A season with the ass-kicking, armbarring, weight-making, hydrating, rehydrating, grappling, gaslighting, stunning female fighters of the UFC.
By Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Past a billboard of women in bikinis shooting machine guns; past a billboard that features a man who can help you cure your addiction; past a Target where all those pictures of shoppers exercising their open-carry rights were most certainly taken sits the Ultimate Fighter house. It’s a housing-development rental the color of its surroundings — desert on desert — on a block without refuge or shade in suburban Las Vegas, and it is where the new season of The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC’s flagship reality show, is taped. This season, its 20th, would feature TUF’s first all-female cast.
The 16 women who lived here now milled around the house in bikinis, in and out of the hot tub, in and out of the kitchen, where egg whites and turkey sausage were grilling endlessly. They hydrated, an act that imitates drinking, but has loftier and more purposeful goals. They played cards, but with no access to the internet, they couldn’t remember how to play most games, so they were relegated to Speed, over and over, in their bikinis.
Inside the house, there are oil paintings of famous UFC fighters and UFC fights on the wall; when they ate, the women sat beneath a painting of breakout star “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey armbarring Miesha “Cupcake” Tate (so named because she likes to bake cupcakes, I’m not even kidding). In the pantry, bursting open, there were many things that are called water but aren’t quite: coconut water, vitamin water, fruit water. There were more kinds of shake mixes than there are countries in the world. There was Xyience, which at the time was the official energy drink of the UFC. It touts “sustained energy with no crash!” and zero calories. It tastes like purple drank that has been heated by the sun in its plastic container, then refrigerated to almost freezing, then left out on the counter of your mobile meth lab triplewide. I hope I’m not giving away trade patent secrets when I say that.
Today was their last day in the house, and though it is a tournament-style competition game, the women who lose are still obligated to remain there as neutral practice partners, which is fine with them — this is training with top coaches without having to throw your pads off and rush to your waitressing job. They were divided into teams from the beginning. Their coaches are a champion (lightweight Anthony Pettis) and a title contender (Gilbert Melendez) who must then battle for the title on pay per view. (The fight happened last weekend; Pettis kept his title.) The women would also fight, in a televised finale this Friday, and the tournament champ would be crowned the Ultimate Fighter and get a six-figure contract and a Harley-Davidson.
The semifinal contenders waited their turn in the living room to have their hair made into cornrows. Jessica Penne, smart and quiet, wanted something untraditional, something intricate, and she sat between the hairdresser’s legs. They wear cornrows for fights because ponytails slip out, and because it makes them look like less of a flailing mess to the judges, who often call fights on points, versus actual knockout or submission. In the dining room, another group of fighters sat watching the women talk to me, eyes narrowed, lips curled back, mean-girl bursts of laughter loud enough to let the women in the living room know this was not innocuous laughter; this was assault. Trust me, I went to an all-girls high school.
The last time I had seen the women was six weeks before, at the start of UFC’s International Fight Week in July. They had just come from shooting promos for the TUF 20 advertising campaign, which was called “Strength and Beauty.” They featured the prettiest of the pretty ones, along with the tagline “Easy on the eyes, hard on the face.” They were dressed as the most feminine versions of themselves, in their best T-shirts, with swirly designs and rhinestones. There were princess-curl blowouts and glitter makeup and eyelash extensions so alien to their faces it caused them to blink slowly. I commented to one of the women that it must be really hard to stay in such phenomenal shape, and she said yes, it was hard, and then told me of a low-carb plan she was sure would work for me if I wanted to give it a try and of course I’d have to really want it.
Afterward, the fighters were sent to the gym, where they rolled around and sparred in the Octagon while their makeup faded and eyelashes fell out. They gathered around their coaches and listened respectfully. They shook hands and did drills and gave quick hugs after quick grapples. They pulled their mouthpieces out to tell me what a victory this was for women, how they never guessed when they were trying to explain to their parents why they wanted to fight instead of, say, play volleyball, that there would be this kind of opportunity. Each fighter spoke about herself as though this were her sports movie and right now was her second-act-bridge moment of truth — her triumph after all the years of the chips being down, sputtering, cellar-dwelling. Each seemed overwhelmed by the attention in her own way. One stuttered while she talked; another couldn’t look an interviewer in the eyes.
