The Awkward Stage of the UFC’s Female Featherweight Division
Did you know that the UFC has a women’s featherweight division? No? Perhaps it’s because the division has no official rankings, has only ever been sanctioned 3 bouts, and only includes 4 contenders.
For some background, the divisions’ champion Cris Cyborg is recognized as one of the greatest fighters, and female fighters, in the world. She is currently 19-1 and sits at number 9 on the pound-for-pound rankings. For the entirety of her 13 year long mixed martial arts career, she has fought as a featherweight and was champion of Strikeforce, before she was both stripped of the title due to a failed drug test and the promotion was acquired by the UFC.
At this time, Rousey was at just beginning her rise to glory, as she was the bantamweight champion of Strikeforce, before being brought over to begin the first women’s division in the UFC. This is not a well-known fact that she actually started her fighting career fighting at 145 lbs. It wasn’t until there was some demand around the idea of a fight happening between her and Miesha Tate, who held the belt at 135, did Rousey move down in weight. Rousey even used to speak about her excitement at the idea of a potential matchup between her and Cyborg for the featherweight title.
However, her tune changed after going over to the UFC : instead of welcoming a fight with Cyborg at 145 pounds, she stated that she would need to come down to fight her for the belt at 135. A lot of her claims were based on Cyborg’s suspension, which at the time was a recent infraction. Plus, she had everything to lose by moving up in weight to fight Cyborg for a weight class that the UFC didn’t have for women at that point: they were invested in the 135 division only. When promoted, she usually pointed out that Cyborg knew where to find her, could make 135 if she wasn’t “pumped full of steroids,” and that it was on her to make weight since Rousey was the belt holder.
However, Cyborg marched to the beat of a different drum on this issue, saying that Rousey was ducking her and avoiding a fight. She pointed out the fact that she’s only ever fought at 145 and that Rousey knew she couldn’t make the bantamweight limit and was using that as an excuse to not book the fight.
The stalemate between these two never came to any resolution, as Rousey was dethroned by Holly Holm, and Cyborg went on to fight current UFC bantamweight contenders at a catchweight of 140. After her second fight at this weight, Cyborg disclosed the dangerous nature that was involved in her weight cut and insisted that she would only ever fight at featherweight from that point forward.
What was the UFC to do? In need or stars in the absence of pay-per-view draws like McGregor and Rousey, they created a featherweight division and title with Cyborg in mind. Although she didn’t fight in the first female featherweight bout (that honor was given to Holly Holm and Germaine de Randamie), it was due to some disagreement between her and the UFC, as well as a flag from USADA for a potential doping violation that kept her on the sidelines.
After her name was cleared and the chaos of UFC 208: Holm vs de Randamie was over, Cyborg then went on to win the title de Randamie vacated at UFC 214, where she fought Invicta vet Tonya “Triple Threat” Evinger. She won the belt as expected and started her reign as the featherweight queen of the UFC in July 2017.
However, the division has been at a complete standstill, since its inception. The UFC didn’t do what they did when they created a division around Rousey’s star power, through signing contenders, booking fights, and building a division of credible, high-level fighters who would earn their way to a title shot. Instead, they've been handing opportunities to specific fighters who would create exciting matchups and would sign on the dotted line to fight who many consider to be the scariest woman on planet earth.
This has made any discussion around the featherweight division very strange and completely Cyborg-dependant. Never before has a UFC division contained only championship bouts, revolving around once specific fighter who can’t join the others because of a size discrepancy. Never before have they made this kind of exception for a fighter. Also, never before have we seen a belt essentially handed off to two contenders to fight for, without any kind of rankings or order that is being established.
That’s what makes this division so confusing, and quite frankly, laughable. It’s hard to call it a division and consider the belt to be of the same value as the those across the 11 other UFC divisions, in which contenders must fight their way to a title shot, literally. If you’re being spoon-fed contenders, does it really count in the same way as having to continually fight the top guys and girls in your weight class?
It’s also not as if there aren’t any featherweight fighters that the UFC could sign- far from it. Although the talent pool is smaller for women at this size, there are still many quality fighters in promotions like Invicta and Bellator that could easily fill a UFC roster. So why is it that they are not booking them and booking fights in this division?
Cyborg herself has called out UFC execs concerning this oversight, even going so far as to claim she would consider leaving the promotion to fight in Bellator, where they are investing in talent at 145.
With a fight recently announced for UFC 222 between Cyborg and Invicta FC fighter Yana Kunitskaya, it seems that this spoon-feeding, one-off bout agreement nature will remain in tact, for now. But it’s clear to me that the state of this division needs to be defined in a much clearer way by the UFC, if they want to both invest in Cyborg and maintain a competitive nature.