Growing up, there wasn't really anyone like me. In many Latin cultures, sports either wasn't an option or wasn't emphasized for young Latina girls. As a result, when I watched sports, I didn't see anyone who represented “me.”
Today, young Latinas don't have such a problem. They are carving a prominent path for themselves in a wide variety of sports, perhaps none more so than MMA.
(Photo credit: Fox Sports)
Glance at the current UFC division rankings for women and the lists are littered with Latina names. In both the strawweight and bantamweight divisions, Latinas dominate the rankings. The list of successful Latinas in the sport continues to grow with names like Marion Reneau, Julianna Peña, Carla Esparza, Jessica Aguilar, Juliana Lima, Bethe Correia, Amanda Nunes, Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino and, of course, the queen of MMA, Ronda Rousey. Wait, Rousey? Yes, that Ronda Rousey.
The face of MMA is part Venezuelan.
In some ways, this explosion of Latinas in MMA isn’t that surprising. Boxing has long been a popular sport in Latin cultures. For years Cuba was the dominant force in Olympic boxing, and the sport was just as popular in Puerto Rico and of course Mexico, the latter which has a long, rich history that we recently documented on The Shadow League.
As sports is in my DNA, so too is boxing in the Latino DNA. This is especially true for a fighter like Marion Reneau. You've got the blood. You've got the boxing blood just like your uncle. Those are the words of Reneau's family. That “uncle” was a one-time Jamaican champion before a punch received during sparring session derailed his career.
(Photo credit: MMA Fighting)
Of Belizean descent, Reneau currently ranks #11 in the Bantamweight class of women's UFC. Mixed martial arts has provided an outlet for the stereotypical Latina temperament. “I went to a high school where there was this one group of girls – I fought everyone in that group at least one time,” explains Reneau. “I don't know what it stemmed from. They didn't like me for some reason. I just know that I was a hot-head.”
Through MMA, Reneau has learned to harness that temperament and make a career that is indicative of many Latinos in this country. Hard work, discipline and a fearless mindset have helped Reneau provide for herself and her son. “It's a tremendous balancing act,” admits Reneau.
Hard work and discipline, traits of the fighter right behind Reneau in the Bantamweight rankings, Julianna Peña. Peña, who defeated Jessica Eye by unanimous decision this past Saturday at UFC 192, shares the same fiery temperament of Reneau. “My parents are huge firecrackers,” laughs Peña. “When things were good, things were great. When things were bad, you better watch your head because plates & oranges were flying at you.”
(Photo credit: mixedmartialarts.com)
It's her family and childhood, for better or worse, that has helped Peña channel her emotions and focus into a career, one that took off after winning UFC's ”The Ultimate Fighter” for women. It’s a title that gives Peña a unique platform. “I feel like I'm in a situation where I'm Latina, I'm a girl and the first female Ultimate Fighter winner ever, in history,” says Peña proudly. “I have this standout thing where I was on national television and everyone sometimes recognizes me as that figure. I feel like I could be a strong role model for the Latinas out there.”
Another name that has been on the lips of everyone lately has been Cristiane Justino, aka Cris Cyborg. But she's no new jack; the Brazilian mixed martial artist has long been a fan favorite through her championship career at Strikeforce and Invicta FC. While Cyborg doesn't have the worldwide fame of Rousey, she's just as deadly in the cage, earning 14 out of 16 victories by knockout, including a first round TKO of Gina Carano in 2009 for the Strikeforce Women's Featherweight Championship. The current role assigned to her by many MMA fans is that of the Rousey stopper, and while that fight is still far from done, it's great to see her finally receive public recognition for the impressive career that she has built over the last 10 years.
(Photo credit: Esther Lin, Strikeforce)
Reneau, Peña and Cyborg have “the look” that most people would define as Latina or Hispanic. Ronda Rousey, on the other hand, doesn't.
Blonde hair with fair skin, Rousey had to (no pun intended) fight against the stereotype when she was growing up. In a 2012 interview with Fox Latino, Rousey described the challenges of not looking the part. “When I was younger and we went to Catholic school that was like 99.9% Latino I was really outcast there,” said Rousey. “I had so much trouble learning to speak English that I never learned how to speak Spanish. I didn’t learn to speak coherently in English until I was around six years old. So I didn’t look it, I didn’t speak it and I was kind of ostracized from that community a little bit.”
Rousey's champion-level skill and Hollywood-looks have helped propel her into superstar status. It's a position that Rousey desires to use to expand the sport of MMA to Hispanic markets. Last year, she spoke with MMA Weekly about it:
Reneau, Peña, Cyborg, Rousey and other Latina fighters in MMA are forces to be reckoned with both in and outside of the octagon. They are the women who are blazing the trail for the young Latina girls of today. Fierce, competitive and all-business, these women are smashing all stereotypes of what Latinas can and can't be.
“If you focus and if you believe in yourself, there is no doubt in my mind you can do anything that you absolutely want to do,” says Peña.
Like the first female Ultimate Fighter winner, today's young Latina girls can do anything.
Even outshine the guys in a male dominated sport.