Women have been a part of mixed martial arts since 1993, even though it took another decade for the major promotions to warm up to them. Strikeforce was the first major promotion to headline their cards with female fighters, and those fights paved the way for women to be a significant part of mixed martial arts moving forward as they brought in significant crowds.
Fighters like Angela Lee, Xiong Jing Nan, Gina Carano, Cris Cyborg, and Ronda Rousey showed the world that MMA events headlined by women could bring in comparable numbers to events featuring the top male fighters.
Women Who Changed Mixed Martial Arts Forever
Let’s take a look at some of the women who have made their eternal marks on MMA with their dominant performances inside the cage:
1) Amanda Nunes
The “Lioness” is arguably the most dominant women’s champion in MMA history. Her ascent to legendary status started with her signing with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, where she was thrown to the wolves. Nunes held her own, defeating the likes of Germaine de Randamie, Sara McMann, and Valentina Shevchenko.
That earned her a shot at the UFC’s women’s bantamweight belt that Miesha Tate held at the time. Nunes won that fight with a first-round submission, then she knocked out Ronda Rousey her next outing. After defending her belt a couple more times, Nunes moved up to the featherweight division to challenge Cyborg for the belt. She put on the most impressive performance of her career when the two collided, scoring a first-round knockout.
Now a double champion, Nunes defended her belts a few times before losing her bantamweight title to Juliana Pena at UFC 269. However, Pena’s reign would be short-lived, with Nunes reclaiming her title during their rematch.
2) Cris Cyborg
Cris Cyborg ended the reign of the first female face of mixed martial arts, Gina Carano, in 2009, making her the new face of female MMA. A two-time Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champion, Cyborg, faced adversity early in her mixed martial arts career, losing her first fight via submission. She then went on what remains one of the most impressive winning streaks in MMA history, winning her next 20 fights and grabbing three belts along the way.
MMA fans never got to see the highly hyped potential fight against Ronda Rousey, but we got the next best thing when Cyborg squared off against Amanda Nunes at UFC 232. Cyborg suffered her first loss in over 13 years, getting knocked out in the first round. Cyborg wasn’t done after the loss though. She went over to Bellator when her contract with the UFC ran out, winning their women’s featherweight belt in her debut. That makes her the only fighter in MMA history to win titles in four major promotions.
3) Valentina Shevchenko
An eight-time Muay Thai champion, Shevchenko is one of the most skilled female fighters to ever step inside a cage. After a failed run at the bantamweight title, Shevchenko dropped down to the flyweight division to fight Joanna Jędrzejczyk for the vacant title. She won that fight by unanimous decision, and she’s successfully defended it seven times since then. Sporting a professional MMA record of 23-3, only the likes of Amana Nunes have defeated her in recent memory (twice).
4) Ronda Rousey
You can easily argue that women’s MMA wouldn’t be where it is today without Rousey. Ronda is the biggest female superstar in mixed martial arts history, and she changed the way many fans and promoters viewed female fighters.
An Olympic Bronze medalist for Judo, Rousey quickly made a name for herself in MMA, submitting all her opponents via first-round armbars. That generated lots of hype around her and earned her a shot at the Strikeforce Bantamweight title against Miesha Tate, which she also won via first-round armbar. The numbers generated by Rousey’s fights forced UFC president Dana White to reconsider his stance on women’s MMA, and a women’s division was created shortly after.
Rousey was awarded the inaugural bantamweight title when the UFC purchased Strikeforce, and she successfully defended it six times before getting knocked out by Holly Holm. Rousey remains the only female fighter to sell over a million pay-per-views on cards she headlined multiple times.
5) Xiong Jing Nan
Xiong Jing Nan is ONE Championship’s reigning Women’s Strawweight Champion, with six successful title defenses under her belt, most notably handling Angela Lee her first loss in mixed martial arts. Her bragging rights didn’t last for long as she ended up losing a rematch when she dropped down in weight to fight for the atomweight championship.
Xiong defeated Tiffany Teo in 2018 to win the strawweight championship, becoming the first Chinese world champion in mixed martial arts history.
6) Angela Lee
Lee represents the new breed of female mixed martial artists. She won two gold medals at the WAPF World Pankration Championships as a teenager, and she defeated Mei Yamaguchi to win the ONE Women’s Atomweight Championship six fights into her pro MMA career – and she did it all at just 20 years old, making her the youngest person ever to win a world title in MMA. She’s successfully defended that belt five times.
7) Joanna Jedrzejczyk
A five-time Muay Thai champion, Jedrzejczyk signed with the UFC sporting a 7-0 MMA record, and she defeated Carla Esparza for the promotion’s women’s strawweight title two fights later. She’s the first Polish-born champion in UFC history, and she defended her belt successfully five times before getting knocked out by Rose Namajunas.
8) Gina Carano
Talk to any hardcore MMA fans, and they’ll tell you Gina Carano was the first female face of mixed martial arts. Carano started off with Muay Thai, going 12-1, before transitioning to mixed martial arts. She started with fighting under the WEF banner before moving on to Elite XC.
She went to Strikeforce from there and ended up fighting Cris Cyborg in the first female super-fight in mixed martial arts history. It was a significant moment for women’s MMA, with Cyborg becoming the new face of women’s mixed martial arts.
9) Miesha Tate
One of the toughest fighters in MMA history, Tate’s first match against Ronda Rousey made it clear women could bring in the big bucks headlining major cards, and it’s still one of the most entertaining fights ever. It was an all-action affair, with Tate (the defending Strikeforce women’s bantamweight champion) eventually getting her arm broken when she refused to tap to an arm bar. Tate’s rematch against Rousey was just as entertaining, but the results were the same: she ended up with a broken arm.
Tate defeated Holly Holm to become the UFC’s women’s champion a few fights later but lost the belt to Amanda Nunes her next outing.
10) Zhang Weili
Zhang started her MMA career with a loss, then went on an impressive 21-fight winning streak, including defeating Jéssica Andrade in Shenzhen, China, to win the UFC’s women’s strawweight title and successfully defending the belt against Joanna Jędrzejczyk.
Weili lost two consecutive fights against Rose Namajunas before returning to the winning side of things with a second-round knockout of Joanna Jędrzejczyk at UFC 275.
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