You may have heard there was a women’s UFC fight on Saturday night. Who am I kidding, everyone I am even remotely close to, most of whom aren’t MMA fans, asked me if I watched Ronda Rousey fight over the weekend and how it was. I’ve often mentioned that Rousey had transcended the sport with her meteoric rise in the pop culture consciousness, and it was never more evident than after she almost got her head taken off by a high kick from Holly Holm.
In light of the magnitude of UFC 193’s shocking and momentous conclusion, we’re going to bump the normal Legal Take in favor of a timelier look at Women’s MMA, particularly after the kick that sent shockwaves around the world.
Rousey has often been compared to Mike Tyson. The power she showed and destruction she left in her wake make Tyson an apt comparison. But allow me a moment of sports sacrilege to draw a comparison between her and a different athlete: the late, great George Herman Ruth. Generally regarded as the greatest to every play the game, Ruth’s accomplishments almost seem made up in certain contexts. One of the more ridiculous sports stats imaginable took place in 1920, where Babe Ruth hit more home runs than any other team in the American League. To put that into relative context with 2015, someone would have had to hit 233 home runs this year to do the equivalent of what the Sultan of Swat did back then.
This is not to suggest that Ruth could have hit 233 home runs (more than triple the current single season record) were he to be magically teleported to 2015. Nor is this to suggest that Ronda Rousey’s performance prior to 193 was so dominant that she is unequivocally the greatest mixed martial artist ever to live. Rather, it is to show a comparison of two athletes who were far ahead of their time (even momentarily) in their sport.
When Ruth was out-homering entire teams, he also hit almost 300% more long balls than his next closest competitor. By 1923, his contemporaries began to catch up to him, both in skill and athleticism, and he tied for the lead in HRs at 41 with Cy Williams. In 1930, Hack Wilson surpassed the Bambino with 59 four baggers to Ruth’s 49. Ruth was still a tremendous player at this point, and among the first All-Stars when the game made its debut in 1933.
Rousey’s performance in her first twelve MMA contests were on a Ruthian level in their sheer absurdity. Her total fight time for those first fights was 25 minutes and 36 seconds, or approximately the amount of time it took Georges St-Pierre (the greatest welterweight of all time) to not finish any of his opponents in each of his last seven title defenses. Her finishing rate was 100%. Nine of her first twelve went under a minute, and only one opponent managed to get out of the first round. These are video game statistics, not believable in the real world were it not for the fact that it actually happened.
You’re hearing a lot about how Rousey was “exposed” in her loss to Holm. It’s easy to be a Tuesday morning quarterback (or Sunday morning mixed martial artist, in this case), and criticize her lack of game planning, and her failure to adjust. But in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately type of sport, that inaccurately discredits her prior body of work. When Rousey was knocked silly at UFC 193, it didn’t expose her, so much as it exposed the sport of women’s MMA as a whole.
Women’s MMA is still in its infancy. Like baseball in the 1920’s, it’s a sport that is just recently starting to gain mainstream attention. And much like baseball in the back-then, it’s a sport that’s new enough that it can be massively dominated by one elite athlete who arrived on the scene right at the cusp of tremendous growth.
Let’s draw a second comparison here. Soccer (or, more properly, football everywhere else) has long been the most popular sport in the world. With all its people, resources, and devotion to athletics, the men of the United States have still to scale the top of the soccer world. The big reason has been the lack of the elite athletes heading to soccer. The Lebron Jameses and Adrian Petersons of the world tend to head to the much more visible and popular sports of the US, largely in part to the exposure the NBA and NFL have in America.
Women’s MMA has the same issue. While women’s combat sports have gone from “freak show” to very legitimate in the last generation, it still competes for athletes with a wide variety of other sports and athletic endeavors. As an added challenge, a much lower percentage of little girls than little boys grow up with the desire to kick the mess out of each other. While things like women’s wrestling being added to the Olympics, and growing recognition of women’s boxin,g have helped to fuel the expansion of women’s MMA, it’s important to recognize that this is still a very new sport in the mainstream.
