The rise of women's Olympic combat sports: A brief overview

Female fighters have slowly crept into the mainstream consciousness in the past few years with movies like Million Dollar Baby captivating the public, women taking to the UFC stage in February 2013 when Ronda Rousey fought Liz Carmouche and even when Victoria’s Secret positioned their entire 2015 campaign around their models favorite workout, boxing and kickboxing. Coming off of recording a podcast with L.A. Jennings and with the 2016 Rio Olympic opening ceremonies tonight, we found ourselves wanting to know a little bit more about the combat sports that are set to provide female fighters with a World’s stage to compete upon and the women that will be leading the United States' campaign for medals. We wanted to know how these sports made their way from side show attractions at men's events to the world’s largest stage? Who are these women that are charging forward towards medals? And finally what are some of the challenges they have faced as female fighters?

While you wouldn’t know it by how the media responds to today’s female fighters, women in combat sports is not actually a new ‘thing.’ In ancient Sparta, women trained and competed in sports like wrestling in their own version of the Olympics, the 5th Century BC Greeks were captivated by Herodotus’ writing on the Amazonians and female boxers have been fighting for the opportunity to compete since the 1700's. Lore and tales of female fighters are present in most cultures as is women’s participation in sport, although it has gone through highs and lows, the fight within women has always existed. But as we dug to learn more about the women's combat sports being represented at this year’s Modern Olympic Games we found that the battle for the representation and respect that female fighters deserve isn’t over just yet but that more and more women make their presence on the mats and in the ring known.

Women have been participating in different forms of wrestling all over the world since ancient times. In the early 1900's female wrestlers, boxers and strong(wo)men toured with troupes across the United States and England, performing for all those curious enough to witness. However, women’s wrestling was not introduced to the modern Olympics until the 2004 Athens Games. In Rio, Women’s Wrestling appears to be poised to step into the spotlight as media has become captivated by this year’s international competitors. With some of the most notable being USA’s Adeline Gray feature in the ESPN Body Issue, Mongolia’s Battsetseg Soronzonbold in the Washington Post, and multiple team USA appearances on national news segements such as the Today Show. While the world may be finally showing interest in the sport and the strength of the women that are participating, Adeline Gray of the US Women’s Freestyle Wrestling Team has been particularly outspoken about the importance of media featuring the faces of diverse women with diverse goals when she said, “I think a lot of girls’ dreams fall short because they don’t see those idols out there like they do for the NBA or the’s going to take more exposure of women being highlighted and having young girls being able to dream that they can do that...”

Adeline Gray of USA Women's Freestyle Wrestling Team

While wrestling may be one of the oldest Olympic sports, many modern female fighters would likely trace their journeys back to the early 1900’s when boxing swept the international sports scene and men and women alike were captivated by the plight of a fighter. By the 1920’s there were many professional female boxers in the United States, United Kingdom and France and by 1923, amateur female fighters were welcomed to the New York Golden Glove Tournament, establishing the legitimacy of female boxers. But what many do not know is that female boxers have been literally fighting for the opportunity to compete for as far back as the 1700's. In the 1950's women’s boxing hit a major modern milestone in 1954 when “Battling” Barbara Buttrick became the first woman to have her match promoted and broadcasted on national television. From there, women’s boxing continued to further itself from its past as the sideshow attraction of men’s bouts to becoming one of the newest additions to the Olympic Games at the 2012 London Olympics and larger draws on international circuits.

Elizabeth Wilkinson Stokes 'Championess of America and Europe"

Perhaps one of this year's most notable boxers entering the ring in Rio is the USA's Claressa Shields. Shields’ skill in the ring are matched by her journey and voice as she has made a point to speak about the pressures that female fighters and athletes face on multiple occasions. In a recent interview with Katie Couric she said, “I have a lot of people to prove that women’s boxing belongs as a sport. Also that I’m a great fighter and that I’m gonna be the first American [boxer] to win two Olympic Gold Medals back-to-back so I got a lot to look forward to.” Again showing that while women’s presence in combat sports is increasing along with the world’s interest in their athleticism and drive, we are not yet at a place when women no longer need to explain their desire to compete.

Claressa Shields of USA Women's Boxing Team

Off the wrestling mats and out of the ring, other women will be heading to Rio with every intention of literally fighting to bring home hardware for their country in the sports of Judo, Taekwondo and Fencing. And many of these women are making names for themselves and bringing attention to the sports that have been their passion for countless minutes, hours, days, weeks and years leading up to these games. We would be at fault to not mention some of these women here. 

Kayla Harrison of USA Women's Judo Team

One of the most decorated Judoka to compete in Rio this year is Kayla Harrison. Since 2008, Harrison has not missed an international podium. She is bringing well over 40 international medals worth of experience with her and is returning to the Olympics striving for gold. Altogether Harrison has two dozen gold medals, 9 silver and 10 bronze, she is looking to add another gold. Competing beside her is bronze medalist Marti Malloy and currently ranked No. 25 in the world Angelica Delgado. In Taekwondo, the USA’s 20 year old, engineering student, Jackie Galloway, is a favorite to take the gold. While her teammate, Paige McPherson is a bronze medalist coming into this years Games is positioned to dominate her competition. Perhaps one of the most impassioned voices on the U.S. Olympic Team is Fencing's Ibtihaj Muhammad. Who is the first USA team member to compete in hijab and is as passionate in competition as she is in her drive for diversity and representation. To see these women in magazines, in the news and speaking around the world as they prepare to take the stage has truly been an awesome thing to witness and we cannot wait to see the next generation of female fighters that they have inspired.

Ibtihaj Muhammad of USA Women's Fencing Team

The modern Olympic Games have helped to push the legitimacy of women’s participation in combat sports creating avenues of opportunity and presenting role models for those that dare to dream. With Rio on the horizon we are excited to see new faces take to the stage and fight for themselves, the future of women in sport and their country. Opening ceremonies cannot come soon enough!

Photo Credits:

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published