When Angela Hill is at a mixed martial arts event and makes eye contact with other black women, whether they’re colleagues in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) or young fighters just getting their start in smaller promotions across the country, Hill makes it a habit to say “hello,” reach out for an embrace and encourage the women in any way she can, including following them on social media and liking their posts.
She sees the women as younger versions of herself and realizes how far a small act of kindness can go for underrepresented women in a sport that’s full of people who don’t look like them. She wants the other black women to look at her and think, She’s doing that, I can do it too. When she had what she calls “s—ty days,” words of encouragement from people were the one thing she needed in order to, no pun intended, keep fighting.
Hill, 34, exemplifies the adage that black people, more specifically black women, have to stick together. That’s no more evident than in MMA, where there is a dearth of black American women. When Hill first joined UFC in 2014, she became the first female African American signee in promotion history. But her signing didn’t lead to a floodgate of black female talent opening in the popular fighting promotion; rather, she’s mostly been the lone pioneer. More Tiger Woods than Jackie Robinson.
On Saturday, Hill is set to face fellow strawweight and No. 12-ranked Yan Xiaonan in the prelims of UFC 238 in Chicago. On the 12-match card, Hill, a former champion in another promotion (Invicta FC), will be the lone black female fighter.
It’s not an unusual feeling.
“I think everyone understands the struggle that everyone’s going through when it comes to breaking through,” Hill said recently while sitting on a couch at her mother’s home in Charles County, Maryland.
Black female athletes are having a cultural moment across nearly the entire American sports landscape. At 23 Grand Slam singles titles, Serena Williams is tennis’ most accomplished athlete, man or woman, in the sport’s Open era, not to mention her off-court business endeavors. The WNBA, led by stars such as Maya Moore and Candace Parker, saw its viewership increase by 35% during the 2018 regular season. Then-Notre Dame guard Arike Ogunbowale and her back-to-back buzzer-beaters made the 2018 NCAA women’s tournament the premier event of March Madness. From swimming (Simone Manuel) to boxing (Claressa Shields) to even professional wrestling (Sasha Banks), black representation in women’s sports is at a near zenith.
But not in mixed martial arts, especially the UFC.
Black women, specifically black American women, have not broken through to mainstream recognition in the promotion’s 26-year history. The UFC currently has 101 female athletes, of whom four are black Americans. Of the four UFC women’s weight divisions, there never has been a black American champion, and a black American woman has never challenged for a title (Germaine de Randamie, who is of Afro-Surinamese descent, won the inaugural featherweight title in 2017). A cursory Google image search of “black female MMA fighters” results in mostly photos of Hill and women who aren’t black.
This is a unique problem mainly specific to the women’s division in UFC. The current UFC men’s heavyweight and light heavyweight champions, Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones, respectively, are both black American men, not to mention fighters Tyron Woodley and Demetrious Johnson, who were both champions for most of 2018. Invicta FC, a female-only promotion in which Hill was once strawweight champion, has 58 fighters, six of whom are African American. Bellator, UFC’s main competitor, has just one black woman, Denise Kielholtz, who is from the Netherlands.
For Hill, it’s mostly been just her. She’s only recently been joined in the UFC by bantamweights Marion Reneau and Sijara Eubanks and flyweight Shana Dobson. Some of Hill’s friends joke that there is a “black illuminati” among the women.
There is no one central reason that black women are less represented in MMA. From cost of entry (MMA gym membership can start as high as $150 a month) to meager pay (more than 40% of UFC fighters made $50,000 or less last year, according to sports blog The Sports Daily), financial barriers can prevent those from underserved communities from getting into the sport.
Body image concerns are also present. Some women avoid sports such as boxing and MMA because of the perceived necessity of exaggerated muscles and body weight, including Hill, who initially was afraid of getting too “bulky.” Black eyes and swollen faces aren’t what many would consider “sexy” for women.
“Sometimes you’ll get in a war where your face will get banged up, your shins will be swollen from throwing kicks, your hands will hurt from missing punches and landing weird,” said Hill.
Most days she said she doesn’t feel feminine or pretty, “just gross.” (I point out that the knuckles on her right hand are completely scabbed over, now a different hue of brown from the rest of her hand. “You noticed,” she said as she giggled.)
Cynthia M. Frisby, a University of Missouri professor who studies race and gender representation in sports, said American culture creates a dichotomous relationship between athleticism and femininity, in that women can only possess one or the other.
“Women shy away from working out and doing weightlifting because they perceive in their minds that they’re going to get bulky,” Frisby said.
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But two of the main reasons behind the lack of black women in combat sports can be attributed to hair and a lack of trailblazers.
Unprocessed black hair is normally more coarse and kinky than the straight and loose hair of white, Hispanic and Asian women. Excessive exercise (say, for five, five-minute rounds inside a steel cage) leads to sweating, which dries and tangles black hair. This leads to fewer women wanting to exercise — or, by association, play sports — to protect their styled hairdos. A 2014 study found that 45% of African American women avoid physical activity because of their hair.