Rousey has been everywhere lately. Talk shows, being the first female athlete to co-host SportsCenter, and a score of movies appeared in or forthcoming. In a bit of horrible timing, Electronic Arts announced her as the first female cover-athlete of their UFC game the day before Rousey got laid out. According to Nielsen, a poll indicated that an astounding 44 percent of Americans knew who Ronda Rousey was. Compare this to the fact that the number of people who know the name of the two UFC middleweights fighting for the belt in December. That number is likely less than one percent of the population.
Throughout Rousey’s unprecedented run, she’s been serenaded with accolades. Descriptions such as once in a generation and once in a lifetime have been used. If you’re Joe Rogan, that phrase changes to once ever. Add The Most Dominant Athlete Alive to that list, as proclaimed by Sports Illustrated. People have been quick to dismiss these things now after seeing Rousey’s head bounce off the canvas, but her loss doesn’t make those statements any less true. Much like we’ll never see anybody out homer entire teams like Ruth did, we’ll never see anyone do what Rousey did again. Once ever is perfectly accurate.
Ronda Rousey and that sheer domination was what made Dana White change his tune to having women fighters in the UFC. Every female fighter currently on the UFC’s roster owes Rousey thanks for creating a platform in a multi-billion dollar organization where they could compete. The UFC not only added women’s MMA because of Rousey, she essentially was women’s MMA in the UFC. Outside of Holly Holm, I’d wager ninety-nine percent plus of the people who know who Rousey is couldn’t name any of her first twelve opponents. They also didn’t know Holm’s name until she captured the belt. Rousey’s opponents, past and future, were largely irrelevant to the fact she was stepping into the cage.
In the late 1970’s, the National Basketball Association was having a hard time getting embraced in mainstream America. Racial tension across the country only amplified a view that the NBA was a league of “thugs.” Enter the Hick from French Lick and the man we all learned to know as “Magic.” Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson took a rivalry that started in college and brought it to the NBA. The NBA suddenly became a star-centric league, where the players on the court were more the reason to watch the game than the game itself. Michael Jordan took this to a whole new level when he joined the Bulls in 1984, paving the way for $200 million dollar shoe deals for players like Derrick Rose and James Harden.
Rousey was the Bird, Magic, and Michael of women’s MMA, at least insofar as bringing it to our attention. There’s been a lot of discussion on how the UFC does not promote its stars the way they should, making the fights about the people, as opposed to just the fights. If we are to use the example of the NBA, this is sound advice and criticism. The UFC faces a Catch-22 here. If Lebron James plays a game, throws down some monster dunks, and drops 50 points on his way to a triple-double, he isn’t necessarily hurt much if his team loses. You can still promote the exciting player who’s carrying his team and playing better than everyone else. Heck, he can still win an award as the best player in the league regardless of the fact that he didn’t win a championship. I see Kevin Durant in commercials all the time, because there’s a huge demand for all things Durant. Guess what, Durant has never won a title.
Mixed martial arts are different. There’s not much redemption when you lose. There are no teammates to fall back on. There’s just the fighter, in the cage, winning or losing. The danger of promoting a division, or even an entire gender specific sport, around one person is that the person can lose. The individual who beats them may not be as charismatic or flashy as they were. What happens then?
Perhaps this is why the UFC has tried to brand itself more than the fighters, and make the sport about the fights. Can you name the organization’s belt that Floyd Mayweather held when he retired? It’s a trick question, because he had more than one. Did you know that? Did you even care? No, because those organizations, much like the majority of boxing, didn’t matter. Unlike Boxing, where fighters routinely ran up undefeated records against patsies hoping to score one big payday, the UFC prides itself on making the best fight the best. There’s very little in the way of ducking people if you want a title. That generally means if you’re a mixed martial artist, you’re going to lose at some point in your career. And when you’re promoting fighters as the face of the entire sport and they are almost assuredly going to lose, it’s not long before you’re promoting a bunch of losers.
