Three take aim at glory as women's MMA continues rapid ascent
Women's MMA has grown more in the past eight months than the previous decade
Still, women's MMA fighters aren't earning as much as their male counterparts
Jessica Penne, Tara LaRosa, Jessamyn Duke each meet Saturday at Invicta FC 3
Although women's mixed martial arts has seen more growth in the last eight months than in its first decade, the vast majority of female fighters are still no closer to reaping the financial rewards enjoyed by their male counterparts.
This may be changing, though.
The recent swell of support for women's MMA can be traced back to March, when the loquacious Ronda Rousey claimed Strikeforce women's 135-pound title in dominant fashion, then tipped into mainstream consciousness and skyrocketed to sports stardom just like her predecessor Gina Carano did before her.
A month later, the arrival of Invicta Fighting Championships, an all-women's promotion, turned the industry on its ear when the online stream of its debut event drew a staggering 233,580 unique visitors, shattering the previous notion that MMA fans preferred women's fights in small, select doses.
Viewership numbers in 2012 suggest that the fans' tastes might be shifting. The Ultimate Fighting Championship's landmark television deal with Fox Sports Media Group has created an abundance of free MMA content this year, but stretching its product thin across multiple platforms has had a similar effect on its U.S. viewership. In comparison, women's MMA -- much like the way the men's side used to be -- is still compact and contained, making it much easier for fans to follow.
Invicta's second event in July scored even greater viewership numbers online than its first show, according to co-owner Shannon Knapp, which bodes well for the promotion's third event this Saturday in Kansas City, Kans. (4 p.m. ET, InvictaFC.com).
In various stages of their careers, Jessica Penne, Tara LaRosa and Jessamyn Duke are three women fighters whose paths will intersect at Invicta on Saturday. These women are part of the small, but growing army of female athletes who've committed themselves to an uncertain living in a combat sport previously reserved for men. And what follows are some of the challenges they've faced breaking through MMA's gender barrier.
Jessica Penne's alarm clock goes off every morning at 4 a.m. In those dark moments before the sun has yet to show itself, she feeds her pit bulls, Ludo Monster and Monsteress Chimaera, then leaves her Southern California home for the 30-minute drive to L.A. Boxing, where she teaches the 9:30 cardio kickboxing class.
Penne leads the housewives of Orange County through their monotonous morning ritual, but her mind drifts off to the one-hour drive she has next to Reign Training Center, so she can start her own workouts for the day around 11:30 a.m. After months of waiting, Penne finally has a fight coming up and it's the big one.
On Saturday, the 29-year-old Penne (9-1) headlines Invicta's third event, vying for the promotion's first atomweight (105 pounds) championship against Naho Sugiyama, the 105-pound titleholder in Jewels, a Japanese promotion that has been producing women's bouts since 2008. Whoever wins Saturday night will become No. 1 in the division's world rankings. This is Penne's breakout fight, the star-making turn she's worked toward for seven years.
Penne's come a long way in that time. When she first started fighting, the soft-spoken Penne kept her fights hidden from her Italian father because she feared he wouldn't approve. Today, Penne's lifestyle is built around fighting. She follows a regimented schedule to ensure she has the time and funds to train so she's ready to take a fight on a moment's notice. She keeps like-minded people around her, renting the extra rooms in the house left to her by her grandmother to other fighters. Male or female, this is the type of all-encompassing commitment it takes to be a successful professional fighter.
At Reign, the petite 5-foot-5, 110-pound Penne will put in the same grueling schedule alongside her male counterparts: two to three-hour training sessions twice a day (sometimes thrice a day with early morning strength and conditioning) covering the MMA basics (boxing, kickboxing, wrestling and jiu-jitsu) with a meal and a nap in between, six days a week.
"Women [fighters] generally are not as strong and less explosive just because of the difference in the genders, but for the most part, when it comes to technique, you can see a large similarity. They train pretty much the same," said Reign's owner Mark Munoz, a UFC middleweight contender who coaches Penne and two other female hopefuls.
She might log in the same hours and drills as the men, but that doesn't mean Penne will be given the same chances afforded her teammates. MMA is far from an equal opportunity sport and strong-minded women need only apply.
Since MMA's emergence in America in 1993, there have been over 15,000 documented fight events in the U.S., and only 14 of them have showcased women from top to bottom. To say that women fighters have had less opportunities then the men would be a gross understatement, but getting into those few coveted slots has only been part of the battle. For a female fighter, the struggle often begins when she steps through the gym door.
When Penne transitioned from kickboxing to MMA in 2005, it took her time to find a gym where she felt comfortable, wanted and a part of the team. At her previous gym, Penne was the only female fighter and at the mercy of male teammates who thought she was neither tough enough nor deserving enough to train with them. Penne often ended up in the corner hitting the bags alone and left at the end of the night in tears with the nagging feeling that she wasn't as prepared as she could be for her fights.
Penne's situation wasn't an isolated one. Even Rousey, now the world's most popular female fighter, had to try out three gyms before she found the right fit.
"Most gyms weren't spending time on women fighters," said Rousey, a 2008 Olympic bronze medalist in judo who started fighting in 2010. "Women's MMA wasn't exactly a budding industry."
It's not something lost on Penne's current trainer, Munoz.
"With women in this sport, they feel like they have to prove something," he said.
At Munoz's gym in Lake Forest, Calif., he encourages a safe environment for male and female fighters alike by following a couple of simple rules: no preferential treatment and no drama. Preferential treatment toward the women would cause dissension among the male fighters, he said.
"There are no qualms about women training in this gym, just as long as they train hard and there's no drama," said Munoz. "The male fighters actually love the work ethic [women bring to the gym]. Sometimes they'll stop to watch the women spar."
Penne has a few female training partners to spar and grapple with at Reign (a growing trend in MMA gyms across the country) or she can just as easily work out with the men. This keeps her motivated during the yearlong lulls between fights, because at least she knows she's improving in her downtime.
Because Penne fights in the lightest women's division, her pool of potential opponents is even smaller than most, which has led her to compete in multiple weight divisions, even if that means her opponent outweighs her by 10 or 20 pounds. Division-hopping is a widespread dilemma among female fighters that Invicta is currently untangling, and once it's sorted through and the promotion crowns champions in its five divisions, women's MMA will be even more accessible to fans.
Penne wants to be among those champions.