If you spend any amount of time on an MMA website in your day (and the fact that you're here suggests that you do), you will likely be unable to avoid seeing "Ronda Rousey: [passing remark made into something bigger]" two or three times a day.
Most recently Rousey and her boxing coach have been playing up her striking skills. Every MMA site on the internet put out headlines like "Ronda Rousey: My Striking is the Best in Women's MMA" and reaped in the rage clicks.
Now in fairness to Rousey, her actual words were that her "MMA striking" is the best in the game. I will let you decide what Rousey meant, she certainly gets to the clinch often enough, but I have been asked how I rate her striking. To that I'll say that what we've seen of it is good. Why shouldn't it be? She has more money than any other woman in the sport to spend on her training, you would hope she's improving.
But the standard of striking in women's MMA is pretty poor across the board because of where it is compared to men's MMA in terms of pay and prestige. That being said, there have been some dynamite strikers in women's MMA, and I haven't done an article about a single one of them, so today I'm starting a new series.
Hisae Watanabe hit the MMA scene around the time that Japan was really starting to aid the development of women's MMA. Smackgirl (now JEWELS) was a promotion which, much like Invicta in the U.S. today, focused entirely on showcasing female martial arts talent. It had some strange rules which changed throughout it's life, such as no head strikes on the ground ("No face!"), and a strict limit on grappling time, but it was certainly ahead of the curve in many ways.
What helped Smackgirl enormously was the number of unarguably attractive female fighters in Japan. Which brings us to our glamorous, kickboxing, leopard-print wearing protagonist. Having competed successfully as a kickboxer, Hisae Watanabe debuted in mixed martial arts on a Smackgirl card in 2002.
Watanabe had something that even most of the ladies whom I will write about in this series don't have. She could flat out starch people. Even Cris Cyborg tends to win by an overwhelming flurry of powerful blows. "One and done" is pretty darn rare in women's MMA.
After a year and a bit of rounding out her skills, plus giving away a couple of submission wins, Watanabe won the Golden Muscle: Strongest Queen tournament in May 2004 by beating three opponents in one night. Two of these opponents she finished in the first round. This cemented her as one of the top female mixed martial artists in the world.
In the meantime Satoko Shinashi, who had beaten Watanabe by heel hook in 2002, won the Smackgirl lightweight title. A rematch was set between the two to decide the DEEP women's lightweight title and it was set to be the biggest fight in WMMA.
Here is how the fight went down:
Watanabe laid out her undefeated nemesis, face down, and added a sole loss to Shinashi's incredible 21-0-2 record.
After just four more fights, Watanabe retired from mixed martial arts and gave hope to many male fans by marrying a comic book artist rather than another stunningly attractive athlete, as you would expect.
What stands out more than anything about Watanabe is her power and her ability to punch off of the kick. So, so many of her most effective strikes were right straights or hooks as she recovered her foot from a powerful kick to the body, leg or head.
The ability to punch off of a hard kick is a brilliant skill for a fighter to have. Solid kicks force a check or a bracing of stance, which often leaves an opponent as a sitting duck for a punch which otherwise wouldn't come close. If you have an opponent who has decent defence, or great head movement, the kicks can stand them straight upright and take away much of their defensive savvy. Edson Barboza is a master at this, and it allowed him to catch the elusive Ross Pearson with some hard punches. Without Barboza's kicks, Pearson could have slipped punches all night.
Good form is something that many of the ladies I will look at in this series have, but safe technical form is just one approach to the fight game. If you are hitting hard and not getting hit back, you are doing it right, no matter how ugly it looks. One thing which Watanabe does so much better than most women in MMA is to punch from her legs and hips. It makes her technique look wide and open, but it also means that there is incredible weight and force in motion behind each punch.
I hope that I have at least made you a little excited about the many gifted and hard-working strikers out there in women's MMA who either missed the rise of WMMA or haven't quite made it yet. Keep an eye on my profile, more of these are coming.