Back at the gym that first day, they were filled with the wholesome optimism with which we like to imbue athletes. This was before things fell to shit. This was before you could see how a group of women, put together in a house to be pioneers of a thing, examples, were capable of systematically destroying one another, of bringing one another to their knees, which, as it turns out, takes only six weeks.
Each fighter will tell you this story begins at a specific time in her childhood, when she pretended to go to dance class and sneaked off instead to a kickboxing gym, when she sparred with her boyfriend and then began to punch back. Sportswriters will tell you this story begins in the mid-2000s when Gina Carano, who is beautiful, started headlining the first major female fights. UFC will tell you that this story begins when its president, Dana White, one day opened his eyes and there was Ronda Rousey, a judoka who had medaled in the Olympics, and suddenly he knew that women had a future in the sport. Ronda will tell you a story about being born in a rear naked chokehold — her own umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, betraying her, her shit list long before she was even out in the world—about how her mother, also a judo champion, would wake her up in an armbar, a move designed to ensure her daughter was always prepared…for what? For armbars? For troubled sleep? For trust issues? It was never made clear to me.
But this story, my story, begins at auditions, which happened last spring, when about 70 muscular, vitamin-packed, spandex-wrapped women gathered to audition for eight remaining spots on TUF 20. These fighters had assembled at the Palace Station, one of the many casinos owned by the brothers Frank III and Lorenzo Fertitta. Lorenzo is CEO and principal owner of UFC.
In meeting areas called salons, there were gym mats laid out and cameras all around. A stretcher and a defibrillator and a medic stood in the corner at the ready (in this story, there is always a stretcher and a defibrillator and a medic in the corner). The women did their most show-offy warm-ups: A-plus stretching and buoyant box jumps, shadow jabbing, all of it in hopes that Dana and the two matchmakers who flanked him would notice how clean and disciplined they were, how much they wanted it. (In this story, there is also always wanting it, and wanting it is a quantifiable thing that can be measured and assessed comparatively, especially after a fight, since no one will ever say, “Clearly, homegirl is just stronger/faster/better than I am!” Instead it is simply that she wanted it more.) There is a singular focus to these women and their jumping; they seem to know something I don’t about the way ambition and physical perfection can intersect and lead to some sort of purity or nirvana.
“These girls are crazy,” Dana White said to no one in particular. He said it with chuckling admiration, and also with knowing. In his 45 years on the planet, Dana has learned a lot, and one of the things he’s learned is that women are crazy. Granted, he knew that long before 18 months ago, when he allowed women into the UFC, but since then it’s been confirmed over and over: the trash talk, the rivalries, the fucking aggression, man. These girls are crazy.
The women were put into matches with each other and told to grapple, to stay on their knees. No slams, no flips, for the love of God, we know you want us to notice you, but please no armbars. It’s just an audition, for Christ’s sake. (I have been in an armbar, a friendly demonstration by Miesha “Cupcake” Tate herself, her in pink jeans with rhinestones, us on the carpet of the Mandalay Bay. Just tap if you get into one. Trust me. Don’t wait.)
“You women are so fucking aggressive all the time,” Dana called out to the fucking aggressive women. Everyone laughed. “Just relax. Don’t try to rip people’s fucking arms and head off.”
Like all women who’ve been told that they’re crazy, they weren’t quite sure how to act. How could they not be aggressive? They were fighters, after all, and they were fighters who had minutes to prove their worth. But Dana said it again: “Don’t go crazy.” Yet he had to know that the ladies would get even fucking crazier when he put a $100 reward on the line for any grappling sessions that yielded a submission. Most of the mixed martial artist fighters I interacted with have very little money, having completely devoted their lives to training and coming here on their meager dimes. (An overnight stay at the Palace Station was just $25, but some had quit jobs to audition; some had spent a fortune just on airfare.) A hundred bucks was not nothing.
The Ultimate Fighter runs on Fox Sports 1, a channel I’ve been trying to locate on cable since I began writing this story. Season 18 was the first to feature female coaches, the champ Ronda Rousey going up as a coach against ole Cupcake Tate, Ronda’s voluptuous, sultry-eyed, pillow-lipped nemesis. Tate wasn’t originally the coach that season — Cat Zingano was, but had to bow out for an injury. Now Dana claims he never wanted any drama, but he didn’t tell Ronda that Tate had replaced Zingano before the show taped. He sprung it on her on camera, and she reacted the way Ronda reacts to Miesha and everyone else she hates: She stormed and cursed and insulted and cried. (She later said her reaction stemmed from her assumption that she’d been replaced.) During the show, she would fall for even the most minute and inadvertent annoyances by Miesha, things my 7-year-old would widely recognize as baiting from my 4-year-old and ignore.
