Written by Kaitlin Young
MMA may be the best professional sport in existence for women today. They fight the same rounds, receive similar media attention, and have comparable pay to their male counterparts. This was not always the case.
Women have only recently stepped into the UFC octagon. Thanks to the Fujiwhara effect of Ronda Rousey’s popularity and Invicta Fighting Championship’s numbers, it became apparent that women most certainly put butts in seats. Stars like Gina Carano and Miesha Tate had always been very popular with fans, but this was the push that Women’s MMA needed to prove that it’s promotion was financially viable.
Still, this is all relatively new – most of these ladies have only been fighting the last 10 years or so. Who laid the ground work for the popular female stars of MMA that we see today? In honor of Women’s History Month, let’s take a look at 10 of the most influential women in MMA history.
These women hardly ever had the luxury of competing in their own weight class or even against someone with similar experience. In the 90s and early 2000s, female fighters were scattered about the US and the rest of the world. They took what they could get, fighting for free, or for 50 dollars, or in a barn, or against someone plucked from the crowd. These women were fighting before the involvement of athletic commissions. They were fighting before it made anyone famous. They were fighting before MMA was cool.
Marloes Coenen 23-8 (years active 2000-2017)
Marloes Coenen’s long and storied fight career came to an end this past year. She began training at Shooto Holland at the age of 14. She made her MMA debut in November of 2000, amassing a record of 23-8 over the next 17 years. Coenen is a veteran of Smackgirl, Shooto, Dream, Strikeforce, Invicta, and Bellator, among several others. The former Strikeforce Bantamweight Champion now has her own gym in Amsterdam and is still involved with the current MMA scene working for Spike TV in the Netherlands. She currently has a documentary and a book in the works.
Becky Levi 7-1 (years active 1996-2000)
Becky Levi entered MMA as a world champion weight lifter and international track athlete. Levi got her start in fighting in tough women tournaments in Japan, competing several times and fighting 4-5 times in a single evening. On three occasions, she finished the tournament as the runner up. She had her first MMA bout in 1996 and went 7-1 in professional MMA, completing her final bout in December of 2000. The black belt judoka trained under UFC hall of famer Dan Severn, cornered him in a few of his UFC bouts, and helped him set up The Danger Zone – an MMA promotion. No longer directly involved in MMA, she now provides strength and conditioning coaching for young athletes in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Jennifer Howe 13-2 (years active 1998-2005)
If you ask anyone who was queen in the early 2000s, they’ll tell you that Jennifer Howe was a killer. She likely would have had many more fights if not for so many refusals – ultimately leading to her retirement. Her only two losses came back to back from Roxanne Modaferri. Most of her wins came via submission, though she could also throw hands with the best of them. She came in 3rd in the National Golden Gloves tournament in 2000. Howe now resides in Salt Lake City, managing the gym as one half of an MMA power couple with UFC standout Jeremy Horn.
Roxanne Modafferi 21-14 (years active 2003-present)
Roxanne Modafferi is an American fighter who interestingly got her start fighting in Japan. Roxanne has competed everywhere, including Smackgirl, HookNShoot, Jewels, Cage Warriors, King of the Cage, Strikeforce, Invicta, and the UFC among others. She has fought everyone under the sun and has now currently competing in the UFCs 125 division. Modafferi was on a six-fight skid from 2010 -2013 but rallied back and finding great success and her best fights in recent years. She is the only female fighter to come on the scene in the early 2000s and still sit on top of her division today.
Debi Purcel 4-2 (years active 2001-2008)
Debi Purcel is the only female black belt in Ruas Vale Tudo, along with her BJJ and TKD black belts. She competed for a relatively short amount of time, but definitely made her mark on the sport. She was the first woman to headline a legendary HookNShoot card and the first woman to fight in King of the Cage. She finished her career signed with the now defunct EliteXC, having fought on their Showtime series. In addition to competing, Purcel created the Fightergirls website, forum, and apparel line. The brand was very successful and was the first of its kind to specifically outfit female fighters with MMA gear. The forum was one of the first online communities where female fighters, promoters, and coaches could gather to discuss fight opportunities and the lay of the land.
Rosi Sexton 13-5(years active 2002-2014)
Rosi Sexton hails from the UK, yet has fought all over the world in Bodog Fight, Elite XC, Cage Warriors, Bellator, and the UFC. She holds a black belt in TKD and a brown belt in BJJ. She fought many fights in her career outside of her weight class. Sexton was the Bodog Fight 125lb champion, but moved up to 135 to be able to compete in the UFC at the tail end of her career. Rosi now works as an Osteopath specializing in sports medicine.
Tara LaRosa 22-5 (2002-present)
Tara LaRosa was an incredibly dominant fighter, becoming the first and only BoDog Fight Bantamweight Champion in 2007. From 2004 to 2009 she went on a 15-fight unbeaten streak – winning most of them by way of submission. She is primarily a grappler, taking home countless medals from ADCC, FILA, and Naga Grappling Championships in addition to her MMA Career. Tara is now sharing her knowledge with others as a coach near Detroit, Michigan.
Shayna Baszler 15-11 (years active 2003-2017)
Shayna Baszler is a South Dakota native and has spent the majority of her career training under heavyweight MMA fighter and catch wrestler Josh Barnett. She has fought in many countries around the world in Bodog Fight, Elite XC, Invicta Fighting Championships, and the UFC. Though she does have a background in Muay Thai, grappling is her specialty – even developing her own submission, an armlock affectionately known as “the shwing”. Since stepping away from MMA, Baszler has entered the world of professional wrestling. She is now based out of Orlando, Florida as an athlete with the WWE.
Megumi Fujii 26-3 (years active 2004-2013)
Mega Megu may be the most dominant female fighter MMA has ever seen. In her prime, she was undefeated for 6 years, quite often fighting up one or two weight classes in order to be matched. Between August of 2004 and September 2010, Megumi racked up 18 submission wins in her 22 victories. Her unprecedented win streak was snapped by a much larger Zoila Frausto in a split decision loss in Bellator MMA. Megumi is now coaching at her own gym in her native Japan.
Julie Kedzie 16-13 (years active 2004-2013)
Julie Kedzie came to MMA from a traditional TKD background – an art she had been training since the tender age of five. Shortly after making her debut, she entered the HookNShoot Gran Prix Tournament in Evansville, Indiana. She fought and won three times in one night to take home the championship. In addition to competing in HookNShoot, Bodog Fight, Elite XC, Strikeforce, and the UFC, she has also worked as a matchmaker with Invicta Fighting Championships. Julie is still involved with the company as one half of the commentary team at live events. She teaches English literature at the University of Iowa and is still coaching MMA at a local gym.
These women broke down barriers
They fought for acceptance in a sport that was deemed too violent for anyone at the time, let alone women. As with any form of progress, each generation has a little less work to do an a little more to take for granted. Thanks to these ladies for helping to make MMA the incredible sport that it has become.
Kaitlin Young is a champion Muay Thai fighter and former MMA fighter based out of Minneapolis, MN. She currently works as a matchmaker with both Invicta Fighting Championships and Driller Promotions. When not training or watching fights, she can be found spending time with her wonderful little dog, Tazer.