I couldn’t help but think about Sarah Palin when I read the reviews of the recent Silva-Bonnar fight. Anderson Silva, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s top middleweight, is widely regarded as one of the best fighters in existence, and I didn’t spring for the $45 pay-per-view because I wasn’t convinced his match with light heavyweight Stephen Bonnar would last long enough to be interesting. As it turned out, Silva politely allowed Bonnar four and a half minutes to make his case, and then dropped his opponent hard with a peremptory knee to the midsection.
Bonnar’s a talented fighter, but he was completely outmatched. Which was one reason Sarah Palin came to mind—another fighter whose shot at the big time depended largely on luck.
Silva had signed up for this match on short notice, to help fill out a card gutted by injuries. Like most fighters between matches, he was over his fighting weight. So he offered to fight at 205 pounds instead of his usual 185. The UFC cast around for a plausible opponent in that range, and Bonnar got the nod mostly because of where the scale stopped when he stepped on it. He probably felt lucky, at the time; his opponent, after all, would be fighting at twenty pounds over what he was used to, whereas 185 was Bonnar’s ideal weight.
Every fighter has an ideal weight range, one that provides an optimal balance of power, endurance, and agility. Bigger isn’t necessarily better in a fight, but in sports like wrestling, judo, boxing, and mixed martial arts fighting, where relative body mass counts for so much, there’s no way around the need for weight divisions. If you don’t pair fighters roughly by size, you get too many unbalanced matches that are less interesting to watch, and the sport suffers as a result.
Once you set weight divisions, however, they become another variable that fighters can manipulate as they seek advantage. All other things being equal, a fighter wants the smallest opponent available, and your odds of winning improve if you fight in the lightest weight range feasible for your body. But then you have to balance your low scale weight with the need for power and mass.
The weigh-in rules for most sports add another layer of complexity. Fighters are usually weighed the day before a match, so whatever weight they can gain back in the intervening 24 hours is a sort of bonus. Thus they’ll scramble to lose weight before a match, barely slipping into their division, and then rush to gain back as much as possible before the fight itself. It’s a grueling process, very tough on the body; according to some fighters it’s harder than the fight itself. But it’s assumed to give fighters the maximum advantage in the ring.
On the other hand, Silva didn’t even bother trying to make weight, and won easily anyway.
And that was another reason I thought of Sarah Palin. The former Alaskan governor has always had a reputation for being fit and athletic (among other things), but she appears to have lost a significant amount of weight recently. She was photographed on a day-long shopping trip in California, wearing skinny jeans and a tank top, looking starlet-thin. My first, uncharitable, assumption when I saw the pictures was that Alaska’s meth epidemic might be a factor. However, no; Palin is merely on a health kick—one she plans to share with the world. “Our family is writing a book on fitness and self-discipline,” she told People magazine, and the book will focus “on where we get our energy and balance as we still eat our beloved homemade comfort foods!”
I’m thrilled to know that every literate American will soon be able, like the Palins, to have it all: Self-discipline, comfort, energy, balance, skinny jeans, and paparazzi who follow us to KFC for lunch. I could certainly use a book that explains how you make that happen. My own fitness level is never where I want it, and my attempts at self-discipline are fitful at best. Skinny jeans aren’t currently part of my life plan either; my weight (if I’m being honest about it) would put me somewhere in the UFC’s Bantamweight division, which isn’t nearly as light as it sounds. Really, by rights I should be a flyweight. Certainly I’d want to fight at fly; I know I could get below 125 for the weigh-in, because that happens every time I have the flu. And I know from experience that I could gain back a significant amount in 24 hours too, to give me that all-important edge (edge, bulge; take your pick).
Even a flyweight in the UFC would flatten me, of course, mainly because I don’t train enough, and I’m well past the age where muscle-building comes easily, but also because the UFC is currently an all-male league (there’s been recent talk of adding a women’s division, but no timeline). Men carry proportionally less body fat and more muscle than women, so pound-for-pound, cross-gender matchups will, in terms of body mechanics, tend to favor men—the meatier sex.
Demetrious Johnson, for example, the current UFC Flyweight Champion, weighs 125 and is popularly known as “Mightymouse,” which sounds adorable, but his signature takedown move is picking up his opponents and slamming them bodily into the mat. I, in contrast, stopped picking up my daughter when she turned seven. (Bonus adorable fact about Johnson: He says his hero is Batman.)
Well OK; how might I fare in a women’s MMA league? The fighters there look just as deadly, from my perspective, as anyone in the UFC. Sheila “The German Tank” Gaff, for instance, not only packs a lot more muscle into 125 pounds than I do; she has a couple of inches of reach on me as well. Or there’s England’s Rosie Sexton; she’s closer to my age than most pro fighters, but given her 13-2 record, it’s clear that she’s spent her time more wisely than I have.
