Ronda Rousey and the Rise of Women’s MMA [Femme FITale #3]

Mixed martial arts (MMA)–a combat sport combining techniques from a variety of disciplines such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, Kickboxing, and Wrestling–was a men’s game until the 2010s, when its fate was forever changed by “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey, the women’s MMA superstar whose career ushered in a new era of combat sports.

Rousey’s career did not start in MMA, though. She grew up competing in Judo, performing well enough to get a spot in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games as the youngest athlete in her sport, and following in the footsteps of her mother–AnnMaria De Mars–who was the first American to win a gold medal at the World Judo Championships.

After her impressive 2008 achievement of becoming the first American to win an Olympic medal in women’s judo, Rousey decided to leave the sport in favor of MMA and began training in a variety of martial arts disciplines.

At the time, women were only competing in amateur leagues or in smaller MMA professional organizations–like Strikeforce–but were left out of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC): the heavyweights of televised pay-per-view MMA.

That all changed in November 2012 when Ronda Rousey became the first female fighter to sign with the UFC, a moment which set off a chain of events that finally brought women’s MMA into the spotlight.

Viewers began to tune into women’s fights and the UFC began to schedule more and more, reaching a peak of nearly 100 women’s fights in 2019-2020, a dramatic increase from the mere handful held in 2012-2013, after Rousey’s signing. Although women’s fights still make up a minority of UFC’s schedule, they are incredibly popular, with some headline fights viewed by millions around the world.

Rousey did not have to compete in a lot of fights to have a big impact. She only fought eight times over her four year tenure for a total of less than 30 minutes in the octagon, but she did more for her sport in those 30 minutes than many athletes will do for theirs in a lifetime.

Rousey destroyed her competition for six fights in a row, utilizing her judo skills to take out her opponents quickly with arm-bar submissions and the crowd loved the show, quickly growing interested in watching more women’s fights. Five of her six victories were incredibly dominant, lasting only one round, with two of them (versus Alexis Davis and Cat Zingano) taking fewer than 20 seconds each from start to finish.

However, Rousey’s winning streak didn’t last forever. Her UFC career ended abruptly and, as many fans would argue–in flames–after she attempted to take on Holly Holm, a much more experienced striker, and Amanda Nunes, one of the greatest fighters to touch women’s MMA, looking greatly outclassed in both fights. With no chance of getting her champion title back, Rousey retired from the sport soon after.

What made Rousey so dominant early on, and what failed her versus Holm and Nunes?

Below we look at a table of Rousey’s stats from her eight fights (with the exception of the 2015 bout versus Cat Zingano, for which the data was not available). Each number represents the proportion of attempts of each particular move that Rousey landed successfully: significant strikes, total strikes, takedowns, strikes to the head/body/leg, strikes from distance, strikes from clinch position, and strikes from the ground. Each number is colored according to the percentile that it falls into relative to measures of each statistic across all women’s UFC fights, with darker colors representing higher level performance. For example, in all of her victorious fights, Rousey’s proportion of successful body strikes was in the top 25% of all female fighters from all bouts in UFC history.

Rousey’s success in her early days was characterized by incredibly high success rates in many areas (significant strikes, total strikes, takedowns, head strikes, and body strikes). Rousey performed poorly at strikes from distance, but her takedown and grappling skills were enough to get her through with relative ease.

However, most of Rousey’s opponents early on were not particularly advanced strikers, and their lack of skill in that particular field gave Rousey the opportunity to put in a lot of successful hits. When Rousey finally fought against a strong striker in Holly Holm, it was all over for her. Holm easily handled Rousey with her superior striking power, taking her out with a powerful kick to the head and leaving Rousey with her worst ever performance–in the bottom 25% for most metrics, and in the bottom half for the rest. Although she did a little better statistically versus Amanda Nunes, Rousey couldn’t keep up with the never-ending barrage of right hand punches.

[Image: Proportion of Rousey’s strikes that were successful, colored by percentile relative to ALL women’s UFC fights: Significant Strikes, Total Strikes, Takedowns, Strikes to the Head / Body / Leg, Strikes from Distances, Strikes from Clinch Position, and Strikes from Ground Position]

Although Rousey may have lost badly to Holm and Nunes and hurt her reputation pretty severely in the process, across her career she was still an above average fighter overall in the UFC, performing in the top half for most metrics, and she definitely earned her place in fighting history.

How do you think Rousey ranks? Was she a great fighter, despite her sudden and dramatic downfall? I certainly think a case could be made.


Why Are Women So Good At Rock Climbing? [Femme FITale #2]

Rock climbing has risen into the spotlight recently after its addition to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, with more people than ever tuning in and being captivated by the amazing talent on their screens.

