In 2012, the Ultimate Fighting Championship accepted what many had been saying for years - women can fight, and people want to see it. In creating their first female division they revolutionized the entire sport. Since then, a woman has become the biggest star MMA has ever seen and scores of female fighters have been given the opportunity to compete at the highest level.
Among today's champions, trailblazers, fan-favorites, and hot prospects are openly gay women. These are just some of the out stars of women's MMA in UFC and Invicta.
A former aviation technician with the U.S. Marine Corps, Liz Carmouche made MMA history on Feb. 23, 2013, when she became the first female fighter to step foot in the UFC's octagon. On that night she fought Ronda Rousey for the UFC women's bantamweight (135-pound) championship belt. Though she had Rousey in trouble early, "Girl-Rilla" would eventually succumb to Rousey's signature armbar. When Carmouche entered the UFC cage she also became the first openly gay fighter to compete in the biggest MMA promotion on the planet. Since her loss to Rousey, Carmouche has fought four times in the UFC, winning twice and losing only to women who would go on to challenge Rousey for her belt.
Carmouche has long been a proud voice for her community, having done numerous interviews discussing the challenges of both being a gay member of the military and a gay professional athlete. Carmouche's pride is never more visible than when she fights, where she can be seen sporting a rainbow flag mouth guard.
The 31-year-old, who had three tours of duty in the Middle East, fights out of the San Diego Combat Academy. Though Carmouche is known more for her wrestling, 6 of her 15 wins have come via technical knockouts. Listed ninth in the UFC's women's bantamweight rankings, Carmouche is a difficult opponent for any fighter hoping to climb into the uppermost echelons of women's MMA. Carmouche herself can get into title contention once again should she put together a string of impressive wins.
Raquel ‘Rocky' Pennington won over fans during her run on the UFC's flagship reality series "The Ultimate Fighter. In 2013 she was a member of Team Tate, coached by Meisha Tate (who fights Holly Holm for the UFC bantamweight title on March 5 at UFC 196). Opposing Team Tate was Team Rousey, led by the pop culture icon herself. Pennington's barn-burning brawls were, without doubt, the most entertaining fights shown in the series. Pennington's fan-friendly style is not the only thing that made her stand out, though. Pennington candidly revealed her coming out story to viewers, as well as the issues she had faced as a young gay athlete.
Since her time on the show Pennington has fought five times in the UFC. Two of her three wins in the promotion came via chokes. Her most recent loss was an extremely close bout versus current champion Holly Holm (who in 2015 dethroned Rousey in stunning fashion).
Pennington, who trains out of Colorado's Altitude MMA, is ranked 13th in the bantamweight division. At 27, Pennington is in the prime of her career. She faces Bethe Correria (a previous title challenger) on April 16 live on FOX Sports. A victory over Correria could advance Pennington considerably in the rankings, putting her two or three wins away from championship fight.
Jessica Andrade, a native of Brazil's Parana State, is known for her fierce ground-and-pound striking. This style has paved the way to four wins out of seven contests in the UFC. Andrade's first fight in the UFC was a loss versus Liz Carmouche. The fight between Andrade and Carmouche was the first ever fight between two out athletes in the UFC. All of Andrade's fights in the UFC have been at 135 pounds. In October 2015, shortly after a defeat to Raquel Pennington, Andrade announced her plans to drop down to the UFC's women's strawweight (115 pounds division.
Andrade is not known to give many interviews or share much of her personal life with fans and media. In a rare interview, with MMA Junkie, Andrade discussed being gay and how she feels a male fighter may find it more difficult than a woman to come out in the world of combat sports.
Andrade, who stands just over 5 feet, was often outsized by her bantamweight opponents. If the same ferocity Andrade displayed against larger women overwhelms fighters closer to her own size, it may not be long until she is fighting for a championship belt.
Outspoken Tonya Evingeris one of the hottest fighters in women's MMA, having reeled off eight straight victories. On July 9, 2015, the Missouri native won the Invicta bantamweight belt after TKO'ing Irene Aldana. On Sept. 12, 2015, she defended the belt against Pannie Kianzad, whom she also TKO'd. Nicknamed "Triple Threat," Evinger is an accomplished boxer, wrestler, and submission artist. In her 22 professional fights she has 18 wins, 14 that came via stoppages. Evinger has hinted that a bout against Christiane "Cyborg" Justino (Invicta's 145-pound champion) could be in her future. That match-up has the potential to become the most watched Invicta fight of all time. Evinger next title defense is expected to be against Colleen Schneider in May.
Evinger operates with no filter, making her a refreshing outlier among fighters who are generally prone to cliché and drab statements. When asked by Sherdog what she would do after winning the Invicta title, she replied, "spank my girlfriend."
Evinger, who fights out of Houston's Gracie Barra Champions gym, was a nominee for Best Female Fighter at the 2016 World MMA Awards.
A former strawweight champion for World Series of Fighting, Jessica "Jag" Aguilar abdicated her belt in order to make the move to the UFC. Born in Veracruz, Mexico, Aguilar fights out of American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida (one of the world's premier MMA gyms). With 24 fights under her belt Aguilar is a true veteran of the sport. Aguilar has 19 wins to her name, but she lost her last fight - her UFC debut - to top-ranked Claudia Gadelha in August 2015.
Aguilar, who has stated that being out as gay has never hurt her career, is a pro ambassador for Athlete Ally; a non profit that provides public awareness campaigns and educational programming designed to foster inclusive sporting communities.
Aguilar is a multi-time Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champion who is currently ranked 13th in the UFC's strawweight rankings. Aguilar will face Juliana Lima at UFC 197 on April 23. Many are keen to see if "Jag" can rebound with a win after her first loss in five years.
Ediane "India" Gomes has been fighting professionally since 2007, winning 10 out of 14 professional bouts. The 35-year-old Brazilian is remembered for being involved in one of the most infamous fights in MMA history. Early in her career Gomes defeated a man in the now-defunct Rio Heroes organization (which was little more than an underground fight club). A recovering drug addict and former street kid, Gomes last competed in Invicta's 135-pound division.
In an interview with MMA Junkie in 2012 Gomes stated that her Brazilian teammates, who are mostly men, have always been respectful of her sexuality. The article also revealed that Gomes had married her longtime girlfriend, whom she had met in the U.S.
In January, Gomes was forced to pull out of a fight at Invicta FC 15, when she was unable to safely make weight. Prior to this Gomes had set up a GoFundMe page to raise funds for pre-fight medical costs. Gomes is a fighter in every sense of the word, but her professional mixed martial arts career may be coming to an end.
RENATA LIVIA SOUZA
Invcita's strawweight champion Renata Livia Souza hails from Sao Paulo, Brazil. Souza holds an undefeated record after nine professional fights. She debuted in March 2013 and since then she's finished all but two of her fights via submission. Souza, who has been competing in judo and jiu jitsu since she was 7, defended her title versus DeAnna Bennett on Jan. 16, winning by TKO.
"Livinha" is 24 years old and, like most millennials, she is an avid user of social media. Instagram seems to be her venue of choice and her account features a bevy of selfies, most of which are tagged with phrases like #respect, #rastafari, and #gblt (the Brazilian equivalent of LGBT).
With years before she hits her prime, Souza has the potential to become one of women's MMA's brightest stars. Souza recently stated that she is ready for the UFC, believing there were no women left in Invicta who could challenge her.
Tim Bissell writes for Bloody Elbow. You can follow him on Twitter.