Editor’s note: The first women’s fight in UFC history was on Feb. 23, 2013, when Ronda Rousey faced Liz Carmouche. This story has been updated after originally being published in December 2019.
Amanda Nunes was driving around Miami with her then-girlfriend, Nina Ansaroff, looking for a bar. They had just watched teammates from American Top Team compete in a kickboxing event and were trying to watch UFC 157.
The date was Feb. 23, 2013, and the main event was historic as Ronda Rousey was fighting Liz Carmouche in the first women’s fight in UFC history. A few months earlier, Rousey, an undefeated star, was signed and awarded the UFC women’s bantamweight title for her accomplishments in Strikeforce, a promotion the UFC purchased in 2011. Rousey vs. Carmouche created some controversy because it headlined the UFC pay-per-view in Anaheim, California, over Lyoto Machida vs. Dan Henderson, a bout between former MMA champions.
“For someone new to come in and have a free ride just seems unfair to [Machida and Henderson] and the whole sport they helped build,” Henderson’s striking coach, Gus Pugliese, said at the time.
Nunes and Ansaroff, now engaged, made it to the bar with their teammates a bit late. They caught the tail end of the card and watched Rousey getting her hand raised after a successful first title defense. Nunes was on the bar’s patio when she finally saw the replay of Rousey winning by armbar. Women’s MMA had existed for many years, but this was its first time on the biggest stage, in a UFC main event in front of 13,257 at Honda Center.
“That was amazing to watch,” Nunes told ESPN. “We were waiting for that moment, all of us. I feel like when I saw that moment, we knew right away this is gonna be huge. Because that fight was huge.”
When she saw Rousey celebrating, Nunes, who was coming off a loss to Sarah D’Aleilio, had a few things run across her mind. One was that she would soon be signed by the UFC. Nunes had already fought for Strikeforce and Invicta FC, and was one of the better Brazilian women fighting, living and training in the United States. “When I saw that fight, the first thing I thought is I’m gonna kick [Rousey’s] ass,” Nunes said. “That was the main thing. But I was very happy about the moment. It was a huge moment for all of us. But in that moment, [I thought], I’m gonna be the champion in the UFC. I’m gonna beat her in the future.”
Nunes, 31, was right on both counts. She won the UFC women’s bantamweight title by choking out Miesha Tate at UFC 200 on July 9, 2016. In her first title defense, Nunes knocked out Rousey in just 48 seconds at UFC 207 on Dec. 30, 2016. Since then, Nunes has continued her excellence, beating current UFC flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko and Raquel Pennington and knocking out luminaries Cris Cyborg and Holly Holm.
“I knew one day it’s gonna come, my moment,” Nunes said. “We’re here now.” Nunes, along with many others in the MMA community, found inspiration from that fight, and the fighters.
Carmouche was released by the UFC, but her legacy remains.
“I never thought for a second that I would have any impact shaping women’s MMA as we know it. I still can’t fully grasp that I had a hand in it,” Carmouche said. “It’s a huge honor to be a part of MMA history and particularly as a pioneer for women.”
Women competing in the UFC is perhaps the biggest story of the past decade in mixed martial arts and Rousey vs. Carmouche started it all. ESPN asked several of the top female stars in the sport to reflect on that fight and its influence on their lives and careers.
Editor’s note: All interviews were conducted prior to Carmouche’s release.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk, former UFC strawweight champion
I remember that fight. I was very excited, and I started believing in myself even more. I felt anything and everything is possible. Women’s MMA can get as big as guys’. I saw a light in the tunnel that anything is possible — if Ronda Rousey can make it, we all can do it. It was definitely an amazing moment.
At the time, I was in Poland. It was difficult to watch in Poland, because we didn’t have UFC on Polish TV channels. I remember I watched some stream or it was a highlight. Of course, I heard it was a big thing and big success for women’s MMA, Ronda Rousey and the UFC. I watched the replay many times. I met Ronda later and watched all of her fights. I remember before my fight with Carla Esparza in 2015, I watched Ronda Rousey fight live. It was in L.A. at Staples Center [UFC 184 against Cat Zingano]. It was amazing. She was doing this over and over again — beating people, smashing people in the first round. It was amazing.
When I look back, it was a big fight for us. For not only women in MMA, but for the UFC and for all of us. Because of Ronda Rousey, my life changed. Ronda Rousey brought women’s MMA to a mainstream level. That’s amazing.
Zhang Weili, UFC women’s strawweight champion
Through an interpreter: I was working in a gym at the time, but the video was very popular in the fighting circle. I watched it on my mobile phone in the gym [in my home country of China]. Ronda’s game attracted worldwide attention at the time, and she felt incomparable. Women can be as good as men — even better. At that time I had a feeling that I belonged in that Octagon cage, and I also wanted to be like Ronda.
This sport changed everything for me. I learned a lot from MMA. I learned to be tolerant, strong and brave. These are very important in life. Winning the championship also changed my life. Stars and celebrities that I’d previously only seen on TV, now are friends. I think it’s a wonderful thing to work hard to fulfill my dream.