One of the most unique and exciting features about the sport, and part of why I personally find it so compelling, is the near absence of a gender gap–even at the elite level. The top female climbers can complete routes nearly as difficult as the top male climbers, and some women have even been the first overall to complete the most difficult climbs in the world.

Contrast this with other popular sports you might see at the Olympics. In sprinting, the men’s world record in the 100 meter dash is nearly a second faster than the women’s (9.58 seconds by Usain Bolt vs 10.49 by Florence Griffith-Joyner), a nearly 10% difference in performance.

In soccer, the gap is also quite large. The United States Women’s National Team (USWNT), one of the highest performing women’s professional soccer teams of all time, once lost 5-2 to a team of boys under age 15 in a practice match, a convincing defeat.

So what’s going on with rock climbing? Why does the gender gap appear to be much smaller than in other sports?

Rock Climbing Difficulty, Explained

Before we get into the details, first, a quick primer on how climbing skill (climb difficulty) is measured.

There are two primary styles of climbing at the elite level: bouldering and lead climbing. In bouldering, you climb without a rope and your climbs–termed “problems”–are usually relatively short and low to the ground. In lead climbing, you are roped in and hook your rope to safety equipment on the wall every few feet as you climb up. Lead climbs–or “routes”–are typically much longer than boulder problems and require a good deal of strength and endurance.

Boulder problems are rated difficulty-wise using the V-Scale (popular in the United States) and the Font scale (popular in Europe). Like Celsius and Fahrenheit, they are relatively simple to convert (see the table below).

The V-Scale currently ranges from VB (V-“beginner”) to V17, with the potential for growth in the future. Larger numbers reflect more difficult problems. The Font scale currently ranges from 3 to 9A, with larger numbers, plus signs, and letters later in the alphabet all representing more difficult climbs (e.g. a 6B+ is harder than a 6B, a 7C is harder than a 7B+, and a 5 is harder than a 4). Although grades are subjective and often debated, there appear to only be two boulders in the world currently graded the maximum level, V17/9A.

Lead climbing uses a different difficulty rating scale than bouldering: the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). In this system, the difficulty ratings all start with the number 5 (representing a “technical climb”, since the YDS rates all different kinds of terrain), followed by a decimal and then a second number. The larger the second number, the harder the climb. Like the Font scale, the YDS also incorporates letters for climbs at the elite end of the scale. The YDS currently ranges from 5.1 to 5.15d, the rating of the world’s current hardest climb: Silence.

The difficulty rating systems for bouldering and lead climbing.

The Elite Women of Rock Climbing

Now that difficulty is hopefully a little more clear, let’s look at how both women and men have performed at the sport.

On the men’s side, the hardest boulder problems ever completed, to this date, are Burden of Dreams (V17, completed by Nalle Hukkataival in 2016) and Return of the Sleepwalker (V17, completed by Daniel Woods in 2021). No other climber has been able to repeat either problem.

The hardest men’s lead climbing routes ever completed were Silence (5.15d, completed by Adam Ondra in 2017) and Bibliographie (also 5.15d, completed by Alex Megos in 2020).

Although not quite matching the maximum difficulty of the men, women come in close behind. Five V15 boulder problems have been completed by women–Horizon, Sleepy Rave, Kryptos, Byaku-Dou, and Satan I Helvete Low (some of which were climbed by girls who were only 13 years old!)–alongside three 5.15b lead climbing routes (La Planta De Shiva, Ali Hulk Sit Start Extension Total, and Eagle 4) and a handful of 5.15a routes.

In some cases, women have even come out on top of the men. Perhaps the most impressive example is Lynn Hill, who was the first ever person to successfully climb the now iconic climbing route, The Nose, at Yosemite National Park.

In the early days of rock climbing, The Nose–a nearly 3,000 ft vertical climb up the front of El Capitan–was considered impossible to climb using only a climber’s strength and no mechanical assistance (termed “free climbing”). It consists of 31 pitches, which you can think of as individual climbing routes that climbers string together to get to the top. While most of the route it wasn’t that difficult in the scale of elite climbing, two pitches stopped everyone in their tracks: the “Great Roof” (graded 5.13c) and the “Changing Corners” (graded 5.14a/b), due to their almost complete lack of usable holds. Though routes more difficult than this have been completed many times in the last decade or so, it was almost unthinkable in the late 80s and early 90s. That is, until Lynn Hill came along.

Hill first attempted The Nose in 1989, alongside Simon Nadin, but they were unsuccessful. After four years, however, she came back–this time with Brooke Sandahl–and became the first ever person to complete the route by free climbing. It took her four days. Then, in an incredibly impressive feat, she returned within the year to complete it a second time in only one, setting the world standard for what could be achieved in big wall climbing.

Women are already performing at an elite level in rock climbing, and the gender gap only appears to be getting smaller There were next to no elite female climbers in the 80s and 90s, but now there is an entire women’s division at the Olympic Games. And every year, women seem to be inching upward in difficulty, breaking new records by climbing harder and harder routes.

