The First Women in MMA

Sep 14, 2022 - by Steve Gerweck

The women of today are considered mainstays of the MMA world. The UFC has been praised for featuring women in main event spots. Most newer fans only remember women fighters starting with Ronda Rousey, but there was a history before that.

Today, MMA odds on women’s bouts are carefully followed, with massive interest in the UFC women’s division.

Let’s look at some of the early figures of MMA.

Gina Carano

Gina Carano was dubbed as the “women’s face of MMA” during her career. The former MMA fighter would become a credible actor, but for a time, the kickboxing ace would be one of the most prominent female names in the sport.

Unfortunately, she never had the opportunity to fight in UFC, but her battle with Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos in 2009 would elevate her to superstardom. She fought primarily in Strikeforce and EliteXC, never being able to capture a championship.

In recent years, Carano discussed a super fight with Rousey, but whether it happens, only time will tell.

Svetlana Goundarenko

Many people are unaware of the fact that MMA has roots in the professional wrestling scene of Japan. Ladies Legend Pro Wrestling delivered MMA to the masses for the first time with the Ultimate L-1 Challenge of 1995.

This fighting tournament was won by Svetlana Goundarenko, a legitimate Olympic-level judoka from Russia.

She weighed over 300 pounds and dominated the competition due to her size and incredible submission skills. Unfortunately, her eight-fight career was curtailed by her lack of stamina and endurance.

Either way, Goundarenko was one of the first women to dominate the sport.

Yuka Tsuji

Yuka Tsuji entered the MMA world with a bang when she shocked Ikuma Hoshino in Japan. This was Hoshino’s first career loss, where she submitted to an armbar.

Tsuji would rule the MMA industry in Japan, with a total 22-1 record compiled between 2001 and 2009. Her only loss came in 2003 to Ana Michelle Tavares, but she would gain revenge on Tavares six years later towards the end of her career.

Megumi Fujii

Megumi Fujii elevated women’s MMA like nobody else. She only became an MMA fighter at the age of 30. She primarily focused on sambo and jiu-jitsu in her fights

Her career would begin with 22 straight victories in Japan, where she would hop between smaller promotions and defeat her opponents through a combination of grappling and submission techniques.

Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos

Cyborg was one of the pioneers for women’s MMA in the U.S. Her athleticism and power meant that she would become one of the faces of the female side of the sport during her early run.

Between 2005 and 2010, she would reel off ten straight victories, including winning the Women’s Featherweight title in Strikeforce.

As already mentioned, her defining fight came against Gina Carano in 2009. Despite the fight being so vaunted among MMA enthusiasts, people often forget that Cyborg dominated proceedings. She would deal with Carano in just a single round, winning by TKO.

Despite her accolades, Cyborg’s reputation has been sullied due to her involvement in a steroid scandal in the early 2010s. This scandal would leave her stripped of the belt following a 2011 defeat of Hiroko Yamanaka, which ended in just 16 seconds.

Since retiring, the Cyborg has discussed joining WWE as a professional wrestler.

Shannon Knapp

Not all the credit can go to the fighters themselves. They needed to be allowed to be showcased in the first place. People often forget that Dana White once said he would never let women fight in the UFC, a decision that would change with the signing of Ronda Rousey two years later.

Knapp is not a fighter, but nobody has worked harder to elevate the women’s side of MMA than her. She served as an IFC and Strikeforce executive and president of the Invicta FC promotion, an all-women MMA promotion.

Knapp has aimed to showcase the best champions in the world. It was a role she only relinquished when the UFC fully embraced the women’s revolution in MMA.


Many people once considered women in the MMA an abhorrent concept. This is why the genesis of women in MMA had to begin in Japan before it slowly crept across North America and Europe. The early pioneers of MMA paved the way for the opportunities women in the sport receive today.

Who’s your favorite female MMA fighter?

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