DALLAS -- A decade ago, in the midst of his legendary campaign of dominance across Japan, Fedor Emelianenko solidified himself one of the biggest stars in mixed martial arts. Now that title may very well belong to a woman. After selling out Staples Center and drawing what looks to be an extraordinarily high buyrate for an otherwise sparse UFC 184 pay-per-view, UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey's influence over the landscape is getting harder and harder to deny.
And this week's UFC 185 card is just another example. Where there once were zero women's divisions in the UFC, there are now two -- the second of which, a strawweight title fight pitting champion Carla Esparza against undefeated challenger Joanna Jedrzejczyk, is comfortably fit into the event's co-headlining slot. All of this marks a dramatic departure from the era of Emelianenko's reign, when WMMA was a meager footnote to the male pageantry of the early aughts.
While many have been quick to embrace the change, Emelianenko remains outside of that group. The retired Russian heavyweight recently told WHOA TV that "MMA is for men; it's a man sport," echoing past comments in which he expressed disapproval of women's MMA by telling Russian interviewers that "a woman must be a domestic goddess, raise her children and be feminine. There a lot of different sports which help her in that. But MMA is not one of them."
A native of neighboring Poland, Jedrzejczyk took Emelianenko's comments in stride at Wednesday's UFC 185 open workouts, but nonetheless disagreed with his assessment.
"I like him so much and he's a living legend," Jedrzejczyk said. "But I think we can do a pretty good job, you know? I think it's not right. We can fight good, we can bring the audience and we can make the show better. That's all."
"Facts speak for themselves," Esparza agreed. "He's one of the greats. I have nothing against him. Maybe we differ a little bit in opinion. You know, I think Ronda and the crowd she brought in to LA, the proof is in the pudding. It shows right there.
"I think female MMA is basically the biggest female sport out there right now," the champ added. "We're being put on the same stage as the guys, and obviously Ronda is headlining even above all the guys. It just goes to show, we're on top right now."
In many ways, the criticism of WMMA is nothing new. Even despite the women's undeniable success, a handful of figures throughout the fight game continue to discount the fairer side of the sport. Just look to Ian McCall's recent rant about "doing men things" or Rousey's conference call blow-up at a reporter questioning whether UFC 184's all-female headliners could actually harm their cause without a male fight to prop them up.
Those doubts have grown fewer in number as the women, and Rousey in particular, continue to smash down the many doors placed in front of them. But Esparza admits, she isn't surprised whenever she hears thoughts like Emelianenko's linger in the airwaves.
"Some people are always going to feel the way they feel. But I think day-by-day, fight-by-fight, I'm hearing those whispers a lot less than I used to," Esparza said.
"I think if we go out there and keep showing that we have skills, that we have heart -- I feel like a lot of times girls bring it even more than the guys just with their tenacity and they're just non-stop. That's why it is where it is right now, because they keep proving themselves.
"We're legit and we're here to stay. Nothing is going to stop this momentum that's been going with the women."