Those cornrows are not just for style. Hairstyles of those in the Octagon, both male and female, are laden with practical and symbolic significance.
When it comes to combat-friendly hairstyles, it’s a bit of a battle between fashion and function, with the goal to reach a happy medium. Fighters, in MMA especially, take personal branding very seriously, with each cultivating his or her own personal style.
This can run the gamut of everything from tattoos to victory dances, but we’ll stick with hair for the time being.
The main problem between men and women is that men enjoy the luxury of shedding their locks for the chrome-dome approach. WMMA stars looking to grace the covers of magazines and score endorsement deals can’t exactly afford to go that route.
For practical purposes hair must be kept out of a fighter’s face and not come apart in the middle of a match. Buns can come undone, and ponytails have the potential to get caught or otherwise tangled.
Hair-pulling is illegal, but in the heat of battle anything can happen (remember Tyson vs. Holyfield? Ear biting is technically illegal in boxing). So many in the women’s division of the UFC opt for braids.
The look also does well outside of hand-to-hand combat exhibitions — WMMA star Ronda Rousey is often seen sporting a set of braids outside the gym or the Octagon:
We can turn to her hairdresser, Abraham Esparza, for a little insight on the star’s style. Esparza has been working with Rousey for years now and helps her cultivate looks for weigh-in showdowns and appearances alike. Her hair before a fight she does herself.
“I love doing braids and crazy stuff like that with her because she’s in that MMA world, so you can do that tougher look but still make her feminine while doing it. She’s very open-minded about suggestions for different looks,” says Esparza in an interview with Vice.
He goes on to say, “Everybody has their own signature look. There was one time I wanted to do certain things to Ronda, and she was like, ‘Oh, I can’t do that now, because that’s this other fighter’s style. So I don’t want to make it seem like I’m stealing her style.’ It’s more Ronda knows if they do certain braids or anything, so we don’t replicate it because that’s that fighter’s signature look. We just try to do our own personal look that is just Ronda.”
In training, where the speed bag can’t punch back, a simple bun or ponytail will suffice — observe:
The braid, however, is not perfect. Cornrows, especially tight ones, can put a lot of torque on the scalp. Still, it’s probably less painful than getting punched in the face and better than having your hair pulled out.
One final thing to consider is what happens after the fight’s over. A few grueling rounds will leave hair frizzled, tangled, sweaty, and damaged. Esparza recommends deep conditioning with coconut oil. Leave it in for an hour and then wash it out thoroughly — it’ll work miracles for combat-scarred hair.