“I was just trying to make peace over there all the time,” Dana told me. “The thing that bothered me is that Miesha would be like, ‘Hey, they’re picking on us, they’re picking on us.’ And then she’d go try to stir Ronda up more. And Ronda’s not one of these, ‘Hey, let’s play pranks on each other’ people. She’s like, ‘I’ll kick your ass right here, right now’ type of person.” I’m not sure what to believe. I think men think they want a catfight, but when they are finally exposed to the incredible emotional warfare women are capable of, they become a little disgusted, which is why girls are nicer to each other in co-ed schools versus in single-sex schools where boys aren’t watching — this according to a study out of the university of my recurring nightmares.
There are men who have rivalries in the UFC, and there are men who are ridiculous. There is rarely a male rivalry that reaches the apex of ridiculousness the way so many of the women’s fights do. On prior seasons, the men loved their wives/daughters/girlfriends/moms and did it because “it’s my only dream” and because “it’s my last shot” and “I’ve put it all on the line” and “it’s all I got left” and rolled their eyes at others and grunted and drank protein shakes. The women, on the other hand, talked shit about each other and ganged up on one another, as much as they could before it full-on disgusted the men. These women seemed in every way more distinguishable from one another than the men. The fights seemed less academic, more earned. Ratings for TUF 18 were more than 20 percent higher than previous seasons.
Dana is counting on TUF 20 to be a return to the drama and good show after a tepid all-male 19. “The guys, they were just, they were fucking duds,” he told me. “They acted like they didn’t want it. You know? You got to have some personality, you got to have some desire, some passion, some drive. You got to act like you want to be there. And you keep putting on boring fight after boring fight.”
Back at the auditions, women were weeded through and names were announced. I waited at a table and drank a NOS, which is the official drink sponsor of TUF and so was readily available. NOS is a sports drink that is pronounced like “noz” but should be pronounced as “nose,” as in: No, thank you, I’ll just take a seltzer. It contains taurine, an organic acid that is the major component of human bile, and it tastes sweet the way landfills smell sweet: technically true, and yet. In my journey through the UFC I would taste many sports drinks — they are to MMA what Red Bull and vodka are to DJs — and I will say this: When I cycled back around to NOS, particularly if you can find the grape flavor which is not as prevalent as the fruit punch flavor, it was less offensive than I’d remembered. I leave room for the possibility that it finally had done some environmental impact on my tongue and that maybe I could no longer discern good from very bad.
The fighters who made the cut were interviewed in a separate room, where Dana and some of the producers learned about their Ph.D.s in literature, their years spent in Japan training, their single parenthood, their hard luck, all of it. One woman, who maybe thought she was auditioning for UFC on Cinemax, implied that though she had a boyfriend, shit gets lonely in a house full of all girls, and who knows what would happen? Bawm chicka bawm bawm. Everyone laughed nervously and she was moved to the next round. A list was made of who topped that list, would get a background check and a medical evaluation, but no psych evaluation because as we already know, women are crazy so why waste the money. And perhaps we can be generous, and forget all we know about television and casting and men who are in charge and men who pay for tickets to arenas and say what a coincidence it was that the remaining women happened to all be the prettiest of the lot.
In a greenroom in the Mandalay Bay, during UFC’s International Fight Week in July, Dana White sat in a nice blue suit and lighter blue shirt and drank his pink drink. It’s not a sports drink, but rather water with some sort of zinc cold-prevention mix in there. Wherever Dana is, the drink is stealthily delivered to his side: in a Pellegrino bottle at a post-fight press conference, in a SmartWater bottle cageside.
“Think about how long we’ve been on this planet,” Dana told me. I do. “There’s a woman who can kick a man’s ass and everybody around the world knows it. It’s the first time ever.”
