The UFC's decision to allow female fighters in the organization, to promote the dominant fighter Ronda Rousey, is often cited as the reason women's mixed martial arts became known to the general public. Rousey won the Best Fighter ESPY Award at the 2015 ESPN ESPY award's, beating out noted fighters such as Floyd Mayweather Jr., and becoming the first UFC and MMA fighter to win the award.
In Japan, female competition has been documented since the mid-1990s. Influenced by female professional wrestling and kickboxing, the Smackgirl competition was formed in 2001 and became the only major all-female promotion in mixed martial arts. Other early successful Japanese female organizations included Ladies Legend Pro-Wrestling, ReMix (a predecessor to Smackgirl), U-Top Tournament, K-Grace, and AX.
In the United States, prior to the success of The Ultimate Fighter reality show that launched mixed martial arts into the mainstream media, there was little major coverage of female competitions. Some early organizations who invited women to compete included, International Fighting Championships, SuperBrawl, King of the Cage, Rage in the Cage, Ring of Combat, Bas Rutten Invitational, and HOOKnSHOOT. The first recorded US female competition was at an IFC 4 on March 28, 1997. This was soon followed by an IFC four women tournament sanctioned by the Louisiana Boxing and Wrestling Commission on September 5, 1997 in Baton Rouge. From the mid-2000s, more coverage came when organizations such as Strikeforce, EliteXC, Bellator Fighting Championships, and Shark Fights invited women to compete.
Following Zuffa's acquisition of Strikeforce in March 2011, there has been much speculation concerning the future of women's competition, in term both of relevance and popularity.
The traditional MMA rules have often been adjusted for female competitions because of safety concerns. In Japan, ReMix prohibited ground-and-pound and featured a 20-second time limit for ground fighting. This rule remained following ReMix's 2001 re-branding as Smackgirl, though the time limit was extended to 30 seconds. The rule was abolished in 2008.
In the United States, women's bouts organised by EliteXC saw three-minute rounds while those of Strikeforce were originally of two minutes' duration. These lengths compare to the more usual five minutes for men. Strikeforce later changed this rule to allow for five-minute rounds.
Another form of rule differentiation is a change in both weight limits and weight classification. This has been seen in a number of organizations including, Strikeforce, Smackgirl, and Valkyrie.
While men are required to wear a groin protector, women are forbidden from doing so. Women must wear a top and chest protector, while men are allowed neither.
First female MMA fight in United States held on March 28, 1997 by the International Fighting Championships between Becky Levi and Betty Fagan.
Strikeforce became the first major promotion in the United States to have held a female fight as the main event on August 15, 2009. The fight between Gina Carano and Cristiane Santos, known professionally as Cris Cyborg, attracted 856,000 viewers. Santos made history with her victory over Carano as she became the first Strikeforce Women's 145 lb Champion.
Invicta Fighting Championships in early 2012 became one of the first major women's pro mma organisations.
Ronda Rousey became the first woman fighter signed to the UFC on November 2012, and was promoted to the division's bantamweight champion. She successfully defended her title in the first UFC women's fight against Liz Carmouche at UFC 157.