These comparisons are a good reminder that staying out of trouble is a lot easier than losing weight and learning to fight well. I simply don’t have the kind of self-discipline these women have—the kind Sarah “I’m a fighter, not a quitter” Palin is presumably going to tell us how to acquire.
I like to think that what I lack in self-discipline, I make up for in cheerful endurance of abuse; that’s the quality that has allowed me to fight women who outweigh me by sixty pounds and more. I’ve learned a lot from sparring with bigger opponents. In particular, I’ve learned how much fun power can be, even if it isn’t yours. If you know how to manage it, or mitigate its effects, power in an opponent is just as exciting as power in a sportscar. It’s inspiring. It enlarges your perspective. It makes you feel grounded, especially when you attempt a takedown and they land on top of you.
I’ve always assumed that women who fight professionally in the upper weight classes must be even more awe-inspiring than the women I’ve sparred with recreationally. But as I was looking up Gaff and Sexton and their peers, I searched in vain for their heavyweight compatriots. Because, as it turns out, the world of women’s mixed martial arts fighting doesn’t acknowledge the existence of fighters over 145 pounds.
I found this hard to believe at first, but it seems to be true that while there are four different leagues in which a woman of my size can fight full contact, there are exactly zero opportunities for women who weigh more than 145.
Now I don’t want to sound bitchy or anything, but this is bullshit. Certainly the women fighting in these leagues are great athletes, but if you think they’re providing the most exciting and watchable women’s sport fighting possible, you’re an idiot. I’ve fought lots of women, of every shape and size, and while there are plenty of small ones who could kick my butt, I can attest from personal experience that women over 145 pounds are some of the most extraordinary, punishing, accomplished fighters out there. Just as with men, the extra mass adds power and drama to their fighting—which, if you claim to be putting together a sporting event based on the spectacle of controlled, consensual violence, should be exactly what you’re looking for.
Women’s boxing understands this. Watch amateur or professional women’s boxing and you’ll see great fighters like middleweight Claressa Shields, light heavyweight Franchon Crews, and heavyweight Li Yunfei. These are big women, and they hit like it. I thought that was what we watch sport fighting for: The hitting. But I guess, in the MMA world, at least, it’s not. Because most of the fighters in women’s MMA weigh less than the card girls sauntering in front of the cameras between bouts at the UFC.
What this tells me is that the people (read: men) who set up the leagues, and publicize the fights, and pay in large numbers to watch the fights, are really looking for models, not fighters.
I know my perpetual screeching about gender inequality can be annoying, but people who really profess to care about sports ought to be paying attention to this glaring discrepancy, because it’s unhealthy for everyone. Sport, of all things, is supposed to be about performance—about winning or losing, not about looking good while you compete. Art is about looking good; about artifice, the artificial. Sport is supposed to be about what’s real, what you can prove. I really, really want this to be true of the fighting sports, because I want to believe that there is at least one small part of this world in which women and their bodies are valued for something other than appearance.
In our current culture, women’s appearance is judged primarily by how thin we are. Sarah Palin has done and said many newsworthy things since failing to win election as Vice President of the United States, but she hadn’t been in the news for a while until she was photographed being thin. Losing weight made her once again worthy of the public’s attention. That absolutely would not be the case if she were a man. John McCain lost the 2008 election just as badly as Sarah Palin did, but you don’t see him out gallivanting around in skinny jeans (Dear Senator McCain: THANK YOU).
Consider how arduous it is for fighters to make weight before a match, forcing their bodies down below that lowest bar, that elusive line on the scale. They starve, purge, dehydrate, and suffer to reduce their bodies, and they often describe the process as torturous.
For women, that torture is often the story of our lives. Not a temporary challenge to be overcome before a fight, but a constant demand: If we want to be noticed, to be looked at, there must be less of us to see. For women, making weight is the fight. Our opponents are our own bodies.
And that’s pretty damn sick. It may sound odd to argue that we need to push back against this punishing reduction of women’s bodies by encouraging them to punch each other in the face more, but that’s what I believe: Women should be free to value their weight, to strive for power, to desire forcefulness, impact, and heft. And men and women alike should learn to appreciate those attributes in women. Which would happen more readily if there were a place in the ring for female fighters of above average weight.
“But women are smaller than men,” I can hear some of you saying, or “There aren’t enough big women out there to fill the higher weight divisions.” There may be fewer women than men who love to fight, but I know there are big, powerful female fighters out there, because they’ve been beating my ass for years. Look around. Check the high school wrestling teams. Check the gyms, the weight rooms. You’ll find them there. Big girls feel at home in athletics, because athletics let them succeed in ways that the rest of the world denies them.
And who knows; if we can evolve to the point where we enjoy watching a couple of heavyweight women fight on Pay-Per-View, maybe someday we’ll be smart enough to elect one of them President.