Sure, Dana White is not quite what anyone would call a feminist (or a historian). Sure, he calls these voter-age-and-beyond fighters “girls” three times as often as he ever uses the word “woman,” and regularly called me darling and honey (though, for the record, whenever I’ve asked fighters if they mind, they don’t even understand why they would or should; and though for the record I actually don’t mind being called darling or honey at all). Sure, he called another reporter a “fucking dumb bitch” for the capital crime of using an anonymous source on the hot-button topic of backstage credentials. Sure, a regular feature of his insult arsenal — an arsenal that could be housed by a small nation’s armory — is to say that a bunch of men are behaving like “bitches in a beauty salon.”
But he’s a good businessman who knows what he’s here for: to entertain. Fighters who win but are boring are cut from their contracts, like Jon Fitch, one of the best welterweights around but a total snoozefest to watch (he cut him after a couple of losses that still put him at an overall record of 25–4, which is excellent). He lets them do whatever the hell they want on social media — do yourself a favor and follow the TUF 20 fighters on Twitter, though first make sure you’ve shored up tolerance for women calling one another out by differing levels of “cuntiness.” In Ronda Rousey, the bantamweight champion, Dana saw a never-ending font of drama and high-stakes nastiness, a feud at every door. She’s been in the UFC for only a year and a half, but that’s the longest any woman has been in the UFC (since she was the first), and she’s had more title fights than regular ones by now.
“You know who Floyd Mayweather is?” he asked me.
Yes, of course, I said.
“Ronda will beat Floyd Mayweather. I say it, Joe Rogan says it.” Yes, that Joe Rogan, now a UFC figure. “Ronda says it. Mayweather doesn’t know what she knows. As soon as she puts her hands on you, game over. Now, Ronda Rousey can also walk down the Las Vegas strip and clean every man out of the street, and wipe them all out, annihilate everybody on the street… You look at women differently now because of this woman.”
Ronda is all bravado and swagger and she loves sexual insinuation; she enjoys being the cool girl who can make all these men laugh and wish their tired wives and fat girlfriends could be a little bit more like her. She resembles a very irritable ’90s-era Renée Zellweger, dimpled and almost adorable but with a farbissineh sneer and a face that is either naturally pinched or maybe she is just constantly narrowing her eyes at the world. She cries a lot.
Ronda seems unstoppable and unbeatable, though everyone at the top seems that way until they are stopped and beaten. Cris “Cyborg” Justino almost certainly could beat Ronda, but she failed a drug test in 2011 and so she’s never been allowed in the UFC. Here Dana takes out his iPhone and shows me a picture, this one of Cyborg in Thailand at the beach, taken the weekend before, and posted to her social media. She’s in a bikini and is muscular, so muscular that Ronda said she could never fight Cris because Cris isn’t even a woman; Cris is an “it.” But Ronda doesn’t want to fight Cris because she knows she’ll lose. “Does she not look like she’s on steroids?” Dana asked me. “Tell me the truth.”
“You all look like you’re on steroids to me,” I told him. He laughed hard and thanked me for the compliment.
When The Ultimate Fighter debuted in 2005, UFC was just a struggling MMA promotion, one of many. Now it has the Band-Aid brand awareness of MMA, which is both a good and a bad thing, depending on the day: When a newspaper accidentally refers to MMA as UFC, it is triumphant and everyone clinks their glasses over how far they’ve come from those early scrappy days. But when War Machine (which is now the legal name of a man whose parents once christened him Jonathan Paul Koppenhaver) allegedly tortured his ex-girlfriend in a nightlong horror show of abuse that netted her a lacerated liver, shattered eye socket, missing teeth, and a total of 18 broken bones, and then is described in the news as a UFC fighter, they are offended at the association, since they let him go years ago. It’s complicated.
Dana takes out his phone again and shows me some little kid at the Little League championships being broadcast on the 92nd channel of ESPN who, when asked, names his favorite athlete as Ronda Rousey. “That’s game-changer shit right there,” says Dana. “How about that? Is that amazing? When I saw that, I went crazy. How is that not shocking to everybody? A 13-year-old black kid from South Chicago and he’s a baseball player, okay? And asked who his favorite athlete is, you’ve got fucking Jon Jones. We’ve got Anderson Silva. Then there’s Lebron James! Shaq!”
Ronda has been noticed by The New Yorker and Time and she has roles in The Expendables 3 and The Fast and the Furious 46 and the Entourage movie. Dana and everyone at UFC HQ are so proud of her, too, and they hear that every manner of script is being sent her way: sitcom, rom-com, you name it. In the barely comprehensible Expendables movie—which is like watching an action movie from your youth, but slower, baggier, performed in clay that is just about to harden—she has maybe 12 lines. Two of those lines are an exasperated post-ass-kicking “Men!” Another is that she opens a door for a man and then says: “Ladies first.” Ronda, Dana sees, is his ticket to what he’s wanted now that he has all the money he’ll ever want or need: legitimacy for his brand, respect from the mainstream.