Hill has worn a natural hairstyle since high school and finds it much harder to maintain it now as a world-class athlete. She regularly sweats out her hair and has had clumps of it yanked out inside the cage. It’s driven her to the point of considering just shaving it all off. But she now wears it in a tight Afro, both for personal and practical reasons: Her hair acts as a cushion whenever her head is thrown against the mat or the Octagon cage, which wouldn’t be of use if she had straight hair. “It’s like a helmet,” she said.
Regardless of hair, young female fighters, especially African Americans, don’t have many, or any, trailblazers to look to in combat sports.
MMA is a mixture of many disciplines, such as judo, wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, that African Americans, particularly women, don’t have a long history of competing in: Just one black American woman, Randi Miller, has ever won an Olympic medal in wrestling. The UFC, which premiered in 1993, didn’t sign its first female fighter, former champion Ronda Rousey, until 2012.
Hill gravitated toward MMA only after seeing someone who looked like her, albeit in a different sport. She started training in Muay Thai as a way to get into shape, but it took discovering Miriam Nakamoto, a professional Muay Thai fighter who identifies as black, Okinawan, white and Native American, to make Hill consider turning professional in Muay Thai, in which she went on to amass a 16-0 record.
While, in terms of nationalities, the UFC is one of the most diverse sports brands in the world (a Reddit user found that at least 44 countries are represented by the more than 500 fighters in UFC), when it comes to the faces of UFC, it’s overwhelmingly white.
Ron Foster, the former matchmaker for Shine Fight Promotions, argues that over the past half-decade, the UFC has heavily promoted just four fighters, all of whom are white: Rousey, Conor McGregor, Sage Northcutt and Paige VanZant. While McGregor was once a two-division champion and Rousey was bantamweight champion for three years, Northcutt and VanZant are two blond-haired, yet very green, fighters with Hollywood good looks and a combined UFC record of 11-5.
“When you have a guy fighting the best guys in the world consistently, beating the best guys in the world consistently,” Foster said of black fighters such as Woodley, “and then you just overlook them for somebody who is 6-0 or 6-1 because they have blond hair and they’re doing backflips, it’s disrespect, in my opinion, to the athlete that’s been there, fighting hard, day in and day out.” (Northcutt, the backflipper in question, was released from the promotion in November.)
After a 2-0 start to her professional career in 2014, Hill dropped her next two fights in the UFC, leading to her release from the promotion in late 2015. She called her firing “bittersweet” at the time but years later said she believed she was being used as enhancement talent to be fed to fighters whom the promotion backed. She said she wasn’t “built up” like other fighters because of her lack of experience and “the fact that I didn’t have the look.” Hill declined to further elaborate.
She isn’t alone. Woodley told ESPN in 2017 that “no other champion has been treated like me” when it comes to the marketing and promotion of fighters. His criticisms are strengthened by charges of racism leveled at both the UFC’s fan base and its fighters, as well as the promotion’s chummy relationship with President Donald Trump. This has helped create a perception of MMA as a “white sport” in line with NASCAR and golf.
“The problem also isn’t just in the fans, but it’s in the institution and how they’re treating their black MMA athletes,” Frisby said. “It’s basically gatekeeping.”
The UFC did not respond with comment.
Criticism aside, the UFC has put several African American fighters in position for fans to see them. Cormier, just the second two-division champion in promotion history, was co-host of former television show UFC Tonight. He and Jones have also appeared on the late-night television circuit to promote their fights. Johnson was the cover athlete for a special edition of the UFC video game UFC 3, and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson — arguably one of the most recognizable names in UFC history, black or white — parlayed his time in the promotion into a Hollywood career, including the 2010 movie remake of The A-Team.
And despite the “white sport” label and a scarcity of black women, African Americans are still watching. A 2017 joint Washington Post-University of Massachusetts Lowell study found that 38% of blacks considered themselves fans of the UFC, compared with 22% of whites. And a recent Luker on Trends sports poll found that 16.3% of African American sports fans, who normally over index when it comes to sports consumption, are identified as “avid” UFC fans, compared with just 9.1% of whites.
As far as the diversity of its women’s roster, patience may be key. MMA is still a fairly new sport, and it could take more time for interest in black women to increase. That being said, a Rousey- or McGregor-type star would go a long way in recruiting more black women to the sport.
“It’s not seeing people who they can relate to,” Foster said of the lack of black women in the UFC. “If Serena Williams was fighting MMA, somebody like that, then people could say, ‘Yeah, she grew up from the ‘hood and she learned this sport and she came to dominate.’ But you don’t see that in our community from the female side.”
While Hill’s not expected to be that next big star (she’s more known for being a workhorse, always willing to fight on short notice), she understands the importance of someone who looks like her competing at this level. The more different faces you see, she argues, the more diversity there will be.
“If you see something that connects you to something that you love, like fighting or mixed martial arts,” she said, “it makes you even more passionate about it.”