With Ronda Rousey closing the door on a UFC return, it’s time for the sport to move on from the Rousey era.
Time waits for no woman. If you want the crux of the argument about to be laid out, that’s it in a nutshell. It’s a little more complex, of course — things always are. Yet if you wanted to sum up why Ronda Rousey’s more-than-likely permanent departure from MMA (and the UFC along with it) is a good thing, that is essentially why.
A quick recap: Rousey appeared on Ellen recently, and not for the first time (lets keep in mind that the UFC currently has an openly gay women’s bantamweight champion who still hasn’t been on the show). There, she addressed a return to the octagon by saying that “I think it’s just as likely as me going back to another Olympics for judo. No one demanded a written resignation from me for judo and I don’t really think the same thing is necessary for fighting.”
A written resignation, no. But MMA fans, she just gave notice. The Rousey era is officially over. In all reality, it ended over a year ago, when Rousey’s comeback hopes at UFC 207 were dashed (and dare we say bashed) by Amanda Nunes. Nunes pummeled the former champion and PPV star. Though it’s interesting to note that the final image many will remember from Rousey’s illustrious MMA career is not that beating, but the head kick that dethroned her at UFC 193, care of Holly Holm.
Right about now, this is sounding like a Rousey-bashing opinion piece, but it’s far from that. If anything, it’s a little bit of catharsis. We need to accept that Rousey is gone, and recognize that it’s for the better. That the sport, and particularly the women’s side of MMA, will be just fine without her. We also need to stay firm in the understanding that any eventual Rousey “comeback” attempt would be beneficial neither for her nor for MMA in the long term (the UFC’s pocketbooks are another matter, but not the concern here).
Ronda Rousey came into MMA like a bat out of hell. Not so much fast out of the gate as crashing through it. Her judo background, natural athletic ability, and deadly trade-mark arm-bar had her so far ahead of the curve, it was almost unthinkable that she would ever lose. Surely, anyone who had such an incredible head start in the sport would always run ahead of the pack. No matter how good the other girls got, Rousey would develop into an even better fighter.
At least, that’s what many of us expected.
The “Baddest Woman on the Planet” was what she was, right up until she wasn’t. Most will tell you that moment came at the aforementioned UFC 193. If you were paying close attention, however, it came a wee bit earlier: UFC 190. Rousey’s final win, over Bethe Correia in Rio de Janeiro, was her undoing. It shattered the mystique.
UFC 190 marked Rousey’s third victory by KO/TKO, but the first in a fight where she really participated in a stand-up battle. And while she won that night, Ronda Rousey was exposed. Her footwork was sloppy, her head movement stiff. She had enough — spurred on by a genuine grudge against Correia, who had defeated two of Rousey’s stablemates in the Four Horsewomen — to knock the Brazilian senseless. But anyone watching that fight also saw how green her striking was.
Shadowboxing memes notwithstanding, Rousey’s stand-up was years behind the upper echelon of the division. And once she began running up against fighters who could stave off her judo game, you knew the end was nigh.
Enter Holly Holm. Holm was the prospect many tabbed as a Rousey beater. She was a decorated boxing champ. Yet her debut in the UFC was a ho-hum split decision against Raquel Pennington. By the time she beat Marion Reneau and was granted a shot at the seemingly unstoppable ‘Rowdy’ Ronda Rousey, many were of the mistaken belief that she was simply the next arm-bar victim. Holm was a boxer, what would happen when they went to the ground?
Few considered the prospect that they might not be spending any time there. Even fewer expected the outcome of their fight at UFC 193: a one-sided beatdown by Holm ending in a head kick that knocked Rousey senseless. And what came after — Rousey essentially going into hiding — was basically unprecedented in UFC history. A once-dominant champ up and disappeared. Until her comeback attempt at the end of 2016.
In hindsight, perhaps it would have been better had that fight never happened. Yet there was plenty to be learned from it. The entire approach to marketing the event was faulty, and set the division back, something still being felt to this day. At UFC 207, Rousey was trying to reclaim her throne. Amanda Nunes had just dominated Miesha Tate at UFC 200 to earn the title. Yet Nunes was an afterthought in the Rousey fight, barely appearing in promos for the event despite being the reigning UFC women’s bantamweight champion.
In the official promo for UFC 207, which ran over three minutes, Nunes’ name wasn’t even mentioned until just before the 2:15 minute mark. She wasn’t seen on-screen until after a full three minutes had passed, in a brief clip of a face-off with Rousey. The entire promo was basically a big long Ronda Rousey commercial. Worse, there were stories floating around about execs believed to be with the new owners of the UFC, WME-IMG. Stories that had them referring to Nunes as cannon fodder. Of course, those stories began making the rounds.
When Nunes went and made short work of Rousey, finishing her even more quickly than Holm had, many fans were stunned. But why? Why was that any big surprise? Well, because the promotion had never set up the expectation that she might lose. Yet if you were paying attention back at the Correia fight, you knew how real the possibility was. Amanda Nunes was not Bethe Correia. Nunes was a much more dangerous fighter.
The end result, however, was an undervalued champion who the UFC hadn’t bothered to market despite the fact that she had the belt. And it’s a situation that continues to dog Nunes, who rarely gets the respect she deserves. The sport had passed Rousey by. But the minds behind the UFC hadn’t bothered to prepare fans for any scenario other than Rousey winning. They weren’t invested in anything but Rousey.
Now comes the inevitable conclusion: Rousey needs to stay gone, lest the situation, far from corrected, be made worse. The women’s strawweight and brand new flyweight divisions have already surpassed bantamweight in terms of interest. Bantamweight hasn’t managed to distinguish itself from the Rousey era just yet. It needs to forge its own identity, without her.
The sport has frankly passed Ronda Rousey by, making any attempt at a comeback a dangerous one in terms of legacy. With her stubborn insistence in sticking with a camp and coach that utterly failed her, the grim reality is that another comeback attempt would likely go as badly for Rousey as the Nunes fight. Edmond Tarverdyan’s horrid cornering at UFC 193 should have been the moment the superstar parted ways with his services. Yet she stuck with him, despite nearly the entire MMA world plus her mother urging her to go elsewhere.
She didn’t. She paid the price. And she’d more than likely pay it again in any return. The damage to her legacy would be that much worse. Even more troubling, she’d be a distraction to the women’s bantamweight division, which dearly needs to find its footing and move on from the Rousey era.
The Rousey era in the UFC was special. It brought in hordes of casual fans. It created the sport’s first true mega star (followed shortly by a certain Irish phenom). Those fans may not have stuck around once Rousey was defeated. Yet they certainly helped raise MMA’s profile, at least in the short term.
Ronda Rousey herself was a special, once in a lifetime athlete. It’s a shame that things ended the way they did, but that’s so often the case in MMA. The best fighter is always the one just around the corner. Time waits for no woman, and even before it catches you, you’re either learning, or losing. Rousey lost, thanks to some key errors in her development, plus the inevitable march of time. Now, she’s living her dream in the WWE. At this point, both her and the sport are better for it.