“If you’re covering all of these other mainstream sports, why would you not cover us?” Dana asked. “Why wouldn’t we be covered? If your nightly news guy is on at 11, and he’s talking through what happened that day in sports, how the hell are we not part of that conversation if we had a fight that night? How are we not a part of that conversation? That’s the way that we think. People ask, ‘Can I bring my girlfriend? Is it safe?’” Dana is exasperated. They’ve been around for 20 years and he’s a celebrity wherever he goes. How do people not yet know?
That week, someone interviewing Floyd Mayweather said that Ronda Rousey had been telling anyone who would listen that in a Rousey/Mayweather bout, Rousey would be the winner.
Mayweather shrugged his shoulders and thought for a minute and said, eyebrows raised and with a slight shrug and turned-down mouth, “I don’t even know who he is.”
One of the more outgoing personalities on The Ultimate Fighter 20 was Angela Magaña, a small, fast-talking woman who evades eye contact and makes original choices on which words in each sentence to emphasize. On that last day in the house, everyone was bruised and broken and beaten down, in their bodies and in their hearts, and everyone had their way of explaining it.
I sat with Angela on the front patio of the house. Here is her answer to my crack initial question, which was “How are you doing?”:
“You know, I think I was the same as everybody else where we came into this with the attitude of ‘I’m not here to make any fucking friends. I’m just going to stick to my own and just keep my guard up real high and just stay focused...’ I’ve really made some huge connections with some girls, like some soul connections with girls I’ll know for the rest of my life… I know there’s some girls in here that are like, ‘It’s terrible. It’s so mentally taxing,’ this and that. But I’ve been through so much. I mean just five years ago I lost my fiancé. I was born addicted to heroin. I lived on the streets of L.A. I’m a single mother. I’ve been through so much. So as a frame of reference, this is a walk in the fucking park compared to the shit I’ve been through. I was in a car accident last year, was in a coma. I was the driver. My best friend lost her thumb. I’ve been through some shit. This is nothing… I haven’t cried once, to be honest. I’ve had these great connections and I live in the moment. Like I said, I have a frame of reference of being raised on the streets. I remember going days without eating and eating out of trash cans with my mom and her being… A regular life to me was burnt spoons and my mom nodding out and watching her be a prostitute. This is a vacation in comparison. My frame of reference is completely different than what most people have. So I’ve been through some shit, so this is like fancy jail.”
(Here is her response to my follow-up, which was: “I’m so sorry about your fiancé”: “They said that it was suicide and they blamed me for it for a while. Whenever we tried to get the death certificate to get all of his stuff turned off and deal with the house, they’re like, ‘There’s no way he died of suicide.’ The bullets didn’t match on the floor, didn’t match the bullet that they found from the exit wound. So they were fraudulent charges. They couldn’t put murder because they couldn’t prove it. The cops didn’t do the shotgun residue. They didn’t do the toxicology. They didn’t do shit that they said they were supposed to do, so then it became unknown.”)
Her pulse never got above 85.
“I am living my dream,” said Angela. “I’m very successful. I’ve made it already. I’m a champion at life…. I was being Ronda before Ronda was Ronda,” Angela told me proudly. But Ronda’s a great fighter. Angela didn’t even win her preliminary fight against Aisling “Ash the Bash” Daly.
Angela had, however, over six weeks, led the charge in dividing the house into actual cliques that have actual names, like they were gangs. She also made the case that it was a positive attribute that she could look them in the eye when she was being nasty instead of doing it behind their backs. “I’ve been a bitch from the beginning and I’ll be a bitch in the end. Everybody else is talking so much shit behind people’s backs and they’re nice to their faces. That’s not my style.”