Valentina Shevchenko, UFC women’s flyweight champion
When it happened, I didn’t watch it. Probably, I was preparing for some of my Muay Thai competitions. It was a big event for female MMA. That’s why I think all people, all martial arts people knew it was happening.
I would not say it changed something for me. But I think it was when times come, they come. I think that was the right time and place for females in the UFC. Of course, the two girls were from the USA, and they had a bigger chance to get in the UFC than other girls fighting for much more years in other countries. It was time to make it happen, and it happened. Everything started from that moment and is going as it should go.
It was not something like the first female fight ever in mixed martial arts. All over the world, already there were fights. There was a fight with Cris Cyborg and Gina Carano [in 2009]. It was like another push from a bigger stage and the biggest stage of the UFC.
Cris Cyborg, former UFC women’s featherweight champion, now with Bellator
I remember the UFC gave Ronda the organization’s belt at a press conference, and somehow she had never fought in the UFC before but was defending her belt in her first UFC fight. I found it crazy because, after [then-Strikeforce president Scott] Coker made the first world title fight in WMMA with Carano vs. Cyborg, [UFC president] Dana [White] was saying he would never promote women fighters. But suddenly he was fully in a relationship with Ronda where he tried to protect her for as long as possible without independent rankings and through selective matchmaking.
Women changed the fan base. When men go to the fights, they bring their drinking buddy. When women go to the fights, they bring their daughter, son, husband, grandparents. They make it a family event, which helped change the way people look at the sport. Now women fans are the fastest growing and most desired demographic in the sport, and this is because we were given a fair chance to compete.
Michelle Waterson, UFC strawweight contender
I was there live. At the time, there was only one division [in the UFC] opened up for the girls. I remember being excited but at the same time a bit envious. It was an entertaining fight, and I was proud of both girls for laying it all out on the line. I knew it was the beginning of a new era.
Paige VanZant, former UFC strawweight and flyweight currently with Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship
I remember meeting Liz at my Invicta debut and how nice she was. At that time, I never imagined that I’d be competing on the same level as her. It was a really big deal for women to be fighting in the UFC.
Because Ronda and Liz put on such an amazing, talented and technical fight, people finally realized how good women were at fighting and it was something that they should get behind. Not only was this the fight that made people excited about women fighting, but I think it changed the course of MMA history forever. Having women in MMA makes it seem less barbaric and violent. Ronda and Liz showed it can be technical, graceful and very exciting.
Ilima-Lei MacFarlane, former Bellator flyweight champion
There was a guy convincing me to join his gym [San Diego Combat Academy] in 2013. He was like, “It’s the gym with Liz Carmouche.” I was like, “Who’s that?” Then he explained who she was. He said, “She’s the one who fought Ronda Rousey.” And that’s when I saw the fight. I was like, “Oh, s—.”
I was terrified to train with [Carmouche]. I didn’t want to train with her, but I had to. I’m like, “Holy f—, they want me to be this girl’s training partner?” I wrestled in high school. What do they expect? I had never thrown a punch in my life before. Like, “Oh, you want me to train with her? OK.”
I know that without that fight I probably wouldn’t be in the position I’m in today. So, it definitely changed my life. Here I was just walking into a gym wanting to lose weight and standing across from Liz Carmouche, who was the first women’s fighter in the UFC. Her and Ronda both made it possible for women who wanted to fight to reach that level of stardom and that level of fame. At the time, I didn’t know it.
Katlyn Chookagian, UFC women’s flyweight contender
I didn’t even have an amateur MMA fight when that happened. I had a bunch of boxing, kickboxing fights. Jiu-jitsu and everything. I knew I wanted to do MMA, I was training it. At that point, I was like, “Wow, this is like pretty crazy.” I knew I wanted to do this, but I didn’t think of it like a profession. I thought it would just be a hobby. I had just finished college, and I was like, I’m gonna train for a little, for two years see where I’m at and then see if I needed to get a real job or I could keep bartending and fighting.
That was like the first fight where it was like, “Wait, I might be able to like really do this.” Then it was like the next fight and every fight Ronda had, I was like, “Oh, wait, I might be actually able to like make this a career.” It was kind of cool the change of it. I got in right at the right time. I know some women I trained with that were maybe five, six, seven years older than me, they just missed it. I feel so bad for them.
Kayla Harrison, PFL women’s lightweight fighter/former two-time Olympic judo champion
I wasn’t really focused on MMA at that time in my life. I really just watched it, because Ronda was my bud. I also didn’t understand the ripple effect and the significance of the moment. I grew up in a sport [judo] that was completely equal. Men and women have the exact same weight classes, get paid the exact same. Wear the same uniforms. Have the same amount of time in their matches. Everything was always equal to me. The fact that women weren’t in an organization, that never even occurred to my ignorant brain. I didn’t understand how big of a deal it was.
But now, oh my god, are you kidding me? Ronda was the perfect person in the perfect place at the perfect time. If she hadn’t been around and she hadn’t done what she did, I would probably be — I don’t know. I wouldn’t be doing MMA, that’s for sure. She opened up the door for women like me. She didn’t even open it — she kicked that s— down.