And that’s where we are now with Rousey. You could argue that Rousey stepped into the Octagon with more pressure to win than any other fighter on the planet. She had to try to continually top the most dominant athlete on the planet: herself. Her multi-million dollar endorsements and movies depended on it. The entire relevance of women’s MMA may have depended on it. Rousey’s loss may potentially show the danger of relying on individual athletes, or at least very few of them, to prop up an entire combat sport.
So what happens next? For Rousey, her marketability has obviously taken a hit. The barrage of Ronda Rousey related endorsements may slow a bit. The movie studios may not be calling so quickly. Rousey’s loss may have cost her a significant amount of money and earning potential. It will be interesting to see going forward how this affects her.
As far as the UFC goes, they weren’t going to be able to ride the wave of Rousey popularity forever. At some point, she was going to lose or retire. While having a popular athlete is great for momentarily cashing in on greatness, the UFC is much more focused on long term viability as opposed to making some quick money and calling it a day. They showed this by making the co-main event of 193 a women’s strawweight championship featuring Joanna Jedrzejczyk. It’s a great move, as the millions who tuned in to see Rousey would be exposed another elite women’s MMA competitor they were not aware of. While a Rousey defeat may have happened a lot sooner than they were hoping, how they handle the promotion going forward will speak worlds of what their long term plans were, or whether they were just hoping Rousey fought forever and things just worked out on their own. It also will show how serious they are about Women’s MMA as a whole. Is it something they want to promote for its own sake, or was Rousey the only thing they cared about as well?
Holly Holm is a great X-factor in all of this. Would any of us really care about the new champ if it were Miesha Tate? Quite possibly not. But Holm is likeable. She’s a nice person. She comes across as a humble and thankful individual. No, these are not particularly exciting descriptors, but there is a huge bonus here in that she’s the antithesis of Rousey. Rousey is brash, cocky, and says aggravating things. She not only doesn’t mind playing the heel role, she has no problem in embracing it. When Rousey lost her belt, my Facebook feed was immediately flooded with comments of people thrilled that she had gotten beat. A level of derision and dislike was a common theme. I am fairly certain that the majority of people posting those comments have never even seen her fight. Rousey just rubbed the wrong way, and she was in the public so much that a lot of people saw it.
Holm comes across as a very genuine and hard-working person. And while her down-to-earth, very non-rocks star personality might not usually garner much in the way of attention, people like her more because she is so completely opposite of Rousey. It’s a great dynamic to emphasize, and just another added boost that Rousey is providing to women’s MMA, even off of a loss. People like Holm, because she’s a nice girl that kicked the mess out of a girl they hated. Rousey is a great heel, and people caring if you lose is fine, at least they care.
Holm is going to get a chance to improve her popularity (and her undefeated record) when she and Rousey have a rematch. UFC 200 will be one of the biggest shows ever, and putting Rousey and Holm front and center is even more important for women’s MMA now that it was before Rousey lost. There’s going to be millions of people watching, and it’s important for the UFC to continue to promote female sports as both legitimate and important.
People may or may not tune in to see Rousey like they would before, but there’s a great storyline to pitch when she fights Holm again. Jon Jones recently coined a phrase for Holly Holm when discussing her. It’s a description that I had to do a double take at, but after some thought about her boxing and MMA accomplishments, actually made a lot of sense. The UFC is never short on hyperbole, but in selling Holm v. Rousey II, they could use a couple of pretty bold statements that have a surprising amount of truth behind them. The Greatest of All Time in Women’s Combat Sports vs. The Most Dominant MMA Fighter Ever. Yeah, I’d pay to see that.
Michael Bane is an MMA enthusiast and attorney practicing in Chicago, Illinois.
[Photo (c) Jason da Silva via USA Today Sports]