Here are details of the gangland that the house evolved into, from what I could discern talking with the housemates: The Skrappettes at the top, which were Angela and “Rowdy” Bec Rawlings, Emily Kagan, and Angela “Overkill” Hill. Women like mean Carla “Cookie Monster” Esparza and Felice “Lil Bulldog” Herrig, who does a sexy wittle girl routine with pigtails and cookie baking and takes Instagram pictures of herself in the morning that she tags #bedhead, were known as the Cheerleaders, and yeah, they were allowed to hang, but they weren’t Skrappettes, make no mistake. They were called cheerleaders because they had “ribbons in their hair, putting the makeup on every day, always having to be pretty for the camera.” Despite her tolerance of this group, Angela does not exactly have respect for them. “We” — the Skrappettes — “never wear makeup. We just don’t give a shit.”
Far down on the totem pole of Skrappette esteem were the Chumpettes, or Nerds, or Outcasts, or Card Players — different names for the same people. One of them, Lisa Ellis, had sat at auditions with her 10-month-old baby on her lap and told me how overwhelmed she was by the opportunity to get into the UFC. “I never thought this would be an option, I didn’t think this would ever happen,” she’d said at the time. The baby’s picture adorned her bedspread in the house and she had been cut down since I’d last seen her to the point where she looked like a deflated ghost. “It’s a big house, but it closes in on you fast with 16 people at all times,” a producer told me. It’s not that big of a house.
And here, reader, an apology. I couldn’t bring myself to ask the Nerds and the Chumpettes and Card Players if they knew they were Nerds and Chumpettes and Card Players. I am a mere 20 years removed from my all-girls high school, not far enough gone at even half a lifetime, and deep down I know that I would have been relegated to playing cards, desperate to figure out the rules, the unjust irony that if they only gave me access to the internet that I could bring better card games to the wilds of the house, better than Speed, that maybe they would thank me and hoist me on their shoulders and all would be forgiven.
Where was I?
This is not to say the Chumpettes and the Nerds didn’t have a sense of their regard. They did. One night, “Hurricane” Heather Jo Clark had lectured the other women in the house on bullying. “I brought up how I would really like to start an anti-bullying campaign and explained what bullying was. A friend of mine has a 13-year-old daughter that committed suicide… She hung herself and she was just being bullied. That happens every day with kids, with adults in the workplace, and it was going on here this whole time.” They listened to her, and then, minutes later, started making fun of her for making her speech. “So they started bullying me about anti-bullying. How funny is that though, right?”
Everyone wanted to know from Dana if there was a Ronda type of person in the house who would make the strawweight division as fun to watch as the bantamweight one. After filming, Dana told the press that yes, there was a Ronda type of person in the house: Someone who was beautiful and unbeatable, though he wouldn’t say who.
He could have been talking about Angela, who spoke only in inflammatory (albeit circuitous and long-winded) sound bites. He could have been talking about Felice, who has a big fan following. But he was probably talking about Rose Namajunas, who is beautiful and also extremely gifted. Her show nickname is Thug, which is maybe funny because she is tall and lanky, dimpled and Slavic-looking like a supermodel, and not funny at all because she could kill you with her bare hands.
Rose was up for the semifinal fights on that last day in the house. She sat on the patio with me, hydrating hydrating hydrating, ready to be done with the place.
Rose grew up around a lot of violence; MMA fighting saved her life. She is the first of only three people I’d encounter throughout this entire story who would indicate that I wasn’t so crazy myself to think that this was not just like tennis (the others were an MMA reporter and a Christian missionary). “I think we all have an ugly past and I feel like maybe this is a lot for us some kind of therapy, some type of emotional scarring of our past.” It had been a long six weeks for Rose, and she was missing Pat Barry, her longtime boyfriend, also a fighter, but she had done well in the house, kept her head down and her cornrows in place and focused only on her goals, won every fight in front of her. This was the only thing she wanted, and she would get it. She is, without a doubt, the next big female star of the UFC.
“I think we’re all just a little bit crazy, to be honest,” she told me. “We all have something deep-rooted inside of us that enjoys getting punched in the face or punching other people in the face.”
Now, at the end, as every woman I interviewed privately broke into tears on that patio after the same question — “How’re you doing?” — there was no détente, no regret, no way could this have gone differently. There was just a bunch of women, either crazy from the start or made crazy by these circumstances, who all felt very entitled to their behavior and their justifications.
All athletics require some sort of aggression to win, but despite how often I was corrected when I called someone a fighter — “Please, they’re athletes” — that’s just part of a fiction that MMA has created that cage fighting is not fighting at all: It’s sport, like soccer or squash. “Martial arts is all about discipline,” people tell me, and encourage me to enroll my young sons in karate. But when people talk about it as discipline and sport, they’re depriving MMA of its true nature, which is to cause someone pain until they are either unconscious or unwilling to endure any more.