Potential Explanations

So what’s going on here? Why are the women of rock climbing matching up to the men better than in other sports?

There does not seem to be one primary factor, but rather a collection of things that work together to help out the performance of female climbers:

Rock Climbing is a Bodyweight Exercise

One factor is that rock climbing is purely a bodyweight exercise. The sole goal of a climb is to move your bodyweight–and only that–to the top of the rock successfully. Pure strength and muscle size–where men have a clear advantage–are not necessarily an advantage. Since muscle is very dense, those who have a lot of it have a lot more weight to pull up the wall than those who do not. If their muscles are not optimized for the movements involved in rock climbing, they could essentially just operate as dead weight dragging the climber down, and actually be a hinderance to performance.

Elite rock climbers do not work to maximize strength, but rather to maximize their strength to weight ratio. Female climbers, who are typically relatively lightweight, can perform at the same level as significantly heavier male climbers as long as they develop strong muscles for their size–despite the fact that those muscles are lower in pure strength output.

At High Levels, Technique Is More Important Than Strength

A related factor is the importance of technique. At the lowest, beginner levels of bouldering and lead climbing, climbers can often get away with poor technique and just use their brute strength to get up a climb–a setup that favors male climbers. But at the intermediate level and above–particularly at the elite level–technique becomes much more important. A strong climber who can blaze through a 5.7 route will have no hope on a 5.12 unless they also know how save energy, place their hands and feet on small holds, and position themselves to where they can reach the holds they need.

Although men have an advantage with pure strength, the same can not be said for technique, where everyone is on an equal playing field. Women, in some ways, might even have an advantage. When learning to climb, it can be easier to rely on strength as a crutch, rather than focusing on technique, since easier climbs do not prioritize technique as much. As a result, women–who have less ability to rely on pure strength–are often forced to focus on technique starting earlier on in their climbing careers.

Evolution May Favor Equality

It has been argued in scientific research that sports involving actions that were critical to survival earlier on in human evolution tend to see a smaller gender gap than those that didn’t use evolutionary survival movements.

Climbing falls into this category due to its similarity to tree-based movement, which was essential in our ancestors’ lives long ago. Before humans became bipedal, we used a mix of ground and tree movement. We’ve evolved to be good at climbing, with short torsos, long arms, strong hands, and upright postures, features shared by men and women.

Since all of our ancestors needed to be able to climb trees to survive–not just the men–through selection pressure favoring tree-climbing skills, everyone–regardless of sex–developed these same features that now prove useful at rock climbing.

Women Excel at Endurance Sports

A big part of rock climbing–specifically lead–is endurance. Lead climbing routes, which can be over 50 feet tall, often require a sustained output of high strength and focus to climb without losing grip and falling. This need for endurance is an advantage for women, who have been shown to have higher resistance to muscle fatigue. Women can exert at close to maximum force for a lot longer than men before their strength weakens, giving them a relative advantage on the longer routes.

This advantage does not apply as much to bouldering, where problems are typically closer to 10 feet tall and only require a small number of moves.

Higher Levels of Motivation

Motivation is critical in the achievement of challenging athletic pursuits. Motivated climbers will go the extra mile to train harder to combat their weaknesses and will be less likely to give up when they’re struggling on a particular route or problem. Rock climbing is not an easy process–it can take dozens of tries to successfully complete a route, sometimes over multiple years of training–and if you are not motivated, you’re not going to get very far.

A study from 2018, which focused on competition climbing, found that women appear to do better than men in this category, with higher average motivation levels. This can give an advantage–particularly at the highest levels–in completing the hardest climbs in the world.

Looking Ahead: The End of The Gender Gap?

Despite the many factors helping women to success in the climbing world, there still appears to be a small gender gap, even if it’s noticeably smaller than in other sports. The hardest boulder and lead climbs ever completed by men are still several grades harder than the ones completed by women.

One reason for this is that there are simply a lot more male climbers than female climbers. In the early days of climbing, it was pretty much a men’s only sport, and while that’s no longer true, the men still outweigh the women by a lot. Go to any climbing gym–you’ll probably see at least 70% men there, and potentially even more. More men overall means more men at the top, plus men have had a longer time to complete these hard climbs and progress compared with women.

However, as the years go by, more and more women appear to be gaining interest, in part be due to the recent popularity of indoor climbing gyms which have made the sport much more accessible, but also due to the influence of talented female climbers making a name on social media.

If trends continue and more and more women get into the sport, we may see our first female ascent of a 5.15d in only a few years, and who knows what might come after that. It’s hard to know whether the women will ever fully equal the men, but all the factors at play certainly seem to put that in the realm of possibility.

For more posts on women crushing it in sports, see the Femme FITale collection.