the young MMA demographic has embraced the women's side of the sport with open arms. From the first time women competed on a nationally televised card, MMA fans, most of whom grew up during the Title IX era of female sports participation, have treated the women the same as the men. When a fight has been a display of courage and technique, they have bathed the participants in adulation. And when a fight has disappointed with inaction and a lack of risk-taking, they have booed lustily.

In short, they have been nothing but fair. They have given the women a fair shake, and that's all that can be asked of them.

At some point soon -- maybe it will take months, maybe a couple of years -- White says he will pull the women to his octagon as his next drawing card. That means the opportunity to potentially make huge money for the few who can break through as headliners. Many have mused about what a Rousey-Cyborg fight would look like on pay-per-view, and with the proper buildup, there's no doubt it would do a huge number, one that could potentially offer each participant a seven-figure payday.

That would be unprecedented in the world of combat sports, and would immediately put both among the highest-paid female athletes in the world.

As of right now, these are only possibilities and conjecture. There is no real timeframe for a move, as all of Zuffa's female fighters are locked into the Strikeforce/Showtime deal. It's also possible that White changes his mind. Or that Rousey fizzles out. Or that something unexpected happens that scuttles the plan to bring women to the UFC.

But most of the time, when White wants something, he finds a way to get it done. His force of will can and has moved immovable objects. Rousey and the women's division are already within his grasp as part of Zuffa. All he has to do is find a way to shift them from a hexagon to an octagon. If and when he does that, it will be the greatest opportunity women's sports has seen since the WNBA was founded in 1996.

That league has had mixed results. Only four of the original eight teams remain. Television ratings are marginal, and the league survives in part because the NBA continues to subsidize it, something that may not be feasible long-term.

Women's MMA has the chance to be different. In fighting, the biggest stars basically subsidize the rest of the card. When fans plunk down their $55 to watch on pay-per-view -- often due to the lure of the main event -- it helps pay the salaries of the unknown fighters walking the aisle in the first prelim. But instead of the women being the ones on the prelims, just asking for a chance, the situation could be completely reversed. Someday sooner than we would have thought, the name on the marquee might read: "UFC: Rousey vs. Cyborg." It would be the rare case in sports where women who recently hoped just to stand alongside their male counterparts rise above them.

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