When it gets to the ground, where most MMA fights end up, cage fighting looks more like a lovely Mummenschanz than anything else: strange, slow movements, intimate embrace, arms and legs intertwined, squeezing. It looks like love, to see a woman with a leg wrapped around her neck have a hand delicately adjacent to the other ankle of her aggressor, caressing it inadvertently from time to time. It’s almost elegant until you see the faces up close, what pain is being withstood. When you first see it it fills you — me — with a panic: Won’t anyone stop this? That panic wears away sooner than you think or hope it will and eventually you are someone who could casually check your phone while the pain is being experienced really close by in your proximity. You — I — glance up from time to reaffirm that the pain is still going on, stopping to admire that there might be something about being so involved and so focused before attending back to your phone. It makes you — me — wonder when the last time you were so wrapped up and focused in something, when was the last time you were so physical and full of your own body like that. The utter biology of it is striking, the pounding so frequent that your ears can’t even keep their shape, and still you would want this. Pain might be a part of other sports. But I have watched these fights closely enough to have fighter sweat and spit on my face. Here, pain is the goal.
And who is to say that they’re wrong? Who is to say that it is me who is using my body correctly — me, sitting there, lumpen, eating room-service steaks at Caesars as I hunch over a keyboard for the ninth hour of a day and try to get 5,000 steps from my Fitbit, getting unsolicited diet hints from female fighters, who genuinely seem to want to help me. Who is to say that I should not be wrapping legs and arms around necks and waists, absorbing another woman into my pores, as an expression of how alive I am? Who is to say that I shouldn’t be devoting more time to hydration, that maybe it is at my wateriest that I will be at my finest? Who of us knows what a body is for in the first place anyway?
I will tell you this: After watching a full card of bouts during International Fight Week, I went back to my hotel and stood in an elevator on an endless ride with a woman who was applying her lipstick, readying herself for her night to begin, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what it might be like to punch her in her fucking face.
International Fight Week ended on a Saturday night, and very, very slowly, through many undercard fights, the Mandalay Bay arena filled.
Earlier that day at the expo, which had been erected for vendors selling ice and warm packs in the shape of a face, with eyes, nose, and mouth cut out, and Topps cards that featured UFC fighters, I found myself at a booth for a T-shirt company called Jesus Didn’t Tap. But Jesus was never put in an armbar, or a flying armbar, or a rear naked choke, was he? He was never flipped on his back, his trachea being crushed because someone forgot to put a rule in about that. I asked the man at the booth if maybe Jesus, whom I’m not that familiar with, an Old Testament type am I, would have approved of all of this. Then again, Jesus’ death was gruesome. Maybe Jesus should have tapped?
“Think of it this way,” the man told me. “A lot of these people have a violence in them. This gives them the opportunity to channel it into something productive.” Agree to disagree on what productive means, but I see the point. Someone handed me a sample of TapouT, which I tried in a flavor I didn’t recognize but whose color was MRI green, and I quickly sought and found a bottle of trusty old NOS — now in new Carburetor! — to burn the layer of my mouth off that had been affected.
I met a middle-aged woman who wore a message shirt that said, “I’m the boss, that’s who,” attended by her two grade-school-aged sons. I asked her if she was concerned about exposing them to such violence, how perhaps there was a connection between all of this and, say, adult crime. She couldn’t hear my question because in back of her, an expo cage that featured two men with calf tattoos (in this story, there are always calf tattoos) had just had some sort of Big Event happen and people said, “OOOOOOF!” I repeated the question and she regarded me with disgust.
“No, this is about discipline and learning. This isn’t violence. This is a sport.”
She picked up her kids’ hands like now I was some sort of threat and sneered at me and my implications and walked away quickly because she’s the boss, that’s who.
And finally, it was time for fight night. There are many kinds of women in the UFC universe. There are the fighters, who hydrate and starve and carb. There are executives, who are smart and funny and interesting and are tired of being told they work in a misogynistic sport. But some of my favorite are the Octagon girls, who are grown, spray-tanned, short-shorted women who hold up cards and walk around the cage between rounds, around and around, never quite getting anywhere but where they started. Cageside they are tended to by a glamorous woman older than they are; in my memory she licks them the way a mother deer licks her daughters. Between rounds, the undercard fighters gripped the cage, leaning on it, panting and sweating and spitting, and one of the three golden Octagon girls walked by holding a card and if you’d just landed on the planet you wouldn’t believe that they were the same species.
