Sexing the Stop: Rousey vs McMann

Ronda Rousey, Sara McMann

Ronda Rousey and Sara McMann came out swinging, and for a little while it looked like we were going to have an excellent and entertaining fight. But soon Rousey had McMann against the fence – and while McMann defended herself well against a take-down, Rousey kneed McMann’s body – hard. On taking a shot to her liver, McMann dropped to her hands and knees. Before much else could happen, the referee stopped the fight. Did he stop the fight too soon? It certainly felt preliminary to the crowd and to a lot of fans who, of course, tweeted their frustration

Controversial decisions happen – the same referee had just stopped another fight late, allowing TJ Waldburger to take an astonishing beating from Mike Pyle: there was a moment when Waldburger appeared to flicker out of consciousness. And maybe that experience pushed Herb Dean to take a pre-emptive step which he might not otherwise have done.

Given the importance of the fight (it was long anticipated, it was a championship fight and the main event), and given the quality of that opening minute – it is natural for us to cry foul when the drama is cut short. Surely McMann should have been given more of a chance to stand up?

Given that it was a women’s fight, Dean’s decision brings out into the public something many women athletes and fans of women’s sports know well. Gender difference impacts how referees see women athletes. And gender difference also impacts how spectators see refereeing decisions. It can be hard to distinguish between these two things in reading a referee’s decision.

Did Dean allow himself to give in to the social conditioning which tells us that women are to be protected? On the football pitch, especially at the lower levels, referees will stop play over the smallest thing – assuming that any time a woman falls over she must be hurt; or, one encounters the opposite problem – referees will let women foul each other viciously on the assumption that anger between two teams over cynical play won’t erupt into dangerous play, or a fight. (My arm was broken in just such a match.) Of course, sometimes poor refereeing is just that – someone times one wants to see such things as about gender when, in fact, decisions will have been shaped by lots of other things. Gender might be the story, it might be a part of the story, it might also be how we see the story – sexism is not necessarily to blame for a crap decision made by a male referee working a women’s fight. The question is: how do we know where gender fits into our reading, our assessment of how women athletes are treated?

In general, we do not get to directly contrast refereeing in men’s and women’s sports. Until the UFC absorbed women into its professional world, we didn’t see – on the same night, on television and in the same hour – the same referee making decisions about men and women.

Immediately after the fight, McMann very graciously reminded people that the referee is there to protect the fighters; that this responsibility is paramount. Of course, this is why people – including the television announcers – were concerned about how long it took Dean to stop Pyle vs Waldburger. Why would Dean wait so long to stop one fight, and then stop the other so quickly, so reflexively? The contrast between the two refereeing decisions is stark.

The placement of women within a relatively desegregated context allows us to think the decisions together. And also to think about our investments in a fight, as a gendered story. For example: perhaps we ought to ask ourselves why, in general, we are more ready to accept the expression of brutality towards a man’s body than towards a woman’s? Or, why, as fans, we need McMann to have the chance to handle that brutality. I’m using the word brutality here (rather than violence) to mean that moment when a fighter is down – perhaps out – and when the opponent swarms, with the aim of “finishing” them. When the fighter losing the fight can barely buster any resistance – and begins to seem helpless. Dean kept the women’s fight – the main event, the last fight of the night – from going there.

And we are wondering: Was it just a conservative decision? If it were men fighting, would he have made that call? Would Dana White be championing it? Is it fair for us read the call as, perhaps, sexist? Or was it just a bad call, overcompensating for another bad call?


  1. My instinctive response was that Dean stopped the fight too soon and it was because it was between women. After reflection, and reading this post, I trust my instincts. Very rarely is Dean accused of stopping a men’s bout too soon. I have re-watched the fatal knee strike several times and Dean’s move to stop the fight started the second McMann went down, leaving no time to see if she could get to her feet or recover from the blow. I base my assertion that the early stoppage was because it was a fight between women on the history of fights I have seen Dean officiate between men. Of course it could have just been a bad call, or a “make-up” call for the Pyle fight, but I’ll lean toward my instincts until I see Dean ref many more women’s fights. Sexism certainly exists in MMA and probably will for a very long time. Better refereeing will only come about as more men/women ref women/men in the cage.

  2. As Bart Simpson once said (In Simpsons episode 7G02 “Bart the Genius”) “Well you’re dammed if you do and you’re dammed if do don’t”. The poor referee copped it for both calls but – maybe because I’m a male – I give him the benefit of the doubt and say he was over correcting a bad call. Had the women’s match been BFORE the men’s match and he’d made the same calls the sexism argument would have been on firmer ground.
    This is not a gendered problem – there was a big fuss in the UK last year over a boxing match betwwen Carl Froch and George Groves which a lot of people thought was stopped too early. I suspect that referees in boxing/MMA are scared of the “nanny state” which is a big issue certinaly in the UK. There are a lot of people in Britain that would ban boxing for both genders and it would only take one death/serious injury for them to come out of the woodwork again. An idiot called Allyson Pollock wants to ban rugby for schoolboys because of the risk of injury. Maybe we should just stay in bed – we can’t get injured then. Until we stop our obsession with health amd safety – people should be free to do what they want – incidents like Rousey- McMann and Froch-Groves will continue to happen.
    Two points. Froch and Groves are having a rematch in May – IMO that should happen with Rousey and McMann to see who’s the best. Secondly there is a case for saying MMA is the LEAST sexist sport – beleive me the chances of a female match being the main event in any UK sport anytime soon are nil.

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