From Carano to Shevchenko: The ‘Female Fighters of the Year’ who proved women’s MMA is here to stay

Women’s MMA famously didn’t make it to the UFC until the early 2000’s, but as soon it arrived it was clear that women’s MMA was for real, and that the fighters deserved their place on equal billing to their male counterparts.

Reflecting an equality rarely seen in the sports world at the time, Fighters Only ran Fighter of the Year awards for both men and women to ensure both sides of the gender divide were appropriately honored and celebrated each year.

The women’s award has been running for the past 14 years, with just eight fighters having the honor of being called the Fighters Only World MMA Awards’ “Female Fighter of the Year.”

Back in 2008 the first genuine female MMA superstar, Gina Carano, took home the inaugural award, while Miesha Tate captured the crown in 2011. The remaining 12 years were shared across just six athletes, who each won the honor on multiple occasions.

Cris Cyborg’s reign of dominance in Strikeforce saw her claim back-to-back awards in 2009 and 2010, while Ronda Rousey went one better as she became the only athlete, male or female, to win three consecutive Fighter of the Year awards, winning the award in 2012, 2013, and 2014.

Holly Holm’s spectacular knockout of Rousey at UFC 193 put the seal on a remarkable rise to the top as she became a two-sport world champion, and only the fifth woman to capture the “Female Fighter of the Year” award, in in 2015.

The following year saw two-division queen Amanda Nunes claim the first of three “Female Fighter of the Year” awards as she took home the trophy in 2016, 2018, and 2019-20. Her rise coincided with that of “Thug” Rose Namajunas, whose emotionally-charged performances inside the Octagon saw her capture UFC women’s strawweight gold, and two “Female Fighter of the Year” awards, in 2017 and 2021.

Most recently, Kyrgyzstan’s Valentina Shevchenko was the clear winner of the award in 2022, as she collected the trophy at the Sahara Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas last December.

During those 14 years, we’ve seen the sport of women’s MMA evolve significantly. The Cris Cyborg of 2010 wouldn’t stand a chance against the slicker, faster, more well-rounded Cyborg of today, while the remarkable rise of Nunes has seen her defeat every other women’s bantamweight and featherweight champion in UFC history to guarantee her place in the pantheon of MMA’s all-time greats.

And with “The Lioness” laying down her two championship belts, and her gloves, to announce her retirement at UFC 289, the challenge has now been set for the female fighters of this, and the next, generation – top that!