There, in the big arena, at a moment when the TUF girls were still getting acquainted, their role model Ronda Rousey met poor Alexis Davis in the cage. The other day, poor Alexis Davis, in her platform sandals and flat-ironed hair and a green pedicure, her biceps filling her tie-dyed shirt, had told reporters that she was “being herself, enjoying the fight,” when maybe her goal should have been just to win the fight, not enjoy it so much, not so much be herself as be someone who could beat Ronda Rousey. Poor Alexis Davis has chosen for her walkout song “Royals” by Lorde, and when she entered the arena, she was walking slowly, all Zen, bobbing her head and smiling.
Ronda, of course, entered to “Bad Reputation,” as she always does, scrunched-up angry Zellweger face, black hoodie up around her face, pounding into the arena, where the fuck is she, let me at her. Ronda got into the cage and bounced up and down like an ape in captivity who sees prey but knows she can’t yet have it. She wore little buns in her hair that looked like antennae, which made her all the more incongruously adorable.
The referee let the fight begin, and there were about 10 seconds of striking. Ronda’s never been a great striker, but she’s evolved to the point where she can take a great striker down, and when she did, that’s when Ronda held poor Alexis head in the crook of her arm and just punched away, wham wham wham wham, no mercy, no acknowledgement of humanity, no wondering if this is what we were given bodies for, to hurt them, to break them, to test their limits. She kept going until a referee stopped her, since she herself had no notion of when too much pain was too much pain.
In a flurry of tragic torso tattoos, it was over, a 16-second fight that was later distilled in full to a gif that is somewhere on the internet still playing over and over and over. Ronda got up and poor Alexis, knocked out, gripped Ronda’s waist out of some horrible survival reflex. Ronda shooed her away and threw her arms up in victory and cried, Alexis being roused like “Huh? What happened?” Dana, in the Octagon to rebelt Ronda, looked at me through the cage and mouthed these words: “Holy shit.”
At the press conference following the fight, poor Alexis Davis was puffy from being beaten in the face, but also perhaps from crying. She looked bewildered, perhaps violated by the fact that we all knew what had been done to her and she had somewhere along the line lost consciousness. Or maybe she was just as confused as any of us: This isn’t how this is supposed to play out. Ronda Rousey is the Billy Zabka character, not the wholesome Daniel-san that we all are, that poor Alexis thought she was. Billy doesn’t win. And yet, here we are.
It was maybe then that Alexis learned the thing that makes you a true women’s UFC fighter. That this isn’t a sports movie, and the good guys don’t win however much we want them to, just the strong ones do, just the ones who want it the most, whatever that means. She learned what Angela knows, which is that there will always be favor toward those who scream to be heard, and that when you are heard, you’d better be appealing to everyone’s worst sides so that at least they’ll remember you. And maybe finally poor Alexis learned what Rose knows, which is that this isn’t just a sport like any, this is a place for fucked-up people to play out their fucked-up anguish. Yes, poor Alexis learned what all the beautiful, strong women of TUF 20 know now, which is that the entire show is a false construct. Despite your team and your flag and your coaches and your boyfriend and your contract and your body-fat percentage and your Squor followers, despite all that, when you get into that cage you are on your own. In the UFC, no matter how much you want it, you are totally and utterly alone.
But what are you going to do? The girls are crazy, after all. I took a drink of water, and a yellow-gold woman in a bikini lifted up a card, hoisted it high over her head, and set out to take another lap around the cage.
This story was written by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, edited by Mark Lotto, fact-checked by Emily Loftis, and copy-edited by Lawrence Levi, with photo-illustrations by Devin Washburn.
Image sources, from top: Composite 1: John Locher/AP; Image Source/Getty. Animation 1: Jeff Bottari/Getty. Composite 2: Adrianna Williams/Corbis; Jupiterimages/Getty. Animation 2–5: Josh Hedges/Getty. Composite 3: John Rensten/Corbis; Kallista Images/Getty. Composite 4: Andreas Kuehn/Getty; Jupiterimages/Getty. Composite 5: Jonathan Knowles/Getty; John Rensten/Corbis.