TAMPA — There was a time when Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White famously declared outside a Los Angeles restaurant that women would "never" fight in the world's preeminent mixed martial arts league.
My how times have changed.
"The rate everything is moving is amazing," Rose Namajunas said. "So many milestones are being made so quickly."
Strawweight contenders Tecia Torres and Namajunas will square off in the first of four main card fights Saturday night at Amalie Arena. Bantamweights Raquel Pennington and Bethe Correia will fight on the undercard.
"MMA has caught on so fast and become so popular because its roots are in being something different, something you had never really seen before," Namajunas said. "And I think if anything is going to catch people's interest now it's women fighting."
Despite White's missed prognostication, the UFC women's divisions have captivated audiences and proven more than capable of standing up to the men's side in terms of turnstile clicks and pay-per-view buys.
UFC 193, the first event to feature four women in the co-main events, set an all-time attendance mark (57,240). Although the company doesn't release its pay-per-view numbers, the card, headlined by Holly Holm's knockout win against Ronda Rousey, is believed to have topped the 1 million mark in PPV buys.
Rousey became the first female fighter signed to the UFC in late 2012 and immediately changed everything.
With cover-girl looks, Hollywood charisma and a vicious submission game, the former Olympic bronze medalist in judo exploded onto the MMA scene. Rousey was named the bantamweight (135) champion and defended her title against Liz Carmouche on Feb. 23, 2013, in the first UFC women's fight. She went on to defend her title five more times, appear in numerous movies, grace countless magazine covers and beat out male counterparts to win a 2015 ESPY for Best Fighter before falling to Holm.
"No, this would never have happened without Ronda Rousey," White said. "Ronda got me engaged in women's fighting, and once I started looking at Ronda, I realized how many women out there were really good."
UFC added a strawweight (115) division and used its reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, to crown a champion. The 20th installment of the popular show, which aired in late 2014 and featured both Namajunas and Torres, was the first TUF to showcase an all-female cast.
"I think the show was a great platform to show people that we are relatable," Torres said. "You could see more of the fighters than just what we show in the octagon."
And the sport is showing no signs of slowing down. White said in a news conference after UFC 193 that a flyweight (125) division is in the works.
"It's not that I didn't foresee the women's popularity rising this quickly, it's that I didn't see them becoming so technically sound this fast," White said Tuesday.
And as the sport's profile continues to blossom, Torres said she only expects the interest in women's MMA to keep growing.
"Now the opportunities are happening and new doors are being opened," she said. "Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate are in movies, and Paige VanZant just did Dancing With the Stars. It's just opening new outlets, and more and more girls are going to want to come in."